The CD surge. How soon will LPs become obsolute?
Boston — THE music industry is jumping through hoops to keep up with the phenomenal popularity of the compact disc (CD). Already some record companies are starting new strategies that favor the CD, the six-inch discs that use digital electronics and laser technology to produce startlingly realistic, noise-free sound reproduction. And looming on the horizon is the introduction, perhaps next spring, of digital audio tapes (DAT), which promise to do the same thing for cassettes.
Polygram Classics, a giant in the classical music field, has started to issue some of its titles only on CD, as have several smaller classical labels.
Motown Records, which recorded popular black artists of the 1960s and '70s and handles Lionel Richie today, has started issuing CDs containing two albums' worth of music (CDs hold 72 to 74 minutes of sound, twice as much as LPs). At the same time, the company's decision to eliminate 200 midline titles in vinyl, leaving them in CD or cassette, caused a stir in the industry.
The marketplace is adjusting to make room for the young, booming technology. CDs are becoming more widely available than LPs: They're being sold in electronics and video stores, which don't usually carry records or cassettes. There are even CD-only stores. And record stores are cutting LP prices to move their stock and make more room for CDs.
All of this is in response to phenomenal sales. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), CD unit sales were up 148.8 percent in the first half of this year as compared to the first half of last. In the same time period, LP unit sales plummeted 24 percent, continuing a 10-year decline brought on partly by that other young upstart, the cassette, which is still selling strongly.
There is no doubt that the silvery disc with the pure sound has been moving as rapidly as the market will bear. It's only about four years since the first CD players arrived from Japan, priced at $1,000. Today, they occasionally can be found for less than $100.
The number of CDs sold was 5.8 million in 1984. The number is expected to reach 50 million this year. The only thing keeping sales from skyrocketing even higher is price: At about $15, a CD costs nearly twice as much as an LP. But that should change by the end of 1987, when 12 more production facilities are scheduled to join the two existing ones.
At Camelot Enterprises, a 185-store record store chain in the US, CD sales in dollars surpassed LPs for the first time last month, says James Bonk, vice-president.
CDs look like thin, plastic sandwiches with aluminum in the center. The digitally recorded material they contain is read by laser beams. The sound is clear and bright, with none of the snap, crackle, and pop of vinyl. CDs are not only smaller and lighter than LPs but virtually indestructable. Many disc players are programmable, allowing you to select the songs you want - in any order.
``The CD is close to what everyone wants,'' says Michael Riggs, editor of High Fidelity magazine. ``What CD gives is recording without artifacts.''
The CD phenomenon, however, is not without dissention. Some people argue that, because of the demand to increase production levels, quality control has slipped. Thus, CD technology falls short of its potential and sounds artificial or compressed. Digital advocates, though, blame improper recording techniques - not the actual technology.
Several major record companies say that, despite the popularity of the CDs, they have no plans to release their recordings exclusively on them. They point out that in the US there are fewer than 3 million CD players and 80 million turntables. And even after a decade-long slump, album sales for the first half of this year totaled 58.8 million, in contrast to 18.6 million for CDs, according to the RIAA.
``The LP will take on a new role, but it's not going to die,'' says Bob Altschuler, CBS corporate spokesman. ``Our plan is to maintain a full catalogue on LPs for many years.''
``Even if all labels were abandoning LPs, we wouldn't, says Lou Dennis, vice president director of sales at Warner Bros. Records. ``We will continue to make them long as people buy them.'' However, sales of Warner Bros.'s CDs and LPs are running neck and neck, says Mr. Dennis. At what point does one pull the plug on a dwindling technology? What happens if there isn't any demand?
``Major labels don't want to give away plans,'' says David Vernier, editor-in-chief of Digital Audio and Compact Disc Review. ``But they're planning right now to move to all CDs. They don't want to do it too fast. There's money tied up in LPs, and lots of people have them.''
Those close to the music industry say the change won't come overnight; no one will be left high and dry. Estimates range from 4 to 10 years until LPs fall away. Mr. Riggs says that if oil prices go up again the price of vinyl could shoot up, making LPs less marketable.
The compact disc is just the latest in a long line of technological transformations in recorded music since Thomas Edison started working on the phonograph 100 years ago. Wax cylinders and shellac 78s battled it out in the early years of this century. But the shellac discs could hold only 14 minutes on each side, and when hi-fi LPs came out in 1948, shellacs were doomed, gone within 5 to 10 years. Mono and stereo aficionados fought a pitched battle, but stereo won. Then cassettes came on the scene, and today they hold 65 percent of the market.
The latest newcomer to the recording scene is digital audio tape, which reads encoded material digitally like a CD. It enables one to make copies of CDs or tape off the radio without loss of sound quality. Some predict that digital audio tape may eclipse conventional cassettes in the same way CDs appear to be eclipsing the LPs.