I’m an old guy. I recall when there was a long wait to get a CD of a title I wanted due to the fact that there were only three CD pressing plants in the world int he mid-80s. All of the labels had their own vinyl facilities but the industry was undergoing a sea change. The wait times for new CDs, unless you wanted a Madonna or Phil Collins CD [they got bumped to the front of the queue] was several months… if you were lucky. I would often remember waiting 3-6 months to buy the CD of a title that had been available on LP and cassette for a long while. Sometimes, the import version of a title would appear months even before the US edition [if there was one] so you would be tempted to pay a premium for the tunes you wanted. Sometimes the import versions of a disc had extra bonus tracks. Sometimes it worked in the opposite direction. The US CD of “Life’s Too G
ood” by The Sugarcubes was packed with enough bonus tracks [keep in mind that I had all of the import CD singles, too] that buying the domestic version was a no-brainer.
As the mid-80s became the late 80s, more pressing plants came online, and the bottlenecks of production eased up considerably. By the 90s, the labels were shuttering their LP pressing plants and switching production to CD as fast as they could. Making a CD is almost as painstaking as making a vinyl disc, though much more technical. CD glass mastering involved making a positive and negative stamper not unlike a record, but in the CD’s case, the “grooves” are impossibly smaller. The bottom line is that manufacturing a CD is a job that requires massive capital investment. Not really easier than manufacturing an LP, just different in the technical challenges.
What has me breaking out in hives is the fact that for the last 15 years, CD pressing plants that cost millions to build up were being shuttered right and left; driven there first by downloads and now streaming. As we enter the 2020s, the notion of manufacturing CDs will be a niche market, if that. I wish I knew how many plants capable of producing a CD still existed in the world. This resource listing CD pressing plants worldwide may or not be up to date. I think it’s probably seriously behind the curve with most of the plants listed in it ostensibly open. <checks source code> As I thought. It’s six years out of date. What would happen if the denigrated CD got a late-in-life second wind like the LP appears to be doing now? How would we manufacture in sufficient numbers to sate the market of hipsters of the future wanting their CDs?
It would be a situation not unlike the current big squeeze on vinyl production, with egregiously long lead times for fulfillment where there was once a wide superhighway of production. The resurgence of vinyl carried with it economies of small scale that insure that product will be premium priced due to the scant number of pressing facilities that have popped up on the periphery of the music industry where small players bought old equipment from the majors at fire sale prices to service tiny niche markets. Which worked out fine for about 15 years. Indiepunk bands will always want the cachet of a 7″ single, I guess. What I could never understand was the predilection for highly electronic music like techno to be distributed on vinyl. I get the whole DJ Culture thing, but especially with electronic music, I could not wait to hear it without any surface noise or pops!! I had been waiting for the day when I could hear “Metamatic” on CD for over a dozen years!
The industry is pushing vinyl very hard right now, but the fact is that everyone is content to lean heavily on those players in the former Czech Republic with 60 year old equipment rather than to invest the massive capital to build new pressing plants with modern technology underpinning them here in America. I think that’s down to the music industry hedging their bets and preferring to let things play out as they are. After all, they can now sell those LPs for 3-5 times what people used to pay for them. From a moneymaking standpoint, they would be crazy to upset that apple cart. Especially since the market [small in the overall picture, still] is a growing one.
CD plants are more fussy than vinyl pressing equipment. Making the discs is like a weird blend of microchip fabrication with the physical challenges of vinyl production on top of it. When those plants die, what happened to the equipment? I suspect that it is in a landfill, and the days of CD replication are numbered in the teens, if that. If CD has any future left, I suspect that it will be strictly CD-R; a format that I make myself, though it’s never as good as the real thing! A replicated CD will scoff at being left in a car on a hot day; something not recommended with thermally sensitive CD-Rs!
Until the day when there are no CDs to buy arrives, I suggest buying in haste and repenting at your leisure. I am entering my golden years where all of the things I thought we’d outgrown as a society: racism, sexism, monopolism, disregard for the planet, and yes, even vinyl are back, from the very brink of death, because someone at the top was profiting from it. In the place of the CD is the notion of music streamed as a utility with a monthly bill and absolutely no guarantees that the owner of that title you wish to hear will have an agreement with your streaming service at the instant you just have a burning need to hear Bananarama. Heaven help us all.
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