Kanye West is over CDs: By releasing The Life of Pablo solely via a Tidal stream and referring to his blank album packaging for 2013’s Yeezus as an “open casket to CDs,” West pledged his allegiance to the digital future and called on consumers to consider the flawed idea of physical copies. He was making some good points. The CD, once considered an immortal, efficient way to store music and file has outed itself as neither of those things. Not only is cloud storage more convenient and greener, compact discs don’t last. A phenomenon called CD rot renders discs unplayable over time.
When it made its music industry debut in the 1980s, the CD was a revolution in durability, a godsend to a generation raised on warpy tapes and scratch-prone vinyl. When College Dropout debuted, we figured that disc would last forever. It won’t. A CD consists of a layer of aluminum, slathered on one side with lacquer — that’s why one side is always shinier than the other — sandwiched between two circular layers of a brittle plastic known as polycarbonate. When that reflective metal layer gets tarnished or corrodes due to humidity or UV light, its chemical composition is physically altered, rendering musical data unreadable.
In some cases, you can see the rot. Hold CD up to the light and you’ll likely spot tiny pin pricks in the metal layer or what looks like a coffee spill on the disc’s surface. The music on that dope mix is not long for this world.
Though CD rot is inevitable, some discs are stronger than others because industry standards for CD manufacturing varied widely in the early years. One faulty batch of CDs, produced in Britain between 1988 and 1993 and imprinted with music from labels like Decca and London Records, is notorious for being especially vulnerable to a rot variant called “bronzing.” The CDs’ silver layer tarnishes into a dark, unplayable brown.
But the most important predictor of CD lifespan is how well they were treated: Jewel cases help; cold helps; shade helps; wipe downs help. Still, the inevitable is inevitable. Even the Library of Congress, with its climate-controlled archives, has struggled to preserve CDs. The most optimistic estimates, like that of the Optical Storage Technology Association, predicts they compact discs can survive anywhere from 50 to 200 years, if we’re incredibly careful.
Two centuries isn’t the “forever” we were promised, but it’s probably longer than we need. After all, only 30 years after CDs changed the way we listen to music, the technology we need to play them is being phased out of cars and laptops in favor of digital audio players. In 2014, digital music sales outstripped revenue from physical sales for the first time in music history. Kanye may owe his career to the CD, but he is — perhaps wisely — trusting its longevity to the cloud.