There is a moment that changed the path of CD technology into the format we once loved. It occurred 18 years after the technology for compact disks was created and it was as much about politics as it was about standards. It also turned out to be more of a guideline than a rule.
Invented in the 1960s by James Russell the technology for the CD wasn’t new when it took the music landscape by storm in the ’90s. And while the CD has come and gone (a story I’ve already covered in a “History of Music Mediums”), it left an indelible mark on the music industry and looking into the album-length seemed intriguing.
In 1978 Sony demoed a prototype of the CD that had a playing time of almost 150 minutes, but unfortunately, that would not become the standard.
The standard length when CD’s blew up the music industry in the ’90s was 74 minutes. Why? It has to do with Sony and Philips negotiating the standards for the medium, and apparently an undetermined urban myth about someone insisting that a single CD be capable of holding all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. A Symphony which in the record era took three sides to completely listen to.
But there’s a quote in a great Wired article about this very topic that suggests it was a way of leveling the playing field “Sony knew that Philips already had a factory capable of producing 115mm CDs, and Sony wanted to change to a 120mm standard to erase Philips’ head start in manufacturing.”
However, during the CD’s heyday when it was king of media, it was never fully realized as far as that 74 minutes is concerned…Let’s look at some of the best selling albums of the ’90s, shall we?
- 9.4 million copies of Backstreet Boys Millennium album and it had a total length of 48:11
- 9.8 million copies of the Titanic Soundtrack 72:31
- 9.81 million Hootie’s Cracked Rear View comes in a 43:04
- 10.2 Celine Dion – Falling Into You 75:54
- 11.7 Metallica’s Black Album is 62:40
- 12.1 Shania Twain’s Come on Over was 60:06
- 13.5 Alanis Jagged Little Pill 57:23
…and Best Selling All Time?
- Michael Jackon’s Thriller is 42:19
- AC/DC’s Back in Black is 42:11
- Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is 42:32
- Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell is 46:33
- Eagles’ Hotel California is 43:28
- Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is 39:43
But Wait, Didn’t I say 74 minutes at full length? What about Celine Dion’s album-length? Celine Dion is magic. Actually, no, she is, but not her album. Manufacturing processes have changed and all of that has kind of thrown 74 minutes out the window… In 1988 “Mission to Burma” by Mission to Burma was released with a length of 80:08, in 1996 “Proclamation” by Douglas Yeo with Black Dyke Band had a length of 80:17 and three years later Philips/Polygram released Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker at a length of 81:14!
In 2004, Bruckner’s Fifth was released on a CD with a length of 82:34, followed a decade later by Chopin & Schumann Etudes at 85:16 and then two years later Mozart Violin Concertos set the max length up to 86:30.
But these appear to be more exceptions rather than rules and let’s be honest here, data is not the equivalent of a canvas. Data is standardized most often and what an artist decides to use is up to them. In music, where the delivery system is more or less equal for everyone; the length of an LP, EP, CD, and now the unlimited nature of streaming, how much you use is up to you. Whereas in the visual medium where an artist might use a canvas, they can choose the size of the canvas.
I’m not even getting into the whole hidden tracks thing of the era, that could be its own post and may just be!
Anyway, 74 minutes may have been the standard, but the possibilities have been extended and most artists aren’t utilizing all of the space away, so this whole thing has been rendered mute. (Bad pun!)