On August 17, 1982, the first serially produced audio compact disc was released after being introduced to the public in 1981. While it's up for debate whether The Visitors by Swedish pop mainstays ABBA or a collection of Chopin waltzes interpreted by Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau was the first official commercial CD release, the global impact of this new type of storage medium and technology is undeniable, setting new standards in terms of longevity and usability across many industries. As our chart shows, the CD's life expectancy in the audio segment is only rivaled by one competitor.
According to estimates by various experts, industrially manufactured audio CDs or CD-ROMs, short for read-only memory, will work for at least thirty years under regular use and when stored in normal circumstances with moderate temperatures and humidity. Compared to media using magnetic means to store data, which is highly susceptible to erasure and increased deterioration over time in most products available to regular consumers, CDs work with so-called pits, indentations in the polycarbonate layer, that are scanned by a laser and provide optimal readability over a long period – if stored correctly. Since the quality of the protective coating of a CD differs wildly from product to product, excess sunlight and heat can cause the aluminum layer to deteriorate faster and produce more and more reading errors. Still, even by conservative estimates a CD can last three times as long as reel-to-reel or cassette tapes, and twice as many years as a mini-disc.
Due to stark differences in production quality and a wealth of external factors, it's impossible to give a clear-cut answer on how long a CD or any other type of digital or magnetic storage medium will last, abandonment of proprietary players notwithstanding. Still, all experts agree that the audio medium that, on average, lasts the longest under regular conditions is the vinyl record, which saw a minor boom over recent years and generated $1 billion in revenue in the U.S. alone in 2021 according to the RIAA. Its high life expectancy is owed to the manufacturing process and data storage in physically etched grooves rather than digitally or on a magnetic carrier. While sunlight, heat and dust can impact the listening experience of an affected record, in most cases, it will still be playable even after decades of use.