Compact discs were sold as the durable alternative to vinyl - but anyone
who opens the case of an ageing CD may be in for a nasty
Earlier this year, US web designer Dan Koster found 15% of his 2,000 CDs
had begun to rot, and were unplayable and worthless as a
Holding his CDs up to the light, he said: "I was shocked to see a
constellation of pinpricks, little points where the light was
coming through the aluminium layer."
As we increasingly convert CD tracks for use on portable digital players
and copy songs and photos onto CDs, there is renewed
interest in the format's longevity. What causes CDs to deteriorate, and
how wide is the problem?
Soon after compact discs came onto the market in 1983, owners realised
that - while they were indeed more durable than vinyl or
cassette tape - the CD was by no means indestructible.
Each CD comprises an aluminium layer which holds its data, sandwiched between
polycarbonate and a protective lacquer.
The inlay booklet that came with your copy of the first big-selling CD,
Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms, warned that the disc
remained vulnerable to heat, cold, light, dust, fingerprints and scratches.
Stacking discs horizontally was bad for them, as was any Tomorrow's World
stunt involving jam, drills or bulldozers. By obeying
these rules, we were promised "a lifetime of listening pleasure".
That claim has since been questioned by CD owners including Jessica Ross,
editor of Consumer Association magazine Computing Which?
"I have several that are unplayable a few months after buying them,"
she said. "To say they will last for 100 years simply isn't
Yet manufacturers maintain that bad handling is the main cause of problems
with compact discs.
"Most people believe the underside of the CD is its most vulnerable
part, when in fact it is the side with the label on," said Roy
Varley, managing director of CD manufacturer Spool Multi Media.
"A slight scratch on the label side can damage the metal and cause
the CD to skip or become unreadable."
Compact discs were made commercially available in 1983
However, this does not explain why careful CD owners have found discs in
a worse condition than when they left them.
Eleven years ago thousands of compact discs in the UK became unplayable
after they changed colour from silver to gold in a process
known as "bronzing".
This was initially blamed on a reaction between the CD's lacquer and chemicals
within the cardboard cases which housed them at the
But two months later, CD manufacturer PDO said all affected discs had been
made in the late 1980s at its plant in Blackburn,
Lancashire, which had used a silver coating on its discs instead of the
Spool Multi Media said while "most CD manufacturers aim for high standards",
faults still occasionally develop.
"When the CD is made, protective lacquer is dropped onto each disc,
which is spun to spread the lacquer to its outer edges," said Mr
"If this is not done properly, the lacquer may not cover the disc,
enabling air to penetrate and oxidise the aluminium. Over time,
this rusting effect can ruin the CD."
Millions and millions of compact discs have been made and problems have
only been found with an absolute minority
Jeannet Harpe, Philips communications manager
Record companies Warner Music, EMI, BMG, Sony and Universal declined to
comment on the deterioration of compact discs.
Similarly, a spokesperson for CD manufacturer Sonopress would only say:
"We tend to distance ourselves from being linked with CD
But Philips, which co-developed the compact disc with Sony, said CD deterioration
was an isolated problem.
"The reason for the huge success of the compact disc is its robustness,
durability and quality," said communications manager Jeannet
"Millions and millions of compact discs have been made and problems
have only been found with an absolute minority of them. This can
happen with any product."
Philips and Sony list the specifications of audio CDs in a manual known
as The Red Book, which all compact disc manufacturers are
required to adhere to.
"There is no problem with those specifications," said Ms Harpe.
"If they are followed when a compact disc is made, it will last a
No matter how remote the threat, the possibility of losing treasured albums,
singles or digital photos will inspire many to
duplicate their digital information onto a computer hard drive or recordable
compact disc as a precaution.
"But recording your own CDs is not an exact science because home technology
is not as sophisticated as professional CD manufacture,"
said Mr Varley.
"Computers can also develop faults - no format is completely 100%
reliable. With that in mind, the compact disc is still the best
format there is."
We want to hear your stories - have your CDs survived 20 years, or are
they deteriorating with age?
I have vast collections of tapes and CDs and I like to keep them both -
there's a very small overlap of these collections. However,
I don't think I'd converting my CDs to another digital format that involves
high level of compression - like .mp3 or .wmv formats -
I don't like the idea that an algorithm decides what I can or can't listen
Benjamin S, London, UK
I bought my CD player in 1991. It works as well now as it did then. I've
got hundreds of CDs and I've never had any problems with
any of them. I'm certainly not prepared to ditch these and buy them again,
or spend weeks transferring them onto another format (who
has the time to do that?!) No media storage is 100% reliable. For best
results just buy good equipment to play them on and look
after your discs! Handle them by the edges and don't leave them lying around
to gather dust or get scratched.
Steve Smith, Nottingham, UK
I have 4 CD players in all, a CD changer in the car, a portable player,
a Radio/CD player and a Hi Fi unit. What I have found, is
that certain CDs will skip or not play on one of the players but be perfect
on another. So obviously the qulity of build and
electronics have a dramatic effect. You get what you pay for.
Martin Clarke, Ottershaw, Surrey
I haven't had a serious problem (yet) with any format except reel to reel
tape. But remembering your article about the
indestructibility of flash memory cards, perhaps that is the way to go?
Or is that another myth due to be rumbled in the years to
I did feel guilty for ripping off the music business, by downloading music
free from file-sharing networks. Now I know they had it
Jonathan M, Herts, UK
No, those little silver records don't last very long. Anyway, I never know
which speed to play them on, and when I put the needle
on, all I get is a funny scratching noise.
PJ, W. Yorks, UK
It may be advisable to keep CDs away from fridges, freezers and laser printers
- which all produce ozone. Ozone a highly reactive
oxidant and therefore may result in corrosion of CDs. Environmental condiions
may explain why some people have problems and others
do not. Regarding simple scratches, as to why those who make CD players
can make them ignore a scratch rather than getting stuck is
Fergus Kane, London
We have a collection of about 2000 CDs dating back to when they first came
on the market. They have been stored vertically, never
exposed to significant temperature changes and treated with great care.
The bad ones, about 150, initially turn gold and then become
unplayable. The problem appears to be restricted to a number of older discs
which were pressed in the United Kingdom. None of the
American imports or the European pressings have shown signs of deterioration.
Jane, Dudley, England
There¿s no doubt in my mind that vinyl is the best format for music. Also
I have 2 copies of PJ Harvey's Stories from the Sea
Stories from the City and both are unplayable. I have noticed that CDs
seem to be thinner nowadays and both these CDs and others
I've bought recently have scratched more easily. But I do know that the
quality of the players helps.
Jim Painter, Camden, London
I have stoped borrowing audio books on CD from my local library. Invariably
one of the CDs gets stuck half way through the story,
with the narrator repeating a phrase over and over again. Makes me quite
nostalgic for the needle getting stuck in the record
groove. Provided you use up to date Hi Fi equipment with light weight pick
ups I reckon Vinyl will outlast CDs any day. Not arf, pop
bob butler, chigwell, Uk
A few years ago at a meeting of the Audio Engineering Society there was
a discussion about what was the best medium for archiving
precious recordings. The answer? Vinyl. The reason being it is the only
format known to not degrade in storage over 50 years and is
playable on simple equipment. Tape doesn't match this lifespan, and it's
certainly too early to tell for optical discs: the omens
aren't good, especially with recordable CDs.
James Gray, Aberdeen, Scotland
I have quite a large collection of CDs ranging from 15 - 20 years old,
all have been stored in the same place, most of them play,
some still look in excellent condition but quite a few are bad to say the
least. The manufacturing quality seems to vary
CDs having deteriorated after only a few months is absolute rubbish. If
you were to stick them to the outside of your car tires and
drive for 10 miles, then maybe that would do it.
I now have my entire CD collection loaded into Apple's iTunes. Not only
does this allow me to compile my own play lists, but if one
of my CDs becomes unplayable due to excessive use in the car, I can just
burn a replacement copy from iTunes. As I bought the
original copy, this is entirely legal.
Jamie Adam, UK
All of my CDs are fine. It doesn't seem too much to ask for people to put
them back in the box once they've been played. I borrow
CDs from friends and libraries, and I'm at a loss to know how people manage
to let them get into the condition they're in.
Damian, Bristol, UK
One scratch and it's all over. That's what I find annoying about CDs. The
CD can get scratched just from the CD player spinning it
and the movement of the CD going in and out of the player.
Sam Harrison, Grays, England
I bought a copy of Creep by Radiohead; several years later, I noticed that
there appeared to be an oily film inside the plastic -
the disc was unplayable. Such "concern" by the record companies
makes their attitude towards bootlegging even more laughable. They
are just waiting for the chance to reissue everything once again on yet
another expensive format.
Graham, York, UK
I've got CDs that have rotted, no doubt the same will happen to DVDs. I
think it's just a ploy to ensure that we continually have to
buy the same items again and again and again .... My old records are scratched,
warped and still play (as do my tapes), even if you
do have to give them the odd jolt you only loose a small percentage of
the overall recording not all of it and it sounds better than
CD, it's real not digital.
John Pimm, Walsall
I have a large collection of CDs which I have acquired over a 20 year period
- they are stored vertically on shelves, but with no
particular extra care taken to prevent deterioration. So far I have had
no trouble at all with any of them, even the cheapest, which
continue to play excellently. I look forward to enjoying them for many
years to come!
Malcolm Thorning, Corfe Mullen, England
As digital means of storage such as mobile devices and hard disks become
not only more pervasive but also better, integrated CDs
will be living on borrowed time. Why have hundreds or thousands of plastic
containers cluttering up your house when you can fit your
entire collection on something the size of a credit card. You can plug
this in the wall with a hidden sound system with wireless
comms to speaks and amplifiers and with that you have a wi-fi system that
communicates with itself and is interchangeable with
I have had many problems with CDs but still find them more durable than
vinyl ever was. Remember how easy it was to scratch a
record, or how they could warp in any heat fluctuation.
Charlie, Brighton, UK
Oh yes, no problems here. I've recently spent several weeks converting
all my CDs to MP3 format for playing in iTunes. Every single
one of them transferred with no problems at all. Many of them are 20 years
Nigel Goodman, UK
I have CDs I bought 15 years ago when I got my first CD player and they
still play fine. What's more likely to be a problem is one
day CD technology will be dated and cease to exist as newer technologies
take over and make CD redundant. The CDs might last 100
years but how likely is it that CD players will be available in 100 years?
I don't have a huge collection - about 500 - but I've never had any problems
with CDs failing to play. At least, not because of the
CD. There were several which wouldn't play on my old CD player, but a new
player has solved that. I do look after them, though. I
never leave them lying around, and always avoid touching the surfaces of
Will Duffay, Welling, Kent
Most of my old CDs (I stopped buying them after I realised that the sound
quality was better on vinyl) that haven't been touched in
years are practically unplayable, whereas my old vinyl records (some of
which are nearly 50 years old) are still playing and sound
Mark, London. UK
It's my understanding that a number of problems we have with CDs not playing
are because player manufacturers do not follow the
stringent quality requirements defined by the CD standard. Players should
contain all sorts of error-correction hardware and
software which should enable CDs damaged by normal wear and tear to play
just as well. Cheaper players contain cheaper components -
you get what you pay for!
John Wingfield, London, UK
I bought my first CD player in 1988 and, when starting to import my whole
collection into iTunes, noted that some of the early CDs
were taking 4 to 6 times as long to rip as new ones, presumably because
the conversion process was having to re-read the CD on
encountering errors. With hindsight it was sheer good luck that I found
this out now - a few more years and part of my collection
might have been lost.
Alastair Scott, London, United Kingdom
I have a huge CD collection and many of them are 8 or 9 years old. I have
only ever had 1 CD skip in the player, and that is because
somebody used it as a placemat at a party; bad handling is the problem,
not the medium. They might be tougher than vinyl but you
still have to be careful...all of my 500 strong collection are in tip top
quality after many years as a result
Alec, London, UK
I still have a tape I bought about twenty years ago, and vinyl that my
grandmother bought I don't know how long ago - with good care
these are still in good working order, but a good half of my CDs are damaged
in some way. I've converted most of them to MP3, and so
my music has (mostly) survived...But I wouldn't say it's a sturdy medium
Dan O'Brien, United Kingdom
I've had the exact opposite problem several times - trying to destroy a
CD containing proprietary data gave me the perfect
opportunity to test their robustness. Firstly I used a paper knife to scratch
a criss-cross pattern but it was still readable. Then
I scratched a spider-web pattern in the back of it and still managed to
read large amounts of it. Finally I gave up on the
scratching approach and broke it into pieces....
John B, UK
When my dad bought a CD player back in the eighties, the first CD he bought
was Bonnie Tyler. So this deterioration of CDs may not
be all bad news!
When I first looked at a CD player in a specialist shop, the assistant
informed me the disks were indestructible & it would be
perfectly feasible to fry an egg on one. Perhaps a slight overstatement
on his part.
Derek Hutchinson, Newcastle GB
Ha - we lovers of vinyl will have the last laugh after all! LPs will always
out live CDs, I can still play LPs from the 1960s and I
am sure future generations will only be able to access music from our generations
from this 'old' medium. After all, you don't need
sophisticated electronics to play an LP, spin one on a platter with a cup
and a needle and you will hear the contents - try doing
that with a CD!
Keith Marriott, Crewe, England
Looking at some of the garbage in my record collection it's a shame some
of them haven't perished !
Shaun, Baildon, West Yorkshire
I have around 1000 CDs collected since the mid 1980s. I have never had
a problem playing any of them. I think perhaps people are not
taking good care of their CDs - they were never sold as being indestructible.
My old vinyl collection has not faired quite so well.
Music Lover, Bath, UK
Don't forget that by copying your CDs in any way you are, in some countries,
breaking the law. It would be nice to see a guarantee
from the record companies to replace faulty discs free of charge but I
suspect that's unlikely.
Nick, London, UK
I bought a Killing Joke CD, took it home, and eagerly got ready to listen
to it. The CD was difficult to get out of its case though,
as the holder in the centre was extremely tight. Eventually the CD sprung
loose but out of my grasp, and bounced off my CD player
leaving it scratched and completely unusable due to "jumping"
tracks. And I thought 15 quid was paying for a durable alternative to
Chris, West Yorkshire
A number of my older CDs, 15-20 years old, have suffered from some kind
of unavoidable deterioration. The 'browning' effect which at
the early stage doesn't seem to affect the playback is one. The receding
of the aluminium layer from the centre edge and outer edge
of the disc, which certainly prevents playback is another and an effect
where the layer of lacquer on the play side seems to "fog
over" or crystallize, again, making playback impossible. I realise
that nothing lasts forever, but doesn't this "rotting" CD's
phenomenon just add fuel to the fire that the product is overpriced and
therefore encourages illegal copying and file sharing
activities even further!
Darron Heath, London UK
All well and good it 'may' last a lifetime and if it doesn't you end up
paying twice for something. Video games are subject to the
same problems and the manufacturers don't help at all, quite the opposite
in fact with anti piracy measures.
Here's an idea - why not get your old treasured CDs transferred to vinyl.
At least they seem to last longer than CDs!
Co-incidentally, I today pulled from the rack a CD by 'Swing Out Sister'
which I noted was produced in 1983; it seemed as good as
new! I'll check some of the others now though.
Chris , London UK
Those discs that will have started to deteriorate will be early transfers
that sounded awful anyway. As albums are cleaned up and
'remastered', not only do they sound better, but the quality control in
the manufacturing process will have improved.
I don't even bother with CDs any more. I rip music to my PC's Hard Drive
and then back it up onto DVD+R. you can fit about 150
albums onto a recordable DVD. Obviously you have the same problems with
DVDs deteriorating over time. However, now I only have to
worry about 7 DVDs of MP3 instead of 1000 audio CDs.
Initially the idea of CDs was supposed to be a robust alternative to vinyl
and apart from CDs skipping they are still superior in
quality. However, I think the argument is irrelevant as more and more people
will turn to downloading instead.
Oliver Davis, London
Why is it that we modern people assume that indestructibility is something
we deserve. Nothing lasts forever - we are not invincible
and neither are the things we make. Maybe the sooner we accept this the
quicker we will be to appreciate the benefits that our
technologies offer us!
Dave H, Bedworth, UK
So basically, they don't want us to be able to make backups of the CDs
any more but are basically admitting that they will become
unusable, this just helps them because when your CD is broken you have
to go and buy another one. I work in IT and have literally
thousands of CDs and it is very common for them not to work, even some
discs that I have never taken out of the packaging before
sometimes do not work when I open them a year later. CDs were originally
made from hardened glass and were pretty much
indestructible but in the process of making them cheaper to produce (without
passing down the savings to the consumer, I might add)
they changed to using plastics and low quality production techniques for
which the end consumer is not warned about or and has no
rights about at all.
Jamie Ferguson, Edinburgh and Amsterdam
I've seen many CDs deteriorate over time. Original CDs are slightly more
durable, but CD-Rs and CD-RWs are awful. I've got disks
I've written 5 years ago that are in cases that are unreadable now. I doubt
we'll see people buying antique copies of CDs in 50-60
years time on eBay, but vinyl will still be working fine. Ironic when you
consider vinyl gets scraped by a needle!
David Rickard, Aylesbury, Bucks, UK
I have been a DJ for years and some of my CD singles from back in 1996
have begun to rust around the edges. I have taken special
care of my CD collection so it is not user misuse. Luckily, the CD singles
contain limited information and the rust has not affected
the playback. But within time, I expect the disc to become completely corrupted.
I wonder how we stand with making copies of our own
CDs before they become unusable?
Matt Cartlidge, Stoke-on-Trent
So now I'm lead to believe that my CDs aren't going to last a life time?
Maybe I should make a copy for safe keeping? But now with
new copy protection I can't even do that! What should we do now?
This story backs up my complaint over CD pricing. They are priced and sold
as buy-once products and yet they are effectively
disposables. I am having to start re-buying the first CDs I bought as many
have started to deteriorate despite my looking after them
Karl Handy, Alcester, England
Most manufacturers nowadays add copy protection to CDs which means that
they don't adhere to the red book standard anymore anyway.
This gives multiple problems. One is that the CDs may not play on certain
drives, or play only with errors (let alone degrading over
time) and the other is that it is not easy to make backups in order to
protect the music you have bought. Looks to me like the only
people losing out here are the users.
Matt Lees, Hampshire, UK
I have never believed that CDs are infallible. I have heard of rot affecting
both CDs and Laserdiscs for sometime now and think that
the business should take this very seriously. How long before DVDs develop
the same problem too?
Shaun Reid, South Shields
This just makes me more likely to make digital "rips" of my CDs
and DVDs. I think the tactics of the music and film industries are
disgusting - they just want us to rebuy the same content every few years.
It's not just CDs that have problems. One of my DVDs has messed up having
warped around the edges. This includes the unplayed and
barely-handled bonus disc which has the same fault as the film disc. Clearly
if DVD and CD manufacturers are advertising them as
lasting a lifetime if properly kept and they are decaying, they are breaking
consumer laws by misadvertising products.
James Newman, UK
Touch wood I've never had a problem with a CD, and am not too worried as
all my CDs are now on my computer, which is backed up
regularly, and my iPod, which acts as a redundant backup. But I have had
a problem with a DVD. A copy of Sleepy Hollow which I
purchased used online turned out to have damage to the edge of the disk
which prevented it from playing past the half-way mark. The
damage looked like tiny holes in the metal substrate all around the edge
of the disk. Since it is impossible to back up DVDs
(legally, because of the CSS encryption, and practically, because consumer
DVD writers have half the capacity of purchased DVDs)
this would seem to be a far more concerning problem.
Stephen West, London
So if I find one of my CD's has degraded, am I justified in downloading
a copy of the music from the net on the assumption that I
have a license to listen to it, given that the publishers have no method
for replacing an 'unfit for purpose' CD?
Tom Jasper, Crowthorne, UK
Contrary to what the record companies say, I have often purchased CDs that
in spite of being handled carefully don't last a year,
let alone 20 years.
I fully expect my vinyl collection to outlast my CDs in terms of durability
and longevity. The worrying thing is that many
businesses are now using CDs as a form of data backup. What happens if
these start to deteriorate in ten years? Put the data on
Colin, Glasgow, Scotland
As a DJ I have seen a few of my discs start to perish over the years particularly
the early cheap compilations. But my 1958 copy on
vinyl of Johnny B Goode still plays no problem. Vinyl is still King!
Steve Bowles, Windsor, UK
The comment "the compact disc is still the best format there is"
really depends on your definition of "best" - if you're talking
about cheapest, most widely used then you're probably right. But these
days I wouldn't trust anything (certainly not photos, etc) to
removable media - everything gets stored on my hard drive, and with the
price of CD-R media so cheap at the moment, I make
reasonably regular write-once backups of important data to CD-R in case
the hard drive dies.
Steve Hill, Southampton, UK
I bought my first CDs 17 years ago and they still play fine today (though
my musical tastes have changed so they don't get played
too often). If deterioration occurs only in such a minority of cases then
the music companies should be prepared to replace dodgy
disks free of charge. What worries me is that the ever reducing costs of
data CDs might increase this problem - we need to know for
the sake of photographic memories etc.
Mark, Fleet, UK
I've been collecting CDs for around 17 years, and own somewhere in the
region of 650 albums. I can honestly say that I haven't yet
seen any cases of this deterioration. I recall a story about 10+ years
ago saying that a lot of CDs were being pressed "on the
cheap" in substandard plants, and as a result were corroding within
a year or two of manufacture. One wonders whether the
experiences in this story are a return of that situation? Personally though,
the only problems I've had with any CDs are with the
so-called copy protected "CDs" (which don't meet the Red Book
standard and therefore can't legally be called Compact Discs). These
are so problematic I just refuse to buy them, despite the irritation of
thus being prevented from listening to a number albums I'd
really like to have.
Ian, Edinburgh, UK
There is a definite difference in the deterioration of the CDs depending
on which label they were released through - some are
perfect whilst others show extreme 'pricking'