The Evolution
of Music Formats

We all have our favourite ways of accessing music. Years ago we only had radio, and we had to get used to our favourite song ending just as we tuned in. Radio transitioned into vinyl and then CD, with a slight foray into the world of tapes and MiniDisc along the way, before we all became a slave to the MP3 – which looks like it may have found a rival in streaming.

The musical format has changed just as much as our most recently played - but what’s the story of our evolving format tastes?

The Changing Landscape

Every dog has its day. From the musical greats who dominate from era to era, such as Prince and Madonna in the 80s to Brit Pop stalwarts Oasis and Blur in the 90s, to the slew of television-made pop stars and ‘famous for one album’ indie rock bands in the 00s. Even musical formats have their moments in the spotlight.

We've gone from being told what to listen to by a radio DJ, to sifting through records and then to endless hours trawling through a streaming service or online music library. Some music formats stay for decades before being ousted for a younger model, and some lie low and make a comeback for the younger generation.


The granddaddy of them all, vinyl records have been around for decades, and they’re making a comeback of late.

PVC records (AKA vinyl) were stumbled upon during the 1920s by a rubber scientist. Between 1948 and 1950, the first ‘music war’ began, when the 12" (30 cm) / 33⅓ rpm LP went up against the 7" (17.5 cm) / 45 rpm Extended Play (EP); the former won.

In the 50s, stereo was introduced and LPs were able to hold more sound, opening the gateway to the album we know today, and the ‘Golden Era of Vinyl’ was born.

During its heyday, vinyl sold millions - just look at the supposed 65 million sales of Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the 1980s or the estimated 40 million copies that Fleetwood Mac shifted of Rumours.

As Pierce from music blog Mi Casa said:

"Vinyl might be making a resurgence in terms of sales but it has been, and always will be, an integral part of music’s art form; it represents the enduring power of analogue in a digital world."

A whole new generation is turning to the 12 inch.

Record Store Day (18th April 2015)

Over the last few years, the vinyl-loving world has started celebrating their love of the classic 12 inch on Record Store Day; much in the way comic-lovers enjoy annual Comic Con conventions.

Founded in 2007, the event set out to celebrate vinyl records in all their glory and bring the vinyl subculture together. The event soon made its way from America to the UK, and today over 200 UK stores embrace the day.

Not only are fans celebrating the day but artists too, with many releasing limited edition vinyl pressings to commemorate the record,including The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

Some independent labels are even releasing one copy of a limited edition vinyl every day for 365 days, declaring ‘every day should be Record Store Day’.

Across the generations

From discovering the dusty collection in your parents’ loft to rooting through market stalls and charity shops to discover a hidden gem, vinyl has become an integral part of many people’s lives.

Aside from listening to what our parents and grandparents listen to, in the way it was supposed to be listened to, there’s a degree of magic that comes with the discovery of a record you've hunted for - rather than filtering an online page, adding it to the basket and waiting approximately 2–5 business days.

Pierce said:

"No matter how much digital continues to grow, you’ll never replicate the feeling of going record shopping, hanging out in a record shop with like-minded music lovers, buying a 12” and playing it on a turntable. It's tactile, natural, and infectious – everything searching for music should be."


Ah, the tape. The black sheep of the family.

The most popular music format in the UK between 1985 and 1992, the tape deserves credit for providing us with the first wave of portable music.

Ultimately, the tape was almost the predecessor of the illegal download, forming a way of getting the songs we wanted before they were released simply by recording the Top 40. The BPI (British Phonographic Industry) even ran a ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’ campaign during the 1980s.

Richard Kemp from said:

“Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, cassette tapes were how we listened to music. As CDs came into being and took over the market, making tapes less valuable, we used cassettes a lot more for recording mixes and make shift radio programmes.”

But it was the smaller and sleeker version of the vinyl that would grab dominance of our listening habits, almost kicking vinyl and cassette into the dark.


In a small factory just outside Hannover, Germany, in the dawn of the 1980s, the brainchild of Phillips and Sony was unveiled; the compact disc, with Lou Ottens declaring "From now on, the conventional record player is obsolete".

The world’s music habits were about to be changed by the world of digital. Or were they?

He was right and wrong, as Vinyl still reigned supreme on the whole, with only a few hundred titles available on CD initially. It was actually Abba’s The Visitors that was first pressed into the digital musical world. Although labels were at first sceptical, after a year on sale, a thousand different titles were available,and by 1985 Dire Straits sold one million copies of their Brothers in Arms album on CD; which was a sign of things to come.

By the 1990s, the CD was the most dominant musical format in the world, with popular albums like (What’ s the Story) Morning Glory? by Oasis selling more than four million copies and Alanis Morissette selling close to three million copies of Jagged Little Pill; both joining the list of the UK’s biggest selling albums.

The way we consumed portable music also switched with the CD Walkman. We all carried around an excessive amount of CDs and fell for the lies of ‘jog proof’ marketing spiel. Now they’re gladly a thing of the past.

Richard recalls:

“When CDs came into prominence, they quickly replaced tapes to become the most affordable - and most convenient - option. CDs made it easier to trade with your friends. Many of us music nerds exchanged CDs in school,giving one another the rundown - basically a rudimentary review - of why the person simply must listen to this album. Having CDs turned us music nerds into quality nerds. Before it would have been ok for a warbly tape to crackle in your dad's car stereo, but not now we have CDs. Standards skyrocketed with the advent of CDs.”

By the turn of the century, the worldwide music market was booming, with global CD album sales peaking at almost 2.5 billion; but something else was just on the horizon.


Created by Sony, the MiniDisc suffered a fate worse than Betamax (but that’s another story). The format was filled with so much promise at the beginning. It offered the clarity of a CD with the recordable ability of a tape, and the portable player and discs were much smaller, allowing you to carry them about easier. The problem? No one cared about them apart from those in the know, leading to just 50,000 sales in the first year.

A big marketing push in 1997 lead to a surge in sales,however with record labels showing no interest, it meant only artists associated with Sony released albums on the format.

The product was discontinued in 2013.

Iain Dawson of, noted that MiniDisc was just an unfortunate music product:

“The idea of something more portable than a CD Walkman, at a time when large memory mp3 players were in that early clumsy stage, was always an attractive one. I've heard stories of how MiniDisc was used to record live shows on the sly, and I've heard people say that it was the best portable music technology of its time.”

The biggest problem we can assume is that MP3 was just taking shape…


MP3 was launched to the masses in the mid-90s, and with the birth of Napster in 1999 allowing you to access music for free by sharing files online, music piracy became more prevalent. During that year, MP3 was the most searched term online, beating pornography.

Elena Jimenez of poppedmusic noted that MP3 had its positives and negatives:

“It was so easy to share music illegally on a mass basis with huge legal battles, including one of the most famous showdowns between major labels and Napster”.

But despite its streaming ability, people remained reluctant to adopt the MP3…Until Steve Jobs changed the game.

The iPod offered you the chance to put ‘1,000 songs in your pocket’ and alongside this, iTunes allowed artists to sell their music direct to consumers.

Jimenez said:

“‘The MP3 meant that people could share music themselves,digitally, as well as selling it directly and through huge digital distributors,such as iTunes.”

It’s not without its detractors however. Jimenez commented:

“MP3 has devalued music; it has made it more throwaway”.

It’s a feeling shared by many.

The MP3 download changed the music charts forever when downloaded songs could chart, regardless of physical release. Downloads eventually began outselling physical singles completely.

Music had now changed forever and songs could enter the chart even after being released years before. Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston charted with several albums and singles following their deaths, and Killing in the Name by Rage Against the Machine became the 2009 Christmas number one after an online anti-X Factor campaign.

But it wasn’t the last big switch in the music charts.


Spearheaded by Spotify, streaming may be the new frontier of the music world. And the BPI recently announced that streaming will be incorporated into the Official Album and Singles Charts, with the average music streams sitting at around 260 million – a huge 50% increase between 2013 and 2014.

There’s a huge advantage of streaming for both artists and consumers; Ed Sheeran stated that he owed his career to Spotify, and Tom, a user of streaming services from said:

“Streaming allows me to have unlimited storage, access my music from anywhere using a mobile device, create as many playlists as I want, and above all, listen to as much music as I want without any extra charge.”

So could this be the next big thing?

It’s already been claimed that streaming is saving on piracy,with illegal music downloads falling. And Jay-Z has recently announced the launch of his new streaming service, TIDAL, claiming ‘it’s the first music streaming service that combines the best High Fidelity sound quality, High Definition music videos and expertly Curated Editorial.’

Or could streaming be a quick flash in the pan with global superstars, like Taylor Swift, pulling their catalogue from streaming goliaths?

Only time will tell.

The format of choice

Things are different these days. We effectively have our choice of formats.

Whilst MiniDisc may have died a death and tape decks only found in the oldest of cars, Vinyl and CD still have their place. Many DJs still use CDs (with traditional album sales still in this format too) and vinyl is enjoying a resurgence, both as a backlash to professional DJs turning up to sets with a pre-record on MP3 and by the music loving general public - to many audiophiles, it remains the best format for listening to music. Presenting a sound that the compressed MP3 can’t replicate, vinyl has continued to sell over the years and recently broke the one million sales barrier for the first time in almost two decades.

Although typically the domain of real music enthusiasts, the vinyl fanatics have grown in numbers in recent years. And with record stores stocking vinyl, it has become much more accessible. This resurgence has culminated in the recent announcement of an official weekly charts dedicated to the format, which will count down the top 40 best-selling singles (both 7 and 12 inch) and albums. The chart launched on 13th April ahead of record store day on the 18th.

Around 1.2million units were sold in 2014 with artists old and new releasing in the format. These include old timers Pink Floyd to new comers Royal Blood; who both featured in the Top 10 vinyl album sales for last year. 2015 is expected to be even bigger with current sales at their highest level since the end of Britpop and 10 times that of 5 years ago.

It will always remain a niche market, but it’s safe to say that we've not lost our love for the physical, hand-held music format, and in that respect, it’s here for the long haul.

If you’re looking to clear out your old CDs in exchange for a new (or old!) format, find out how much you can get here.