Remembering the Longbox, One of the Music Industry’s Biggest Environmental Crimes

When Sony and Philips unveiled the compact disc in 1982, the music industry was, well, underwhelmed.  Even though it was going through a brutal post-disco recession with very worrisome declining sales, labels and record stores weren’t keen on adopting another new format.

“Look,” the players said, “we’re already watching the eight-track die.  Reel-to-reel albums never took off.  We blew it with quadrophonic records.  And now, thanks to the Walkman and its ilk, it looks like we’re going to have a spend a ton of money ramping up production of pre-recorded cassettes.  And now you want us to spend even more money on introducing the most expensive new format in our history?  No thanks.”

Record stores weren’t keen on the idea, either.  “We have thousands of miles of shelving specially constructed to holed 7-inch singles and 12-inch albums.  We’re trying to figure out how to stock and display cassettes and you want us to come up with a way to deal with CDs?  In this economy?  No way.”

Eventually, though, everyone came around and the CD ended up powering the music industry for the next twenty years.  But to get CDs produced and into stores, something terrible had to be created:  the longbox.

In order to get 5-inch CDs to fit nicely in spaces designed for 12-inch albums, the discs were sealed inside cardboard or plastic packages that were as tall as an album but only half as wide.  This allowed for two CDs to be displayed side-by-side in the same space taken up by one album.  It was horribly, horribly wasteful.  And if you remember the plastic longboxes of the era, you probably sliced off a finger or two trying to open the damn things.


Longboxes were a huge source of debate and contention through the 80s and into the early 90s.  But then suddenly, they were gone.  Disappeared.  Poof!  Why?

The band that changed all this was REM with their Out of Time album.  Read about how they managed to kill the longbox at 99PercentVisible.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “Remembering the Longbox, One of the Music Industry’s Biggest Environmental Crimes

  • July 25, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    I remember buying CD’s in the longbox. At the time it did seem odd & wasteful, I did like putting them up on display in my room. Kind if like a small poster.


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