by Mark Seaman
(Mark runs a blog called The CD Project, in which he’s listening to all his CDs and writing about each one. Most recently, he’s been focusing on the year 1981.)
In early 1983, record labels began designing retail packaging for the latest audio format — the compact disc. The industry had already decided on the 5 ½ by 4 ¾ by 5/16 plastic jewel case as the standard for housing the CD and was exploring retail display options. Goals for this new packaging included theft-deterrence, ease of browsing, marketing display possibilities, and the utilization of the current store fixtures designed to hold 12 by 12 vinyl albums. Thus, the CD longbox was born.
After looking at 12 x 12 prototypes and other materials such as styrofoam and plastic for the augmented CD packaging, the industry took its cue for the longbox from a similar 4 x 12 package design used for cassette tapes. The labels eventually adopted a 6 x 12 paperboard format. Some labels standardized on generic longboxes or plastic blister packs; others created unique longboxes for each album, often adapting the album’s cover art. Things moved along smoothly for a few years as retail stores and consumers transitioned to compact discs.
However, longboxes were designed to be disposable. Most people, myself included, simply tossed them in the trash. Around 1992, if the CD inside the longbox was already shrink wrapped, the longbox was marked with a red and yellow sticker. This indicated to the retailer that they could take the CD out of the longbox for sale. As a result, many retailers were tossing hundreds of longboxes in the trash weekly.
Artists eventually rebelled against the longbox as an environmental disaster. The rallying cry “Ban the box!” began to be heard throughout the industry. There was even a media campaign to end the longbox’s reign of terror, featuring ads like this one from 3 May 1990:
The battle raged for a few years, but finally, in a New York Times article dated 1 April 1993, Jon Pareles announced “Say goodbye to the long box, the 6-by-12-inch cardboard box that holds a compact disk. As of today it officially becomes an artifact of a bygone decade. After years of wrangling, environmental sentiments have prevailed in the recording business. The hollow, throwaway long box had become a symbol of conspicuous waste, and it had to go.” Some record stores switched to generic plastic frames that were removed at the cash register and reused.
Were longboxes wasteful? Of course, but no more so than today’s paperboard boxes for crackers or cereal. Notably, some longboxes that were saved have become highly collectible, as a quick search on eBay will reveal. I still enjoy seeing photos and scans of longboxes on social media; it brings back good memories of slowly sifting through the latest CD releases safely ensconced in their cardboard cradles. I’m not advocating for their return, but they do make me nostalgic for that “bygone decade.”
You can visit Mark’s blog at markscds.blogspot.com