What do punk rock, journalism and the compact disc have in common? It’s become weirdly popular to loudly, and falsely, proclaim that they’ve met their end.
“CDs are dead!” howl the media pundits. “Vinyl is more important! Streaming is the new torrenting! Burn your outmoded discs in a trash fire!” It’s a cliche rapidly approaching peak hysteria, and even big news sites like CNN, Huffington Post and the Smithsonian are in on the action. But is it really that simple?
You might think that after several years of this, commentators would have learned their lesson about predictions of the demise of the format. Back in 2011, for example, the blogosphere exploded with reports that major labels planned to stop CD production by the end of 2012. Other observers predicted the format would disappear when Apple ditched the optical drive, or when Starbucks stopped stocking CDs at their checkout counter. And yet, the revenues from CDs are still quite substantial. Last year, CDs generated more than 6 times as much revenue as ad-supported streaming.
It’s true, of course, that consumption patterns are changing. Since the compact disc’s heyday of the 1990s, music consumers have been gifted an extraordinary plethora of new listening formats. Ten years ago, we didn’t have Spotify, Deezer or SoundCloud. Before the new milennium, Napster and Batanga Media were the only on-demand streaming services; today there are over twenty. More choices for different kinds of consumers means that the consumer base is being spread thinner by the day; when the number of formats jumps from a few to several dozen in the span of two decades, yeah, the OG CD is gonna take some kind of hit. But don’t break out the DNRs just yet.
In the first half of 2015, CDs made up 66% of total physical shipments — making vinyl the 30% minority. (Anecdotally, it’s not just megastars like Adele selling CDs at big box stores; smaller independent labels we’ve talked to report that CD sales, vinyl sales, and digital download sales are all in the same neighborhood of 20-40% of overall sales; while there’s plenty of variation by genre and label, each format continues to have a dedicated consumer base.) In the UK, CD sales and digital downloads are both declining in the face of streaming — but download sales are declining at a faster rate. Fact is, though some kinds of consumers care more about accessibiliy than ownership, for those who prefer ownership, CDs still serve a need, and can be more convenient than vinyl or cassettes. Total recorded music sales have fallen across the board, and based on where their numbers were a decade ago, CDs simply had the most room to fall.
A lot of this comes down to ease of use and practicality. But what’s easy and practical may vary from context to context. Imagine you’re at a show and the opening band was great, so you head to their merch table between sets. In your mind’s eye, what formats are they selling? CDs for sure, maybe digital download cards and vinyl. But vinyl is an expensive, time-and-space-consuming hobby, and you can’t play a piece of paper on the drive home. CDs are more convenient than a wall of wax slabs. They’re cheaper to press, converted to mp3’s with the click of a CD drive, and then shelved with the rest of the collection for all the world to see; after all, vinyl collectors aren’t the only listeners who want to display their tastes proudly.
And consider that hypothetical touring musician I mentioned earlier. Stateside merch tables aren’t the only places where the CD is king. In Japan, CDs account for 85% of music sales. Not to mention, they’re way easier than vinyl to ship overseas.
The shortcomings of other formats also may play a role in the CD’s enduring importance. FMC’s Jean Cook has explored how digital services have historically underserved jazz and classical consumers and musicians alike, through bad implementation of metadata that makes it hard to find what you’re looking for, and hard to understand what exactly you’re listening to. Collaborators and composers can get lost and switched in the shuffle. In contrast, CDs have liner notes, and even if their data doesn’t translate to metadata in the mp3 conversion process, it’s still more readily available than most of what you’ll search for on Pandora or Spotify.
And for afficianados of niche genres, CDs have other benefits too. Aside from a superior sound quality over compressed digital formats, they provide a more seamless listening experience than vinyl, simply becauset they don’t need to be flipped at their midway point. While record flipping can be part of an overall artistic expression (take the White Album for instance), it’s an annoying distraction when you’re in the middle of Act II of La Boheme. On the producer side, and especially within those invisible genres, CDs can fit more music into a smaller space than can vinyl; 80 minutes of wax will run you several LPs and much higher production and shipping costs. Labels focused on niche genres also tend to do lower-quantity pressings, and their customers tend to be collectors and audiophiles, making CDs an obvious go-to. Even if sales continue to fall and on-demand streaming becomes the predominant mass-market format, CDs, like vinyl LPs before them, seem likely to continue to fill a niche for consumers—and provide an important source of revenue for at least certain kinds of artists and labels.
Weirdly, some commentators seem actively irritated that the CD isn’t kaput. Writing at Fusion, Kelsey McKinney advances the dubious notion that “By buying an album, you aren’t really supporting your favorite artist. What you’re supporting is an outdated and impractical system.” This will, undoubtedly be news to many artists. Even on a record that doesn’t recoup its expenses and generate royalties for the featured artist, every unit sold supports songwriters/composers through mechanical royalties. The importance of sales varies from artist to artist, but in general, if you want to know how to best support an artist, the best thing to do is ask them!
(For the record, McKinney also badly misinterprets our major label contract critique from 2001. That project was a description of flaws we found in major label contracts of that era; McKinney writes as if it’s descriptive of what happens for album sales generally, ignoring how things might be very different for artists who negotiatiate licensing deals and retain their masters, artists who work with independent labels, or artists who self-release their work. Weirdly, she also seems to suggest that revenue splits on interactive streaming are more favorable to artists than CDs, ignoring that they’re often covered under the same contracts. We tried to get her to correct these mistakes, but no luck!)
Similarly, John Seabrook of the New Yorker complains about Adele’s decision to focus on CD sales above streaming, and frets that the move amounts to “the record industry” looking backwards instead of forwards. (Instead of, you know, one artist evaluating her options and doing the thing that makes the most sense to her based on what she understands about the people who listen to her music.) He asserts “Album sales are profitable, but they are not the future of the music business—streaming is.”
In fact, anyone who says “[X] is the future of the music business” is guaranteed to be wrong. That’s because the future of music isn’t going to be just about one way of doing business, or one delivery format. Different kinds of consumers and artists have different needs and preferences for different kinds of listening. A healthy recorded music ecosystem is characterized by diversity of practice, creating room for diverse kinds of artists and audiences. The future isn’t one-size-fits-all, and that’s going to be true even if one day the CD ends up going the way of the 8-track and the Zune.