Is This The Death of CD?

Recently, Billboard magazine broke the news that Best Buy, once one of the biggest music retailers in America, would stop selling CDs in their stores this summer. Meanwhile Target, another major music retail outlet, is reportedly negotiating new consignment sales arrangements with record labels, all while continuing to reduce the footprint of CD display space in their stores. Many industry watchers and music fans are seeing these changes as perhaps the final signs of the death of the compact disc as a music format… signs that digital streaming and downloads have won the war to become the music format of the future.

Now, I’ve invested a lot in the CD format over the years… certainly more than the average music fan. So I get asked the question about digital versus CD pretty often. Why do I still buy CDs? Why not just stream everything? I’d like to talk about that today, and my position on the subject may surprise you.

First, let’s go back in time to the early days of CD. Or more specifically, to my early days with the CD format. I was in high school in the mid 80s, and as many teens do at that age, I was starting to experiment with music. I’d grown up on whatever pop music was on the radio, and I still have a strong affection or nostalgia for the music of the 80s.

But around the age of 14 or 15, I started to get curious about the music I wasn’t hearing on American Top 40. There was something known as “alternative music” that some of my friends were starting to get into. And of course there was also classic rock… music from the 60s and 70s that I’d yet to have been influenced by, but which many of the upper classmen seemed to worship.

At the time, my music format of choice was the cassette. (I never really had vinyl.) So I started to branch out and buy tapes by artists I’d never heard on our local pop radio station. Artists like Depeche Mode, The Cure, Violent Femmes. And I started to discover the classics, too. Pink Floyd was a big one for me. I was also checking out Led Zeppelin, and the one rock act my parents actually had in their record collection, The Beatles.

I was starting to amass a sizable collection of music on cassette… well, sizable for a teenager at the time… and suddenly I started hearing about a new music format called compact disc. I can remember the day when a friend brought one to school and we were all just marveling at this futuristic new object.

Then, in 1988, I got my first CD player for my 17th birthday. Along with it came my very first CD: the soundtrack for “The Big Chill.” When I went to the store a few days later to make my own first CD purchase, I had this sense that it should be something meaningful… that when I looked back one day and thought about what was the very first CD I ever bought, it should be one I’d be proud of. So the CD I selected was none other than “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by The Beatles. I paired that with something considerably more contemporary, though, which was “The Circus,” the most recent album from synth-pop group Erasure.

Thinking about that first shopping trip, there’s two things that are particularly relevant to the current topic of major retail stores shrinking or abandoning their CD selections. First off, the store where I bought my first compact discs… was Target. Ironically, the selection of CDs Target had on their shelves back in 1988 was about as thin as it is today, 30 years later.

The other point of relevance for that purchase is something that has been unique to the CD format and that we don’t see often on digital, and pretty much never on vinyl. When Erasure released “The Circus,” the compact disc version featured something called “bonus tracks.” Since CD wasn’t as limited as cassette or vinyl in terms of the amount of music it could contain, suddenly albums were coming out with extra songs that didn’t appear on the other formats. The Erasure CD included remixes, as well as an instrumental bonus track. Undoubtedly, these CD-only bonus tracks were included as incentives for fans to buy the albums on the fledgling compact disc format rather than cassette. Still, at over 30 years old, CD releases continue to add bonus tracks or even bonus discs… only now it may be as incentives to buy physical product rather than digital.

Then in the early 90s, the CD single began to take off. Unlike the vinyl 45s of the past, CD singles were of course capable of containing multiple B-sides or non-album tracks. Some of my favorite artists of that time were well known for putting out CD singles that were rich with new, previously unreleased music. In my CD collections for the afore mentioned Depeche Mode and The Cure, CD singles outnumber albums more than two-to-one. U2 released quite a few CD singles with fantastic bonus tracks. And one of my favorite artists, Tori Amos, released dozens of CD singles that became highly sought by fans around the world, with many of her great B-sides gaining as much popularity as the music on her albums.

Ultimately, the CD single didn’t last all that long. After all, singles were primarily sold in record stores rather than department stores since the department stores for the most part didn’t want to bother with the lower priced product. And while record stores around the world embraced the CD format, they also found themselves in competition with those department stores, many of which were selling CDs at much lower prices. As popular as CD quickly became, the format was also one of the first major contributors to the decline of record stores.

In the mid 90s, I was assistant manager at the Sam GoodyMusicland record store at my local shopping mall. If you ever shopped at one of these stores, you know it was one of the most expensive places to buy music. But after all, they couldn’t discount their CDs and make up the difference selling refrigerators or TVs. But we heard the complaints almost every day. “Why would I buy this new Hootie and the Blowfish CD here for $16 when I can go across the street to Best Buy and get it for 12 bucks?”

Ah, yes. There is was. Best Buy. They were the bane of our existence back in my Musicland days.

Competition from online shopping was still years away, and at that point Amazon was nothing but a jungle in South America. But as a store that specialized in selling CDs, we were struggling to compete with the big box stores. And not just Best Buy. I mentioned Target already, but of course there was Walmart and K-Mart, too.

I watched as the handful of locally owned record shops closed their doors, unable to compete with the discout pricing at the big chain stores. Not long after I left Musicland, the company was actually acquired by Best Buy. But even Best Buy couldn’t make a record store chain successful, and they soon sold that part of the company off. Musicland and Sam Goody didn’t last long after that. And as online shopping began to rise, we even saw the fall of the formerly great Tower Records chain.

Then in the late 90s, along came Napster, the peer-to-peer file sharing service that rocked the music industry. Suddenly, fans were downloading digital copies of their favorite music for free, allegedly costing record companies billions of dollars in lost sales. I’m not convinced Napster was quite that damaging in terms of the impact on sales. After all, there was plenty of music you’d download for free that you’d never have paid for in the first place. But since it’s free, why not, right? Still, Napster paved the way for iTunes, and the digital music shift began to take place.

As I see it, the biggest impact Napster and iTunes had on music wasn’t necessarily the format… physical versus digital. The thing they impacted the most was consumer perception of the value of music. The greatest damage done by Napster wasn’t lost sales during it’s brief existence before being legally forced to shut down, it was the way it permanently reduced the value of music to essentially zero. Like all other content on the internet, music should be free!

Of course, free isn’t a sustainable business model for the music industry… not for artists or distributors. But Napster set the bar so low that to this day the music industry has struggled to convince consumers that music has more than a nominal value. When it launched, iTunes taught us that the value of a song was 99 cents. Fast forward to today, and with streaming companies like Pandora, Spotify and Apple Music offering music as an all-you-can-eat service, songs are now seemingly just pennies apiece.

How, then, can a $12 compact disc containing a mere 14 or 15 songs possibly compete?

The answer is: it can’t.

The fall of the CD to the dominance of digital music was inevitable. The compact disc is all but a niche market now, not entirely unlike the modern vinyl market. But in the case of vinyl, we have a format that has somehow successfully positioned itself as more of a premium product that justifies a premium price tag. As LP buyers know, a new release on vinyl often costs almost twice as much as the same album on CD, never mind digital.

I don’t for a moment think it is possible for CD to re-establish itself as a prestige physical format that could command a premium price. I don’t believe the CD format will ever have the kind of affection or nostalgia that vinyl has enjoyed, and which vinyl buyers have embraced in spite of the higher cost of product.

For today’s CD buyers, what is the price threshold? How much is too much to charge? New releases sell for $10-$12 on Amazon. Would you pay $15? $18? More likely, I think that kind of price increase would push most digital hold-outs past the tipping point and into streaming or downloads. After all, as much as those physical format stalwarts, myself included, may love their compact discs, we have all been conditioned to believe that their value hovers around ten bucks each. And despite general inflation, CDs have remained at about that price for almost twenty years, which is remarkable when you think about it.

Meanwhile, collectors like myself have enjoyed the benefits of the used CD market being flooded with product as thousands of former CD buyers sell off their collections in favor of going all digital. The value of a used disc has dropped to between two and four dollars in most cases. When I find stores selling used discs for $7 or $8… discs that are readily available new for $9 or $10… sorry, I’m not buying. And I’m exactly who you do want buying!

Which brings me to this: Yes, I do still buy music on compact disc. In 2017, I bought 117 new CDs and 115 used. But I’m not just a fan, I’m a collector. The volume of music I buy is far above what the average music fan would purchase even when compact discs were at the height of their popularity. And as long as music continues to be released on CD, I’ll continue to expand my collection.

That being said, I’m in no way blind to what is happening as the music industry evolves. CD is going to go away. Not in 2018. Not in 2019. Remember, just because Best Buy is getting rid of them and Target is cutting way back, you’ll still find CDs in local record stores, not to mention of course online retailers like Amazon. But I do believe that in just a few years, the ratio of major album releases that are digital-only versus CD will tip predominantly in favor of digital. The trend has already started, and it will inevitably continue until CD releases are almost unheard of… likely within ten years. Probably less.

And I’ll be sad to see that happen. This is a hobby that has given me much enjoyment… for three decades and counting. And, of course, I’ll continue to listen to digital music many years after the final CD rolls off the assembly line. In fact, I’ve been a digital music buyer for pretty much as long as the format has existed. I subscribed to Spotify as soon as it became available in the US. Today, I subscribe to both Apple Music and Amazon Music.

In spite of the volume of physical music I continue to buy, the majority of my listening is through digital formats. In the car or at work, I’m streaming music on my phone. Heck, I’m the best kind of music consumer. I buy music on CD, then I listen to that same music on streaming services, meaning the artist gets paid twice!

I don’t want CD to go away, but I’m not going to be one of those people that gets up on a soapbox and demands that the world stops turning just because I and a minority of consumers still love our shiny little discs. Again, the music isn’t going away, just the medium.

And you can debate all you want about how with digital you don’t truly own anything, or how the sound quality of streaming pales in comparison to compact disc… or maybe even vinyl. If you believe those things, let me tell you… you’re not wrong.

But it doesn’t change anything, because the vast majority of consumers simply don’t care. In their minds, digital is cheaper, it’s more convenient, and it sounds just fine. And the sad truth of the matter is that there’s simply not enough music consumers willing to pay to make CD a sustainable business model moving into the future. Again, would you be willing to pay $18 for a CD? At the pace I buy music, I sure wouldn’t. I don’t think you would either.

But for those of us still left buying music on CD, there are a few short-term benefits during the format’s twilight years. First off, there’s all the cheap used music I talked about. You can find great deals on used CDs in many record stores and thrift shops, not to mention garage sales, classified ads, Craigslist and eBay. I’ve been filling in gaps in my collection with used CDs I’ve purchased for an average of two bucks apiece… CDs I honestly never would have bought at new prices.

Secondly, there’s special editions. The record companies know that collectors and fans will still buy or re-buy albums if they put out multi disc special editions featuring remastered music and loads of unreleased material. Last year, we saw fantastic special editions of classic albums by acts like Bob Dylan, INXS, George Michael, Prince and The Beatles. Over the past few years we have seen incredible super deluxe editions from acts like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Nirvana and U2. Some of it on vinyl, almost none of it on digital, but all of it on CD. These bands know this is it… this is their last shot at a physical release. They built their careers on product their fans could hold in their hands… vinyl, cassette, compact disc. They know the future is digital, but they’re taking this one last chance as the physical past fades… to put out something real.

At this point, I’m crossing my fingers that we’ll see more releases like these before the CD market shrinks so much that they’re no longer viable. Last year’s super deluxe edition of “Sgt. Peppers” was just amazing, and the “White Album” is rumored to see similar treatment in 2018. But is there enough life left in compact disc that we’ll see deluxe editions of “Abbey Road,” “Revolver,” or “Let It Be”?

Two years ago, Pink Floyd released an astounding 28 disc set called “The Early Years.” Will a Latter Years set ever become reality? And although Led Zeppelin released super deluxe editions of all their studio albums a few years ago, I have a feeling the surprises Jimmy Page has promised us for this 50th anniversary year will likely be the last we see of Zeppelin on CD.

Whatever comes, I’ll be thankful to have it.

When I designed my music room, I took inspiration from record stores. There’s dry erase board on the wall listing upcoming releases. It’s right above a magazine rack displaying recent issues of Rolling Stone. And on the door to the room, there’s an old fashioned open/closed sign like you’d see in a store window. On the closed side, there’s a space to write a message or store hours, but instead, I’ve written a classic lyric:

Not Fade Away

It’s just three words from the late, great Buddy Holly, but I think it says it all. It’s all about the love of the music. And as Buddy Holly sang back in 1957 in a song covered by acts from the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead to Queen to Bo Diddley to The Supremes to Sheryl Crow… it’s “love for real, not fade away.”


Note: This review is also available on video on the Track X Track YouTube channel.