In two recent issues of RCS Music News Weekly, we examined the comeback of vinyl records and the smaller but equally steady rise of cassettes. In this issue, we examine CDs, which many dismiss as “dead” but which cannot be discounted given recent data.

According to MRC Data’s 2021 year-end music report, CD sales increased for the first time in 17 years, reaching 40.6 million unit sales in 2021 (up 1.1% from 40.2 million unit sales in 2020). Based on this, Rolling Stone contributing editor Rob Sheffield wrote in January 2022, “The CD Revival Is Finally Here,” and other journalists followed suit. Yet other music magazines like Billboard refuted the comeback.

Attributing the 2021 uptick to a handful of artists (mainly Adele), Billboard said an overall CD comeback was doubtful while others like technology and business consultant Bill Rosenblatt said, “CDs are all but dead.”

That phrase—“all but dead” (meaning everything except dead)—is the interesting one.

CD sales have certainly fallen a long way since peaking at 942 million U.S. unit sales in 2000. Since then, CD sales have steadily dropped by 97%, hitting 31.6 million U.S. sales in 2020—the lowest level since 1983. Any way you slice it, that’s the kind of punch known as a haymaker. Yet it wasn’t a “dead” scenario.

Sure, the word made for click-worthy headlines, but the word can only be called comparative. (After all, 31.6 million of anything can’t be called dead.) Yes, CD sales have plummeted, but in 2021, the drop stopped, and the stabilization (however tenuous) can’t solely be attributed to chart-topping artists.

Bands of All Stripes Are Releasing New Music on CD

Music industry heavyweights like Adele and classic album re-issues may have driven the lion’s share of CD sales in 2021, but below the headlines, lesser-known artists and bands were also releasing new music on CD, evidenced by the online catalog of the American independent music store Amoeba Music. So, it would be inaccurate, assumptive, and dismissive to say that 2021 CD sales were solely due to music’s VIP lounge of artists because reported CD sales data does not reflect the whole picture.

Case in point: Rosenblatt said CDs were “dead” largely based on sales data collected by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which defines itself as “the definitive source of revenue data for the recorded music industry in the U.S.,” meaning not reflective of other countries like Japan, where CDs are still the most popular music format. The RIAA collects its sales data from member organizations. As part of RIAA conditions to become a member, you must be a U.S.-based record label/company (or have a music distribution deal through a major label) and you must pay an application fee, plus annual dues.

Because of the costs and conditions (which naturally shut out many indie labels and their sales data), RIAA members consist of labels/companies that create, manufacture, and distribute approximately 85% of all recorded music sold in the U.S. This roughly leaves a 15% blank space in the overall RIAA picture.

While no one has a crystal ball to know what may eventually happen in this blank space, there are possible indicators that can’t be ignored.

Big Audio Companies Are Betting on Sales Growth of CD Players

Market Research Store recently released a report predicting a moderate growth in U.S. sales of CD players from 2021 to 2026 (reaching $132.9 million USD), and the prediction is not talking about music fans hunting around Amazon and thrift shops for old boom boxes. The predicted growth noted by the report “can be attributed to rising investments in research and development activities, entry of new players, product innovation” and other factors involving substantial players like Pioneer, Philips, Sony, Yamaha, and Denon.

Given that few businesses invest money into products unless they’re confident those products will sell, they’re obviously betting on a market (however currently small) that wants or will want CD players. While the report identifies retail locations, restaurants, gyms, and other end-user industries that are currently the main drivers of the market, there is no reason to believe music fans won’t be looking for new CD players, given all the reasons why CD fans enjoy the format.

Price and Convenience Make CDs More Appealing Than Vinyl

In a December 2021 article for Wired, Senior Writer Gilad Edelman writes, “You could pay $35 to own the new Adele album on vinyl—or $9.97 to have it on CD, with money left over to buy two or more albums.” CDs also offer the appeal of music in physical format with the convenience of portability. Where vinyl records require turntables and other equipment that can’t be plugged into a car stereo or tucked into a backpack, Edelman writes, “You don’t have to listen to the absolute least convenient music format.”

Like many CD fans, Edelman also believes that CDs sound better than vinyl. Acknowledging that vinyl fans will staunchly say otherwise, Edelman wryly notes that such beliefs may simply be in defence of money spent on expensive audio equipment, writing, “Anyone who insists otherwise is probably rich enough to spend $45K on monoblock amplifiers and diamond-tipped styluses—or is just full of it.”

Fans also like CDs for other reasons:

  • Some enjoy CDs because they’re still big enough to enjoy album artwork and extras like liner notes.
  • Some support CD sales because (like vinyl and cassette) they offer bands better potential for financial returns than streaming.
  • Some enjoy the physical act of visiting a record shop or thrift store to shop for CDs. As noted by Tobago Benito (owner of DBS Sounds) in MRC Data’s report: While customers are digging for vinyl, “We are still selling quite a bit of CDs as well.”

For Bands, CDs Are Fast and Inexpensive to Produce

If nothing else, the relative speed and low cost for bands to produce CDs reframes its viability. Vinyl (expensive to produce) is certainly the biggest-selling physical format right now. Yet because of this, Slashdot recently reported that current consumer demand for vinyl exceeds the ability of manufacturers to produce vinyl quickly, and production logjams are common.

“A couple of years ago,” says the report, “a new record could be turned around in a few months. Now, it can take up to a year, wreaking havoc on artists’ release plans.” Overall, says the report, “Consumption of vinyl LPs has grown much faster than the industry’s ability to make records,” resulting in order backlogs.

What we’re left with is a series of conflicting knows and unknowns about CDs:

  • They may not be making a comeback, but they may be a dark horse.
  • Though proclaimed dead, they’re seemingly holding their own for now as a niche market.
  • Where CDs currently seem amusing or inferior to critics and some audiophiles, most CD fans don’t care, while others embrace CDs in the spirit of le mort saisit le vif.

Or, as Edelman wrote in Wired, “Let the masses stay hooked on streaming while the hipsters spin their overpriced records. The CD is dead. Long live the CD.”

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