Is the CD making a comeback?
Vinyl LP pressing plants are churning out records at such a clip they're routinely backed up for six months or more. The once discredited LP has now become one of the few revenue centers for the record business outside of streaming. And now the thunderclap! The format predicted by a tenacious few since the invention of the MP3 - the lowly CD - has for the moment arrested its decline and is again posting sales gains. Defenders of the CD rejoice! Vindication is here! Or is it? Is the long slide really over?
According to music data compiler MRC Data, sales of CDs increased from 40.16 million units in 2020 to 40.59 million in 2021, marking the first time CD sales have increased on a year-over-year basis since 2004. During the same time, vinyl album sales increased by a massive 50.4%. Also in 2021, vinyl saw its single largest sales week since 1991, when 2.11 million vinyl albums were sold the week of December 23. That last figure is skewed by a very telling factor: albums by three women - Adele, Taylor Swift, and Olivia Rodrigo - all dropped before Christmas. Sorry guys, but across the genres, women continue to be the most vital commercial force in popular music today.
It's ironic, or, more accurately, karmic, that for an industry that relies as much as it does on what's new and exciting to constantly reinvent itself, the record labels are now fully in the grip of the adage, "What's old will become new again." That CDs were eventually going to come back has been the hopeful mantra of a lot of folks who converted their LP collections to CDs in the ‘80s and ‘90s. LPs have come roaring back, why not CDs? Even cassettes have become desirable. I continue to be amazed at the growth of "cassette-only" music labels. As an example of how deep the physical media revival phenomena goes, even Edison's wax cylinders now regularly fetch upwards of $50 on eBay - and most people don't even have a player to play them on!
As anyone who's ever "pushed play" knows, compact discs have always had issues. They're still too darn expensive. When they first came out, record labels assured buyers that once they began to sell, economies of scale would kick in and they would come down in price. $10 was the price point bandied about by labels. Needless to say - and no big surprise - that never happened. Taylor Swift's re-recording of her 2012 album Red, now called Red (Taylor's Version), which came out in November 2021, is $17.98 list price. The list price for the vinyl is $49.99. And then there's the packaging. For reasons I've never quite understood, plastic jewel boxes generate lots of virulent hate. Lately, various solutions to packing CDs, most of which carry a responsible "eco" prefix, as in "ecopack", have been dutifully taking over from the jewel box.
Reasons why the CD might actually stage a rally begin with convenience. CDs are easy. Put ‘em in and push play. Once playing, they last longer than LPs - no turning sides. And they lack the LP's snaps, crackles, and pops. Also, unless you go out of your way to abuse them, they last much longer than fragile temperature-sensitive LPs (Full Disclosure: while I own CDs, I have a primal love of vinyl and, more recently, a growing appreciation for high-resolution streaming). For music collectors and serious fans, the CD's greatest strength has always been the magic that digital technology has performed on older forms of physical media. Once digitized, music compiled from decaying 78s or destroyed 45s comes alive again. As digital software and converters have matured, the sound of digitized versions of old records has gotten even better. Added to that is the reality that there's a lot of music out there that will never be available in any better-sounding format. Barring huge demand and significant cash outlays, a lot of ‘90s indie and alternative rock, some of which has been converted to MP3, will only ever be available on 44.1 kHz/16-bit CDs.
And then, of course, there's the, umm… penetration problem. Both the record business and the mainstream hardware manufacturers went to the mat to kill off the LP and convince everyone to ditch their vinyl and buy the shiny little discs, which they marketed as near indestructible and offering "Perfect Sound Forever". And let's not forget the new gear to play them on. For record labels and gear manufacturers, it was a gold rush. Given the success of the stampede to convert to CD back in the ‘90s, many of us now have too many CDs in our collections to ever let them go entirely. Are you really gonna buy another set of Beatles LP reissues in whatever format, no matter how great the fresh remastering? While this can be debated, there's no doubt that simple tactility is a powerful force when it comes to the physical media argument. Many dedicated music fans want to own a collection filled with music they can literally hold on to. Perhaps the deeper lesson here is the next time the music business comes up with the next big thing in playback technology, it might be best to wait and see rather than hastily convert our music library to a new format. Think of all the wasted hours folks spent loading CDs onto CPUs; a hugely time-consuming activity now made completely obsolete by streaming.
So, is this uptick in CD sales a temporary blip or has the bleeding been staunched? Are people really buying CDs again? Which leads to larger and much more crucial questions about the digital world versus tactility, physical media versus a virtual library. In another twist of irony, could downloading/piracy/streaming be encouraging the ownership of a physical music library? Has the novelty of having our music library, or a large portion of it, on smartphones or the Cloud worn thin and inspired listeners to have a better sounding, more permanent, collection made up of LPs and, yes, even CDs? Even if this is a blip, something is afoot in the vast universe of music listening and collecting. 40+ million in CDs sold, while down considerably from its peak in the ‘90s, is still an impressive number.
Clearly, this is all a great comfort to folks who are heavily invested in the CD world. It's also being welcomed by used record stores, many of which bet on CD's return and have boxes of used CDs filling back rooms and lining walls. Admit it, those lavish CD box sets are still pretty darn wonderful. Even audio gear manufacturers may be warming to the prospect that CD players still have some currency after all. But again, a blip or a new beginning? Stay tuned.
Article published in association with PMA Magazine, which unites music's emotional essence with high-fidelity audio gear, creating a community for enthusiasts and industry experts.