The CD Is Dead (But Will Live For Decades)

The fate of the CD has been a hot topic the past few weeks as a new report by Gartner (a research firm) claimed that Christmas 2008 would be the last Christmas for the CD.  Coolfer disagrees, saying that the CD will live on for some time yet, pointing out that the CD still accounts for 80% of recorded music revenue.  So what’s the deal here?  Is the CD dead?  Is it healthy? 


Both are true.  The CD is already dead but it will continue to live on (and thrive) for decades to come.  Here is why –


The CD Will Dominate For Decades

Even if digital music downloads completely dominate the recorded music industry, the CD will hold on for decades longer than the cassette or vinyl did (excluding, of course, the recent resurgence of vinyl).  Unlike switching to cassettes or CDs, changing to digital requires a radical change in consumer behavior.  The act of switching from vinyl to cassettes and then from cassettes to CDs was quick and complete because the technology was essentially the same.  You had a physical object on which unit of music (album, EP, single) was stored and you inserted that physical object into another physical object that had the sole responsibility of playing music.  Even an older, technology adverse consumer could, in short time, figure out how to move from vinyl to cassette to CD.  My Grandmother, the most technology adverse person you would ever meet, was a huge fan of CDs.


Digital is different.  Digital music requires the consumer to be well versed in a radically different technology; computers.  And unlike with cassettes and CDs, many people are unable or unwilling to learn this new technology simply in order to listen to a mp3.  There will be for decades to come people who are unable or unwilling to use computers, or whose computer literacy does not extent beyond e-mail and word processing.  Going back to my family: My Grandfather, who is 84 years old, is the most technologically savvy senior citizen you will meet.  He started to program for IBM in 1963.  He spends approximately 23 hours a day on his multiple computers.  Yet he will never listen to digital music.  Nor will my Grandmother.  My father is 50, uses computers daily, and buys digital music weekly.  My mother, same age, is terrified of computers and will never in her life buy or listen to digital music.


The CD Is Dead

Despite all the aforementioned, the CD is already dead for many.  In February of 2008, a study was released by The NPD Group that stated “…48 percent of U.S. teens did not purchase a single CD in 2007, compared to 38 percent in 2006.”  For these younger consumers, the CD is not thriving (or even dying); it’s already dead.  It is obvious that teens did not stop consuming music.  Given the explosion of music available on the internet, I would bet that music consumption has increased.  I myself buy maybe two or three CD’s a year despite listening to over 100 albums a yearly, if not more.  For me and most of my generation, a demographic block that has grown up with computers and is completely comfortable with them, digital downloads are how we get our music. 


How AC/DC and Kid Rock Are Similar To Radiohead

Many who claim the CD’s continued relevance, especially among younger generations point to the recent successes of AC/DC and Kid Rock, who sold their most recently (and multi-platinum) albums as CD only; unavailable online.  These are the exception and in many ways, these albums are very similar to the success that Radiohead had with the digital only, pay-what-you-want In Rainbows.  That is, the method of sale was an anomaly, so much so that it became a part of the narrative of the album itself, resulting in free publicity around the method of sale, not the music itself.  All this free publicity helped to drive sales for Radiohead, AC/DC, and Kid Rock.  As such, to point to AC/DC and Kid Rock as evidence in support of the CD is analogous to pointing to Radiohead as evidence of the superiority of digital.  It’s an incomplete portrait and only proves that both formats are viable methods of content delivery. 


The Resurgence Of Vinyl And What It Means

In 2004  there used to be two places to buy music at my local mall: both Best Buy and FYE sold CDs.  Now, FYE is out of business but you can buy vinyl records at Hot Topic and both CDs and vinyl at Best Buy.  This is means something.  Why would Best Buy, a nationwide mega retailer sell vinyl records, a medium that was dead 20 years ago, at a mall in upstate New York?  Sales of vinyl records are one of the few areas of growth in the recorded music industry.  In 2007, sales of vinyl records were in 36.6%.  I believe there are two reasons for this.  First, the myth/rumor/truism that vinyl sounds better/warmer than CDs or mp3s.  Second, and more important I believe, is the cover art.


While digital music is great, it is rather intangible.  Even if you have the cover art as a digital file, it is worthless; how many times have you hunted down and stared at a digital album artwork?  Zero, I bet.  When I was younger, I took the cover art from all my CDs and I taped them to a wall in my bedroom, creating an awesome mural/shrine to my favorite music.  In a corner of my last studio apartment I had about 20 vinyl records hanging on my wall.  Album art is cool and provides a wonderful physical connection to music that you do not get with digital. 


Why The Future Is Vinyl Records And Digital Downloads (With The CD Hanging On For Another 30 Years)

The CD is a pointless medium but I think it will live on for another 30 years.  Looking at my own parents, both 50 and one an avid digital music consumer and the other a fan of CDs, I believe that the cut off for digital music is around 50.  If you are older than this (as my non-digital music listening uncles are) then you will most likely purchase CDs for the rest of your music buying life (which, based on the average lifespan in this country, lets say is 80).  If you are under 50 then it is likely you have either grown up using computers since childhood or at least are familiar with them from work.  As such, your music purchases will be increasingly digital and, I also believe, vinyl. 


The CD has no advantages.  If you want portability, low cost, ease of purchase, and convenience, then you purchase digital music.  If you want high sound quality and good cover art, then you purchase vinyl.  The CD’s main flaw is that it does nothing well.  Vinyl has much better/larger cover art and it often sounds better than a CD.  When you purchase a CD, you immediately rip it onto your computer and transfer those files into your ipod/zune/whatever and throw the CD and CD case into a pile that only takes up room.  Most people now skip the ripping-and-space-consuming-CD purchase and just purchase digital.  Digital is cheaper (at $9.99 or lower) and you don’t have the wasted time of ripping and the space consuming case.


So that is it.  In the future, age and technological fluency will be the primary determining factors in how you consume music.  Those who are unfamiliar/comfortable with computers (older generations, poorer demographics) will continue to purchase CDs.  Younger, more affluent generations will buy a majority of the music they consume as a digital download.  They will also purchase albums from their favorite artists as a vinyl/digital download combo deal, purchasing the vinyl primarily for the cover art and the badge of fandom it provides.  10 years from now I predict that digital will hold an overwhelming majority of recorded music revenue, followed by vinyl and the CD with relatively equal market shares.


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7 responses to “The CD Is Dead (But Will Live For Decades)

  1. Thanks for this essay. I like that you’re making a prediction we can actually measure in time.

    I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. I agree that the major barrier for digital downloads right now is how much stands in between a listener and his music. I remember downloading my first mp3 after I read them in a Wired article back in the late nineties while I was in high school. It was a Wyclef Jean track and it took about an hour to download. Once I had it, I recorded it onto my Minidisc player and manually set the track times and slowly dialed in the name. I remember thinking, if they could speed up getting from their end to this portable player it would actually be a feasable medium.

    The ipod blew the roof off that problem, but even today I know plenty of otherwise technology savvy people in their 20s and 30s who don’t know how to load up an ipod. I think it’s counterintuitive to have to do so much with your music before you listen to it. Reel-to-reel was awesome, but tape didn’t really take off until they came up with cassettes and to a lesser extent, 8 tracks. Records only started to be pushed out of the market when a more intuitive alternative came along.

    I think Mp3s are transitional technology. The awkwardness of fumbling through bitrates and white ipod cables is going to look to a kid in twenty years as foreign as someone winding tape on a reel-to-reel. CDs and records are still the most intuitive way to go with music.

    The technology that is going to blow everybody away is the one that completely eliminates the distance between the listener and the music. No wires, heck, no speakers, just sound organized in a way that makes sense (ie. the 3 minute singles on early vinyl, the two-sided album on an LP, the 74 minute disc with searcheable tracks,etc). If the music industry had any real instincts for self preservation, that’s the technology they would go after. I doubt it’s far away, and whoever gets there first is going to make a lot of money.

    As for the old records, I think you’re absolutely right about artwork. Art gives music context. Paul McCartney can’t autograph an mp3! Also, it feels as organic as an actual performance – every play is slightly different from the last. A record demands a degree of patience, submission to the track list, and of course, an intermission. Most albums are best heard in two or four parts. I don’t really own records, but I understand the appeal.

    I’m excited to see where it all goes!

  2. It’s important to remember that only 60% (+/-5%… I’m not really sure) of Americans have broadband internet connections in their homes! And not everyone even has ANY connection to the internet and these people are going to continue to buy CDs for some time.

    No new physical medium is going to come along and force everyone to buy new equipment in their homes and for their cars. In fact, I’ll bet that the CD dies when car manufacturers stop putting CD players in cars. When’s that going to happen?

    Vinyl is cool and it has increased its market share, but that share is next to nothing; I think you’re wrong in saying that vinyl is going to overtake CDs. Think about all the people who listen to CDs in their car or on portable CD players; they’re not going anywhere. Other than that, I think you’re spot on.

  3. One thing that President-elect Obama has repeatedly stated he is going to do is to increase broadband penetration in the US. If he is successful, it will be very interesting as to its effect on the music industry/this debate.

    As for the future, I would guess in 10 years time that digital downloads would account for 80 to 90% of all music sales and CDs and vinyl will account for the other 10 to 20. I do think that, at least among younger generations, you will see the LP move from being a rarity to being something that is, if not common, then at least recognizable and known.

  4. The other thing is, it’s really hard to smash CDs. If you get a CD you don’t like, you throw it away. If you don’t like a record, you can smash it and feel awesome.

  5. yeah, but you can put a CD in a microwave and that is awesome!

  6. Pingback: The CD Is Dead (But Will Live For Decades) | Radio Exile

  7. I once (accidently) destroyed a microwave with a CD. Oh college.

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