When things are new, and people are making a name for themselves by making bold assertions that sound futuristic, doom-laden or revolutionary, sometimes they fall into the trap of talking nonsense.
“CDs are dead!” is one example of this phenomenon.
Think about it. Does it really look like the CD is dead? Or even particularly struggling? Sales of mass-produced, commercially released popular music CDs are declining (though hardly dwindling to zero as some self-professed prophets of the digital age are trying to make us think), but the CD itself is alive and well. Thriving, actually.
When we talk about the CD, we’re usually talking about CDs for sale in high street shops. When I say ‘we’, I mean ‘the mainstream media’, and when I say ‘the mainstream media’, I generally mean ‘articles that have largely been cut and paste from press releases issued by the major record labels’.
But a step back reveals a much richer and more diverse picture – in which the CD is not only alive and well, but is making a concerted attempt at taking over my house, and probably yours too.
The Compact Disc hierarchy
In my view, there are different categories of CD. Think of it as a hierarchy. There are probably about ten layers to this hierarchy, and mass-produced, commercially released, mainstream pop CDs are about third-to-top of this hierarchy.
At the top, I put collectors editions. You know – those box sets: beautifully packaged, comprehensively annotated special releases. Next down, I’d put those nicely packaged one-off CDs that are just so gorgeous and so lovingly put together you just have to own them – or giftwrap them.
Then there are ones that generally come out on major label release with an expensive printed booklet, but it’s pretty much just a jewel case and a disc.
On to the independent release with a single or folded card in it — and so on down to the hand-scrawled, unpackaged CD-R that you use to save a part-finished song onto, so you can listen to it in the car on the way home from the studio.
And through the spectrum are those discs that get handed out as samplers or audio flyers, covermount discs on magazines, the compilation gift for a friend.
Right across the board, for many uses, the CD is dominant and looks likely to remain so for some time. Except perhaps in those one or two territories near the top end, where it has to make room for other things.
At the extreme top end – the connoisseur series – it looks like vinyl is the main challenger. Record collectors like to collect records – but retailers tell me that in fact, that’s a growing sector of the CD market.
Likewise those comprehensively put together compilations of musical history and geographic interest – for instance, this excellent compilation of 70s psychedelic funk music from Benin and Togo… which is just a lovely thing to behold and own. Increasingly, people seem to want to buy these things.
The mp3 seems to challenge the next couple of layers down – in the popular music territory – but even so, there’s a degree to which the decline of CD sales by popular artists can be attributed to the fact that we’ve all pretty much finally replaced our back catalogue. It’s been a 25-year project, but it’s more or less done now.
People still buy new release CDs, but it’s fair to say that this is one sector of the market that is not making as much money as it used to. And there are many reasons for that, most having nothing to do with the proposition that owning computers turns people into criminals.
But everywhere else, the CD is not only surviving, but actually experiencing what seems to be exponential growth.
Where CDs rule
When we talk about cassettes today, mostly we’re not talking about commercially released tapes that you could buy alongside records in stores. We’re talking about blank tapes that you could copy music onto and share with your friends. In large part, this is the function that the CD has taken on — and in many ways, it does a far better job of it.
The blank disc is now mass produced in such massive quantities, and there is such demand for them, that it’s actually something of an environmental hazard. But this does not mean the threat to music that some critics claim, any more than the mass availability of paper damages the publishing industry, or the widespread uptake of knitting needles and yarn damages the fashion industry.
The tools with which to record and release a CD have become so widely available now that artists who would never have considered going into a recording studio twenty years ago are now releasing handmade CDs of their work. I don’t know how many CDs are currently available for sale in the world, but my guess is that it’s several orders of magnitude more than were available even five years ago.
And I don’t know about you, but I can hardly move in the house for tripping over the damn things. And I’ve thrown out a good few thousand in the past few years.
My guess is that one of the biggest problems that major record labels have selling albums is not that people are stealing music, but that those labels are no longer producing such a dominant proportion of the overall mass of discs that can be bought.
Where CDs do okay
Here’s the interesting thing though: in the one area you might expect the hardest hits to have been taken – the independent artist – CDs seem to be doing okay. CD Baby keeps on reporting growth of sales of physical products by its member artists. And they sell the downloadable stuff too.
Amazon’s doing okay out of CD sales. And there’s an enormous second hand market both on eBay and offline.
So no. CDs aren’t dead, and nor should we wish them to be. They may have horrible, badly designed plastic cases that invariably break, not enough artwork or liner notes, and a tendency to become scratched just through the passage of time, but they have their uses.
And if you come round to my house with a trailer and your chequebook, I can prove it to you.