I’ve had this question in a number of forms. The most common one is the artist who doesn’t really sell many CDs through retail, but every time they perform live, they go through 20, 50 or even 100 CDs over the merchandise table. The question is – if I make the leap to mp3, who’s going to buy that to take home as a souvenir?

A similar question is the one about music as a gift. The simple fact is that it’s quite difficult to gift wrap an mp3. CDs have long been a great present to buy. Simple, personal, and always well received. Buying someone downloaded music doesn’t have the same give-ability.

I’ve even heard this question as ‘I’m essentially a busker. But I make decent money selling my CD wherever I play. Should I change what I do?’. These are all essentially the same questions: when the physical characteristic of the recorded medium is the main point of the purchase (ie: tangible souvenir, presentable item), how can digital files replace physical products?

Solutions in search of a problem
I struggle a little with this one, because I suspect this is solvable and yet the answer doesn’t leap out. I suspect there are two reasons for this:

1) There’s a huge array of possible answers to the question ranging from USB drives to plastic cards with codes on them, mobile phone SIM cards to more book-like printed material with website links;

2) It doesn’t really matter. This isn’t broke – why are we trying to fix it?

The technologist in me likes to wrestle with the first question. I’m particularly intrigued by this experiment in ‘augmented reality’ that the BBC team did with their Band In Your Hand cards for the Radio 1 Big Weekend. I think there’s interesting stuff to be done with that idea.

I’m also reasonably convinced that there’s something worth exploring around mobile phones. I’m not target audience for that particular one, but it’s fair to say that’s probably true of a lot of things.

But I think I’m more convinced by the point of my question number 2.

If people want to buy CDs, there’s no earthly reason I can think of to stop them doing so. There’s nothing inherently wrong with music media in physical form. As we’ve already discussed, CDs may be on the decline in a number of areas of the market, but they’re also experiencing what appears to be exponential growth in others. And they’re cheap as chips to produce.

By comparison, the margin on USB drives is miniscule compared to the markup you can put on a CD of recorded music. And people just know what to do with CDs (ie: put them in their computer, rip them to mp3, and stick them on a shelf never to be looked at again).

The opportunity
But I think the smarter question is not ‘what shall I sell instead of CDs?’ but ‘what shall I sell as well as CDs?’. Or maybe even ‘what else can I put on my CDs?’.

Because of course CDs are not music formats. They are digital file storage media. It just so happens that most of the CDs you own contain digital files that can be played as audio in a CD player. Most computers I’ve encountered will accept a CD and let you navigate the digital files.

Why not put video, interactive content, web-enhanced material and – yes – mp3s on the disc that people want to buy from you as a souvenir or give as a gift? That way they get the thing they want to hold in their hands, but they also get the rich experience made possible by digital media that goes far beyond merely the tracks on the disc.

Other approaches
And finally, it’s worth mentioning two more things, just anecdotally: First, I’ve come across more than one band that sells blank CDs at their gigs. The sleeve has the artwork and the codes for the download, but people can burn their own discs. And second, I’ve been to gigs where the music’s been for sale on vinyl. And it does very well indeed.

Related post: You can’t gift wrap an mp3.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. What solutions to this problem can you think of? And is it, in fact, even a problem in the first place?