By Jarod Todeschi
Like the cassette tape and vinyl records before them, compact discs (better known as CDs) may begin to disappear from retail shelves. News of their decline will not shock many, as they’ve steadily plummeted in sales since the early 2000’s. Physical music sales in general are nominal compared to digital platform streaming, though CD’s are proving the martyrs of physical music natural selection as vinyl records have experienced a resurgence in popularity.
Best Buy announced in the new year that they will pull CD’s from shelves on July 1 after their 2017 sales showed an 18percent drop. Digital platform numbers officially outplaced physical sales in 2015, but vinyl record sales were ironically at an all time high last year after being knocked off of the shelves themselves in the 1980’s. CD’s promised technical excellence in their quality, subject to the digital scrutiny that vinyls had always been exempt from.
The CD’s introduction to the computer unintentionally allowed piracy and file sharing on the web to run rampant, ultimately causing the business declines the music industry has faced since peak CD sales hit 712 million units in 2001. Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music have profited from their models of unlimited accessibility. However, streaming critique usually centers on its minute royalty payouts that leave the shared profits of the artists, writers and producers even skimpier than they already were.
Recent high profile releases from Adele and Taylor Swift displayed an approach that pushed physical sales by withholding their albums from streaming services. Adele’s “25” managed to pull nearly 3.4 million physical sales. Swift has also managed to reach one million physical first week sales with her last four releases. Both artists appeared on streaming services about a month after already profitable physical hauls.
Adele and Swift’s popularity makes them exceptions to the rest of the music industry’s physical profits. Though 2017 vinyl sales were the highest since 1988, and while CDs are still higher in total income, their popularity is exclusive to older demographics. Vinyl sales show current favorability over CD’s in future forecasts. The top-selling vinyls similarly reflect the essence of nostalgia that the vinyls listening experience can offer. The Beatles, Amy Winehouse, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson and Prince take up most of the ten top titles.
Another retail giant, Target, is following suit. Their current agreement with record labels leaves them with all of the risk if the contents of their bulk music orders do not sell. If they get what they want, things would shift to a consignment model, where Target would only pay labels for CD’s that are sold, showing the disposability of compact disc investment.
It perhaps represents grim news for all physical media sales, as consumption for music, film and television is centered on streaming platforms. However, physical purchases are not a thing of the past in every market. Japan is the world’s leader in physical media sales, with CD’s as the top selling music preference.
Perhaps hopelessly, CD’s can prove redeemable for many. As a tangible way of supporting the music industry, they also contain additional photos and access to official lyrics within their flippable booklets. The concept of the jewel box equally as shiny as the CD’s themselves, containing everything together. CD players these days might be most popular in automobiles, as walkmans and jukeboxes were put out themselves by the mp3 player and then the aux, which still threatens CD players in most cars.
As CDs fade from cultural relevance and into the periphery of its memory, optimists might wonder if the vinyl revival might hint at a fated CD rebirth in the future. Popular opinion suggests that the original miniature appeal doesn’t provide the same aesthetic satisfaction that both collectors and casual listeners appreciate in vinyls. While the portability qualities of walkman players and the sound projections of jukeboxes have been replaced by smartphone streaming capability, records echo a more encompassing experience, embracing the imperfections that CDs and digital music after were built to erase. The future of consumption may be at streaming’s disposal, and the fate of physical may be dependent on nostalgia, but one thing might be for sure; compact disks are reaching their certain dusk.