The Curious State of the Compact Disc


With the vinyl resurgence firmly entrenched (at least for now), and cassettes getting some love, it’s time to pause and reflect on the humble compact disc. Next year, the CD will celebrate its 35th birthday. Today, it’s a format that is as derided as it is persistent. But it wasn’t always so. Ten years ago, illegal downloading seemed stemmed by legislation, and Apple’s iTunes was in full swing. The vinyl resurgence had yet to arrive, but some music critics and industry watchers were already preparing eulogies for the CD.

Vinyl aside, CDs were the only format to enjoy a pretty dominant position in culture and the market. Now, numerous streaming services jostle for market share alongside vinyl, CDs, and the iTunes store and other downloading platforms. But for awhile, the CD was the music format. Digital vs. analog debates aside, there was a clean, cool simplicity to the CD that must have been refreshing for some listeners. It could be played in your car, in your home, or in your Discman. Load six of them into your home stereo CD changer and enjoy up to eight hours of continuous music — no flipping, no dusting, no pauses. It was a modernist format for an optimistic time. So let’s just be honest and acknowledge that, for a while there, we were a little taken with the sciencey-ness of the CD. Lasers! Optical cables! They can go inside a computer! It was all a little too cool, especially after decades of analog equipment that was, while well-loved and iconic, also dusty, bulky, and prone to costly mechanical failures.

Commercially, the compact disc as a format is in a funny place right now. According to Nielsen, and relayed via Michael Nelson’s terrific “But Who’s Buying?” column on the music industry, CD sales are declining (by 11.6% in the first half of 2016, compared to the first half of 2015), which is no surprise. Yet even with the vinyl resurgence factored in, CDs are still the go-to format for physical album holdouts, comprising 88% of the physical media music market. Oddly, streaming services are actually taking a bigger bite out of digital downloads than out of CD sales (11.6% decline for CDs versus 18.4% for digital downloads).

Thus, while the format no longer occupies its place of dominance, who would have guessed that, in 2016, one could still easily walk into a record store and be met with a relatively large selection of new albums on CD? Clearly, we have underestimated the CD’s longevity, and the fondness that people harbour for this format.

I confess that I am one of those people, simply because of my age. I was born in 1987, just as the CD was enjoying an ascendancy that would remain in place right through the 1990s. (Jack Antonoff is reportedly writing a book on 90s CD culture.) While my earlier childhood years were filled with radio, and with homemade cassette recordings of Top 40 pop songs, I distinctly recall my first CD: Barenaked Ladies’ Stunt (1998), an album buoyed by the massive hit single “One Week,” which I purchased in the basement of a rural hardware store. For some reason, there was a small CD display amidst the riding lawnmowers, rakes, and fertilizer. In hindsight, this is probably a testament to the lucrativeness of the compact disc at its peak.

Even through the first decade of the 21st century, and right up until I got into vinyl in 2012, CDs remained the primary way I obtained music (even when they averaged $18.99 a piece). It’s also helpful to recall that, until the launch of iTunes and the iPod in 2001, there were few alternatives to the CD that were both convenient and legal (illegal downloading required specialized computer knowledge that older listeners were less likely to possess).

I suspect that, for many others my age (or slightly older), CDs remain popular in part because of the power of ingrained buying habits: most times you spend your mental energy figuring out which albums to buy, rather than asking lofty meta-questions about which format is best and the future of physical media.

I still buy albums on CD. It’s my secondary format. While I sometimes have doubts about the rationales behind my stubborn attachment to physical music media, I continue with CDs for a variety of reasons.

First, new CDs have dropped in price. New albums are often $12.99, and seldom more than $15.99. Second, used CDs are a cost-effective way of getting into artists with large back catalogs. For instance, I’ve been on an R.E.M. kick lately, and picked up five of their older albums for less than the price of one new R.E.M. vinyl reissue. Which brings me to my third reason for still buying CDs: sometimes a new vinyl LP is really overpriced, and prices are only going up. Fourth, sometimes a vinyl LP suffers from the all-too-common problem of poor quality control, which numerous forum threads have documented. Fifth, sometimes I already own the artists’s entire catalog on CD, and want to keep the singular format going, to satisfy my completist tendencies. Sixth, CDs are an inexpensive way to listen to lossless digital audio, and can be ripped to a variety of formats. Seventh and finally, sometimes I just feel that an album is best experienced non-stop from start to finish. Case in point: the latest album from Explosions in the Sky.

But that’s enough about me. What about you? Are you a physical media holdout? Do you still buy CDs? If so, are they used or new? If you listen to vinyl, do you have a secondary listening format, and if so, what is it? When do you think CDs will finally bite the dust? Or will they still line the racks at HMV for decades to come?

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