The Future of CDs

There has been a lot of press and attention given over the last couple years about the ‘return’ of vinyl, with sales numbers for the format reaching highs unprecedented since the compact disc became popular. Yet while we are celebrating the vinyl renaissance (I love it so much I actually wrote a book about it called Why Vinyl Matters), what HAS happened to our former love, the shiny CD? While I extol the virtues of the LP loudly and often, I have to admit I still do own and play CDs (especially in my car). I decided to ask some of my friends, peers and colleagues what they thought the fate and fortunes of the seemingly jilted CD. In no particular order, here are the responses. If my tiny sample group is any indication, the CD is not extinct just yet. –Jennifer Otter Bickerdike

Kevin McManus
Curator, British Music Experience

As part of the British Music Experience, we have a fascinating small display called Playback that highlights the different ways we have listened to music over the years. In amongst the many lovely bits of kit we have on display (the space age looking 8 track player, the boombox, the Dansette, etc.) the poor old CD player looks dull and functional. Two words that probably sum up the largely unloved CD itself.

CDs got a foothold in the mass market when I was doing a load of freelance writing for NME. One of the perks of a job like that was that you get sent loads of free records. Being a slow adapter of new tech and a generous soul to boot, I initially just gave all my freebie CDs away to more savvy mates and persisted with vinyl. Then record company publicists stopped asking which format you wanted their music in and only sent you CDs. I was reluctantly forced to convert. I don’t think I have ever been fully won over by the format. Even though I do still buy the occasional CD, I’ve never felt any real emotional attachment to my collection of CDs in the same way I do with my vinyl. This became clear to me when I recently moved house and was under strict instructions to throw some of my ‘stuff’ out so that we actually had some space in the new place that wasn’t full of my own mini museum/archive. Suffice to say, every single vinyl record I own survived this savage cull while a mountain of CDs was discarded without causing me any great emotional trauma.

Every house and apartment should have records and record players in them. Things would be better.

Julia Ruzicka
Future of the Left

Let’s not bury this little fella just yet. Sure, it’s not as cool as its older vinyl sister, and not as vital as its younger digital brothers; but there is still some value left in the CD. The future isn’t bright, but perhaps somewhat stable? Manufacturing time and costs in terms of vinyl production make the CD still a great option for the merch table on tours – the livelihood for many bands. CDs are easier when moving house. They’re still satisfying to whack into the car stereo on a long trip (for us older car owners) and you generally don’t have to worry about them as much – they are the practical, old school, less glamorous sibling of musical formats. The “meh” within the world of recorded music distribution. Nothing wrong with a bit of “meh” in our lives from time to time.

Simone Odaranile
The Go! Team

Growing up and during my teens, my CD Walkman and CD collection were literally my best friends! It’s like comparing E-readers and tablets to books: For me there is not the same personal connection when reading through album artwork and physically placing a CD in to a machine as there is to downloading a track from iTunes. There is something special about having a collection and watching it grow right in front of your eyes! CDs are perfect for bands and artist of all sizes to create and sell; they are an all-arounder for everyone. Let’s not let them go just yet, hey?

Charlie Ashcroft
BT and Amazing Radio

The CD should survive its relative lull. Vinyl costs (to manufacture and buy) are rising, so demand for it may wane again, meaning the CD may re-surface as the physical product, although some distance away from the sales peaks of past decades. Continued mainstream supermarket presence will still count for a lot. Download codes could accompany CD purchases, given the amount of computers without CD drives. Outside the home, CDs still serve the commute, in the same way that FM radio hasn’t disappeared yet. Not everyone has the newest DAB-fitted, data-enabled vehicle — or a streaming subscription.

Luke Griffiths
False Heads

The future of CDs seems to be in an extremely bizarre place at the moment. For me, and a lot of people in their twenties and late teens, the CD was like having vinyl (this was really just before the vinyl resurgence occurred). I have a lot of affection for the CD, it was like what vinyl was back in the day AND for what it is now for a lot of people. You had a physical copy of something, with lyrics, liner notes- a proper physical copy in your hand. It’s not like now where record players are everywhere and vinyl is in vogue (which is a good thing, in my opinion; music is more than just streaming) so as a 15-year-old, there wasn’t much chance of getting a record player, and why would I? Vinyl seemed to be dead. Now, vinyl is back and even from our perspective, barely anyone buys our CDs, everyone buys our vinyl. So where do CDs stand? I don’t know. But who expected vinyl to come back like this? Also, remember EVERYONE has a CD player, so I’m not convinced they’re being killed off just yet.

Kim Bayley
Entertainment Retailers Association, Record Store Day UK

The compact disc remains the most transformational format the music industry has ever seen. Neither the download nor yet streaming have managed to eclipse it. Importantly, 15 years since the launch of iTunes in the UK, the compact disc remains the UK’s biggest album format with around 750,000 discs sold every week. Despite the acres of newsprint devoted to the vinyl revival, the CD stills outsells its vinyl precursor by about ten to one. The relatively poor perception of CD these is in part a factor of just how successful it was: its ubiquity has meant it is too often taken for granted. The fact is its virtues – convenience, sound quality, portability – are the same today as when it was first launched. Sales are certainly down, but CD still has a lot of life left in it.

Graham Jones
Auhtor, Last Shop Standing

When it was invented in the 1980s the CD was viewed as the future of music. It looked space aged, a gleaming silver disc that the industry told us had a superior sound and no matter how much wear and tear it suffered, would always play perfectly. We were encouraged to change our vinyl collections over to this exciting format, and the industry was happy to sell us our record collections all over again.

The problem with the CD is that it has not improved in more than 30 years. We can send a spacecraft to the edge of the universe but have still not invented a satisfactory CD case. If crushed, the teeth of the plastic tray break so when you open your CD, lots of little pieces of plastic drop out. CDs are wrapped in that irritating plastic that is difficult to tear off. You end up using your teeth or getting a knife. It is as if the format has been sentenced to a long lingering death and nobody is prepared to save it.

People treasure vinyl and take great care not to damage it, yet people don’t value the CD in the same way. My job involves driving all over the UK to visit record shops. On these trips, I take the opportunity to listen to many of our forthcoming releases that I will be selling to the record shops. When I have finished listening to a CD, I throw it on the seat of the car or in to the glove compartment. When I have finished listening to vinyl, I don’t hurl it across the room like a frisbee. The record is carefully replaced in the inner sleeve, before being inserted in the album cover.

Nobody can deny that the CD is undergoing a long and steady decline but talk of “the death of the CD” is premature. It is important to recognize that all formats are integral in ensuring that music prospers. The CD should not be a format we ignore, they are an integral part of the British music industry success story that ought to be celebrated.

Rhian Jones
Music Business Worldwide, HITS

For 15 years from the early ‘90s, CDs ruled the music market after rocketing past cassettes to represent the number one format in which people would buy tunes. Before that, cassettes had done the same to vinyl, and now digital is doing it to physical. In 2015, cash generated from the sale of digital downloads and music streaming surpassed CDs (and vinyl), and last year, streaming alone took a 38% marketshare while CD sales counted for less than 30%, according to stats from the IFPI. The global domination of smartphones is only growing and you can’t jam a CD into an iPhone. At their current rate of decline, CDs will count for less than 15% of the music market by 2025 — and it’s surely only downhill from there. If you can afford a bespoke music listening experience at home, would you chose high quality sounding and beautiful looking vinyl, or compressed CDs in plastic casing? In the words of British troubadour Sam Smith, the writing’s on the wall.

Joel D’Eath
Music for Nations

Even with my relatively short time in the music industry, I have been surprised multiple times by the changes in people’s listening habits. Fifteen years ago who would have even considered that people would have access to millions of songs on a telephone (that fit in your pocket!!), but equally people are baffled that a vinyl LP is now not just a nostalgic safety blanket, but a format powerhouse in 2018 (24,500 UK sales for Arctic Monkey’s Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino in one week). So what’s the future of CDs? I’m unsure, but I’m not throwing mine away, I could be sitting on a goldmine!

Dean Hewins
Boogaloo Dee

I don’t think CDs will be obsolete, just look at what happened to cassettes and how that has become a collectors’ thing now after being obsolete for many years. There is always the gifting market to keep it going, albeit in a much smaller capacity.

I find it hard to believe that they will be revered as records are, but for the collectors market, and the possibility of CD only versions of albums (Michaels Jackson‘s Bad included Leave Me Alone on CD only for example) will drive the music fans who feel the need for physical media, but don’t collect vinyl.

Brent Greissle
Discogs’ Discography Specialist

There’s room for a resurgence here, but I have my doubts. Sales of CDs have been increasing over the past few years. They’re still a fraction of the market, which vinyl still holds control over. As a collector, I’m finding that good records are getting harder to find at affordable prices. Vinyl has more competition between collectors. CDs are going to continue to grow over time. People will find new music without extensive efforts to find affordable copies. CDs are also much quicker to produce than vinyl and at a fraction of the cost. This is more attractive to artists looking for physical merchandise. As ’90s/’00s nostalgia continues to grow, people are going to want the music and media of their youth.

There are a few down sides to CDs that I can see continuing to hamper growth. During the heyday of CDs, pretty much every vehicle and computer had a CD player. CD collectors may need to go through more effort to find functioning players. There is also evidence that CDs may have a shorter lifespan than records. Issues such as bronzing or cheap CDR degradation may mean unplayable copies.