“Nobody buys CDs anymore!”
As the manager of a Barnes & Noble music department for nearly five years, I heard this sentence more times than I could hope to recall.
It was often preceded by “How do you stay in business?” and followed by “What are you going to do when the business dies?” While ringing that customer up for the five CDs he/she had come to purchase I would kindly reply, “I’m not too worried.”
Before anyone jumps on me for being naïve or short-sighted, let me say that I don’t consider the CD business — at least in big box retail stores — viable in its current state; in many ways it’s the Barnes & Nobles, Best Buys, and Wal-marts that have driven people to buy music online. As these stores carry weaker and weaker music selections, the general public becomes more and more familiar with mp3 downloads. The point I want to make is this: every customer who ever said to me “I must be one of the only people left who actually buys CDs” was unaware of how many times a day — and from how many different people — I heard that.
A few things I like about CDs:
The Sound Quality
Yes, I know… there are better formats when it comes to music reproduction. I’ve heard examples of SACDs and DVD-Audio discs, and they were amazing. I’ve yet to experience a Blu-ray Audio, but I imagine it’s a stunner as well. Where the CD wins at the moment is in cost and universality of use. As things stand today, CDs have a serious edge up over the majority of music downloads when it comes to sound reproduction. CD-quality downloads (or better!) are available — though not common — and could easily nullify this point if/when they do become commonplace.
Again, I know… shamefully materialistic. It’s the MUSIC that’s important, not the disc itself. On one hand that’s a very valid point. On the other hand, fancy plate presentation in a nice restaurant can enhance your experience of a meal. As a music lover, I enjoy all points of the experience. The sound a CD makes in its player when spinning for the first time can be thrilling. The anticipation… what lies within this album? Maybe to you that’s silly, but a great guitar performance is enhanced by the sound of a hand running across the frets. Something about that sound makes the experience more real. I relish the experience of searching through recordings to rediscover an album I haven’t heard in 10 years, finding it, dusting it off, and connecting to the music all over again.
Used CD shops are a regular stop for me. Out of print albums are still attainable! The Internet has been a great help here. That hard-to-find, super-rare film score is often just an Internet auction or marketplace seller away. If physical music goes away, so then — eventually — do used record shops. We will be limited to what is available digitally (yes, I know about “unmentionable” bootleg sites, but I’m talking legally available).
So what is the future of this format?
Two words: Specialty Market.
Those who proclaim “the death of the CD” fail to realize that a devoted niche base can inject enough demand to keep an industry alive. In the film score community alone, deals are being struck nearly every week to release limited runs of scores that range from 1,000 copies to upwards of 10,000 copies. Many of these releases sell out completely within two days. I imagine that other genres of music could support larger numbers than that, but it’s a sign that the market exists and is willing to buy.
The key lies in scaling record labels and stores down to whatever is proportional to the CD market. From there, reassess how to reach your niche group and keep them loyal to you and the medium. The most important piece, unfortunately, is also the most fickle: us.
Every customer who thought he/she was the last person in the city who purchased CDs was — inadvertently—contributing to the downfall of the format. That display of helplessness has been shared by companies such as Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, and Wal-mart, evident in their massive cuts to in-stock items. In this way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Bringing this little rant back to Earth for a moment, I realize that the end of a format like the CD is far from anything Serious (note the capital “S”). Life goes on much like before, possibly with “the next best thing” in terms of music reproduction. For the moment, though, I am staring into a future music industry ruled by vastly inferior reproduction of music… a thing I love, and that degradation seems unnecessary.
One final thing…
Vinyl. You’ve seen it in stores; you’ve possibly purchased a few (if not more). Vinyl is the perfect example of a niche market that is being handed down to the next generation. I am approaching 30, and friends around my age are still buying vinyl. Going to a concert? Look how many young people commemorate the experience by getting the singer to sign the cover of a vinyl album.
Make CDs “special” and you can create and sustain a Specialty Market. In many ways this is already being done, and that’s a promising thought.