Can the CD Survive?

Is the CD dying fast, holding strong or due for a comeback?

CDPlayer

Portable CD player

The rise of the Internet has inspired premature proclamations of the death of newspapers, TV, radio … and, of course, the CD. Recently, streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube have reduced the CD to near-insignificance in mainstream music. “In 2000, CD’s best year, 943 million units were shipped. By 2016, that dropped to 99 million,” said Ted Green, a tech industry consultant and the editor of the tech marketing website Strata-gee.com.

But in jazz, where the audience is more accustomed to physical media, the story is different. According to Denny Stilwell, president of Mack Avenue Records, “CD is still a big part of our revenue. In 2017, our CD sales increased by a double-digit percentage, and CD also rose in percentage of market share.”

Jana Herzen, president of Motéma Music, shares a similarly hopeful report. “The CD is still a very important part of our sales picture,” she said. “In Europe, CDs typically outsell digital downloads by 90 percent for us. In the U.S., downloads are still significant for us, but they are rapidly declining, and I expect they will be gone soon.”

Can jazz and other niche markets keep the CD alive? To every one of the experts we asked, the answer is far from clear.

The Hard Numbers

Despite CD’s decline, the jazz industry reps we spoke with still consider the format vital to jazz artists, for a few reasons. CD remains the most practical way for artists and labels to earn money from recordings. Even with the surprising revival of the vinyl record, “vinyl is not eclipsing CDs,” Stilwell said. “We make CDs for every release, but we don’t make vinyl for every release. We have to be smart about what we put on vinyl, because it can cost 10 times as much to make a vinyl album.” And with retail outlets such as Best Buy ceasing sales of CDs, sales of physical media at gigs are increasingly important. “Sales at venues after shows are brisk for many of our artists, and an important part of income for the artist and our label,” Herzen said.

Audiophiles in pursuit of the highest-quality sound may find CD their best option. Of today’s prominent streaming services, only Tidal offers the same uncompressed digital data that CD provides. CD-quality and high-resolution digital downloads are available, but as Herzen pointed out, downloads’ popularity is plummeting. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), revenues gained through digital downloads fell by 25 percent from 2016 to 2017. “There’s no question that CD sounds better than a lot of the streaming services,” Stilwell said. “If you want something that’s more like what the artist heard when they recorded the music, you’ll want CD.”

CD also remains essential for getting the music out to opinion makers. “From a promotional standpoint, there’s still a place for CD,” said Maureen McFadden, senior account publicist and director of operations at the popular jazz PR firm DL Media Music. “Radio always needs them, and journalists may want them.”

The Hardware Issue

One problem looming for CD is that the players are getting harder to find. “We have a lot of young people coming up after the shows and saying they really have no way to play a CD—and some of them don’t even know what it is,” Herzen said.

The number of audio companies that still manufacture CD players has rapidly decreased over the past decade, and the units tend to be pricey. Most laptop computers no longer come with a CD/DVD drive, and CD-equipped stereos are disappearing from new cars. Blu-ray and DVD players can play CDs, but Internet streaming is displacing those formats as well. “When electronics manufacturers stop offering the hardware, it’s going to force the decline of the format,” Stilwell said.

Unlike record players, which are relatively simple, making transport mechanisms that properly spin CDs demands a great deal of sophistication. “Audio manufacturers have a couple of choices,” reported Buzz Goddard, brand director for Pro-Ject USA, which sells turntables and small high-end audio components. “You can use the transports from DVD and Blu-ray players, but those are usually cheap and tend not to last. Transports designed for automotive use are better, but those are going away. To make sure we have a supply of transports going forward, we invested in a company that produces a high-quality CD drive.”

A CD Renaissance?

Considering the popularity of vinyl and the recent revival of the audio cassette, might CDs experience a similar comeback? “CD’s rate of decline is slowing,” Green said. “The electronics industry is pushing high-resolution audio right now, but that hasn’t gotten a lot of traction. If the industry moves away from hi-res, it’s possible CD could have an afterlife like we’re seeing in vinyl.”

Goddard points out that CD has become a cheap way to expand a music collection. “Last time I was in Berkeley [Calif.], I went to Rasputin and Amoeba [record stores], and they have bins starting at 50 cents per CD,” he said. “It’s like being a record collector in 1990. I spent $8.40 for 12 albums. Will there be a future of CD crate-diggers? I think so.”

Will the sheer practicality of CD keep it alive? Will the bargain-basement fun of the format keep listeners hooked the way it did with vinyl? Your guess seems to be as good as anyone’s—even the industry reps interviewed here.

Brent Butterworth’s AudioFiles column on new ways of listening to jazz.