One thing I’ve meant to write more about but haven’t got to much of is the topic of collecting. Though the issue of collecting is not necessary to discuss music, it is an important part of music for me and many other people.
Music collecting looked to be going the way of the dinosaur roughly a decade ago as digital music and streaming took completely over. But just as the digital revolution seemed to be ready to deal physical formats a death blow, something happened – vinyl sales shot up. They shot up big and are still going strong today. In fact, the industry is plagued with delays and shortages. The secondary market has become a nightmare of price gouging and watching stuff that was once a dollar in the bargain bin go for $20 or more.
While vinyl saw a new life in the 2010s, one format that looked to be on the way out was the compact disc. The CD revolutionized music in the 1980’s and especially the 90’s. It bulldozed cassettes and vinyl records into near oblivion, then saw itself outmoded in the face of digital formats. People sold off their CD collections, the prices tanked, and stores tied to the format faced extinction.
2021 delivered a bit of favorable news for the CD – sales were up a bit over 1% for the year. This article from Pitchfork gives the stats breakdown – the CD moved 40.4 million units in 2021, up from 40.1 a year prior. Though not the biggest sales spike ever, this is the first year CD sales increased since 2004.
One wonders how much life the CD truly has in it. The sales spike was prompted by the two biggest names in music – Adele and Taylor Swift. A new Adele album will cause sales to soar, and Taylor is re-recording her music to escape unfavorable rights management of her old catalog.
Is this sales surge a flash in the pan or a sign of a shift back to the nearly-dead CD format? Adele doesn’t release new music that often and can’t prop up the music industry on her own. And Taylor will run out of back catalog to re-do at some point. Are there other sales drivers to sustain a renewed push for CD’s?
It is easy to write off the CD surge as a one-off event. After all, the CD format is outpaced by the convenience of streaming. While streaming is not generally of the same quality as a CD, it is obviously good enough for the masses. There doesn’t seem to be an indicator that people might move from streaming back to the CD.
Except, well, there are a few. The jump back to CDs might not have anything to do with streaming – it lies in the current state of vinyl.
Vinyl is in the midst of a huge renaissance right now. Sales are huge, record stores have opened across the land and collectors are gleefully shoving handfuls of cash off for the sweet new limited pressing of their favorite acts. It was an unlikely resurrection, fueled in no small part by the much-reviled hipster of the late 00’s and early 10’s.
But there are signs of trouble on the horizon. Right now vinyl is expensive and only growing in price, much like everything else these days. The secondary market is out of reach for most collectors of modest means. And manufacturing plants are backed up enough that some albums are getting their vinyl release almost a year after the same album dropped on CD and streaming. Major players like Adele hogging limited production resources only exacerbate the vinyl supply problem.
I don’t have statistical data in the same way we can track the rise in CD sales but I do have anecdotal evidence that some collectors are backing off vinyl and returning to the CD format. A little money goes a much longer way on CDs than on vinyl. Especially for back catalog collecting – imagine the amount of money someone would need to get, say, the Scorpions extensive catalog on record. Now have a look at used CD prices for the same band the next time you’re out. Much, much cheaper.
There is another issue looming – again anecdotal, but some independent and underground labels are having such fits getting vinyl pressed that they are considering abandoning the format. That might be a bit extreme but there is a realistic possibility that vinyl becomes a very niche and expensive high-end market while the masses may have to find content in CDs or streaming.
I don’t want to be a prophet of doom, except maybe when I’m plugging the doom genre, but it might be looking a bit hairy for vinyl. I’d guess it still has legs under it for awhile but the market forces do need some correction before a segment of the marketplace turns their backs on it. I don’t know if that will equal a new boom for CDs or not, or if this new advent of the format is just a glitch brought about by a few major artists releasing albums at once.
I do know that I and many others will maintain collections no matter what happens with the market at large, but the present and future states of affairs do shape and inform what we do. I hesitate to say that the CD is on the way back, even with some promising signs. The unfortunate part is that the most positive indicators for a CD revival are at the expense of the vinyl resurgence. Only time will tell.