Format Wars: The CD ‘Revival’ Is Being Over-Stated

Sales remain at a record low...

The 21st century has witnessed a huge, epoch-making shift in the way that we listen. Generations reared on the physical artefact were moved to one side, with the growth of streaming essentially creating a global, free-at-the-point-of-access music library, open to all. As a result, genre lines are breaking down, with Gen Z able to draw on the wealth of human history when sculpting their latest masterpiece.

Yet the past isn’t as easily shelved as all that. Once doomed to the pages of history, vinyl has enjoyed a 15 year resurgence, with sales rising exponentially after bottoming out in the years following the Millennium. It’s made for great copy – a rare positive news story, vinyl links generations, and adds a sense of worth to music that is often lost in the instant access era.

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Could the compact disc be next to follow suit? A flurry of headlines and news stories rooted in year-end figures for 2021 would appear to indicate that the humble CD is on the way back, its comeback propelled by nostalgia and supply chain issues with the vinyl industry. In the United States, for example, sales actually rose for the first time in two decades, while the rate of decline in the UK suddenly “bottomed out” as the BPI put it.

News travels fast. In a breathless hype piece, Rolling Stone proclaimed that “the CD revival is finally here” before emphasising the functional nature of the format – essentially, you can smear jam on ‘em and they can still work.

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Beneath the headline figures, though, it’s clear that this isn’t a revival per se. A broader look at the figures suggests that a number of high profile releases – and yes, we’re looking at Adele here – has vastly distorted the chart. With fans of the British singer, and artists such as Ed Sheeran releasing hugely successful albums, sales of the compact disc were pushed to unheard of levels… a mere 1.1% increase in the United States alone.

The broader history of the CD in recent times is one of managed collapse. Supermarkets have stopped stocking them, using aisle space in favour of vinyl releases, with volume selling ensuring that they can undercut your local independent music retailer. In 2020, for example, American sales of the compact disc collapsed by some 20%, as chain supermarkets finally began to pare down on stocks.

Right here in the UK, the picture is even bleaker. In spite of major players releasing huge albums on CD in 2021 sales actually dropped even further, reaching levels not seen since 1988. In all, sales dropped by 12% – which is actually a better result than 2020’s nose-bleeding drop of 33%.

Technology has a part to play in all this. Most new laptops don’t include CD players, and major tech players have no intention of re-introducing them – if the equipment to play them on remains difficult to come by, then the suggested ‘revival’ will never get off the ground.

But perhaps that’s too simplistic a view. The 21st century has splintered genre lines, allowing fans to listen in new ways. There’s no reason to suggest that this won’t extend to music formats as well. Anecdotally, one of the reasons cassette sales remained stronger in the United States and Japan in comparison to other markets is the continued use of cars – people would listen to albums on cassette while commuting, while using other formats at home. There’s no reason why someone couldn’t listen to their favourite album on CD while driving to work, and then hook up a gym playlist at the weekend.

Equally, CDs remain a potent alternative for underground artists. With the vinyl chain being stretched to breaking point in 2021, small labels were forced to wait through extraordinary delays in order to get their vinyl product – a switch to the compact disc, which is cheaper and easier to manufacture, could solve a lot of issues for those on more restrained budgets than, say, Ed Sheeran.

Ultimately, what this comes down to is the need to build and develop audiences, and to ensure that music has worth. The past 12 months saw a breakthrough in the conversation surrounding streaming, with the issue of royalty payments even reaching a UK parliamentary committee. Artists such as Nadine Shah spoke eloquently about the impact this has on their lives and well-being, with pressure being exerted on streaming giants to provide fuller support for creators.

Even those expensive vinyl releases won’t ensure an actual audience. According to statistics, around 48% of all vinyl albums bought in music shops will never be played – essentially, providing very nice ornaments. This might just be where compact discs have the edge – glinting rainbow-like in the sun, they make much more pleasing ornaments than their black wax cousins.

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Words: Robin Murray

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