For some, the title of this week’s post may come as a bit of a shock if you haven’t seen a few of the recent news stories coming from some of the record companies about their plans to discontinue the recording and sales of music CDs in late 2012. They’ve been making the rounds quietly – I first saw this news item on a Facebook post a few weeks ago but have only seen a couple more articles about it since then. Before that it was news to me, but not entirely unexpected.
If you haven’t seen any of the news stories about this, here’s a link to a very good article on AllHipHop.com that gives a brief history and overview of the CD format. Most telling, they report, is this from Sideline Music:
“ ‘The major labels plan to abandon the CD-format by the end of 2012 (or even earlier) and replace it with download/stream only releases via iTunes and related music services. The only CD-formats that will be left over will be the limited edition ones, which will, of course, not be available for every artist.’ Reps from EMI, Universal, and Sony declined to comment on recent reports.” – Seandra Sims
If that’s correct, it will end a 26-27 year run for the CD as the de facto recorded music format. In replacing the vinyl record, it had a pretty good run, in fact, second only to the “plastic waffle” in longevity (although music on vinyl has been making a small comeback over the last few years).
No, you won’t see vinyl records in large quantities ever again in your local Best Buy anytime soon (if they ever had any to begin with). If CDs “take up too much valuable floor space,” well, records take up even more.
The CD’s eventual demise in 2012 or whenever, was there in the beginning in its creation – when media data files could be stored digitally. At least for the foreseeable future, digital files are the endgame. The most popular format – MP3s – are easy to stream, download, they don’t take up space (except on your computer or MP3 player) and are, of course, extremely portable, and the MP3 players are just cool technology. We’ve been heading toward all-digital media for a long time; we’re there.
Behind all of this is economics. The major record companies have been losing money on CD sales since Napster went online back in 1999 (which is one big reason the major labels put so much effort into shutting Napster and other file-sharing services down) so it makes sense. MP3s and other digital file formats have been with us now for 12 years and have been gaining more acceptance and sales with each year. (I think the last time I bought a commercially recorded CD was AC/DC’s “Back in Black” a couple of years ago, but only because it wasn’t – and still isn’t – on iTunes.)
As a personal example, on a much smaller scale, people were asking me for CDs of the Nights on Venus debut album but as a fledgling record company with a very tight budget, I had to decide on doing a digital download only release simply because I couldn’t afford the CD album duplication or the cost of carrying inventory that might not sell. It’s interesting because ever since the aborted Cathartic Tourists album project (1991 – I ran out of money halfway through), I had always assumed that any music album release I did would be on CD.
In the future, there may be a CD release of both the debut album and subsequent ones – both ReverbNation and CD Baby allow for “on-demand” CD manufacturing… which may be what the record companies will do for certain artists.
It’s also been interesting to watch all of the changes that have happened since the Internet and MP3s appeared on the scene. For one thing, popular music is much more democratic, not the exclusive province of only those that an A&R staff at a record company deemed profitable. On ReverbNation alone, you can – if you have the time and inclination – browse through more than 1.7 million artists, most of them independent. The Internet has provided indie artists a way to get our music ‘out there’ where it can be heard.
Also, the way we listen to and purchase music via digital download is no longer so much album-oriented. Complete albums are still recorded of course, but consumers are free to cherry-pick just the songs they want to buy rather than purchase the entire album. In a way, it seems like we’ve almost come full circle back to the 45 rpm singles of the 1950’s and 60’s.
A couple of friends of mine have said there’s no way they will buy an MP3 player – the download doesn’t feel like an album to them and they still lament the day that vinyl passed into CDs – but I think that’s a little short-sighted. Digital files are here to stay, life is change, and eventually you just embrace it and roll with it. But, having said that, I also know they have a point. You can purchase an MP3 file or album but it’s not something you can hold in your hands. It doesn’t seem tangible, like a record album or a CD. Even though you get the music, it seems like you get less of an experience, which is really what people want as much as the music.
I think, as far as that goes, the vinyl record album was probably the best format. You got the album artwork, sometimes a poster, in addition to the music on the record. It was a more complete experience. There was nothing like tearing off the plastic shrink-wrap packaging from a new album, putting the record on the ol’ turntable, and opening up the album – if it had artwork on the inside – and looking at all the pictures or reading the lyrics while the music played (I’m thinking here specifically of Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” and Todd Rundgren’s “A Wizard A True Star”). You also got all the pops, scratches, and sometimes skips from the record pressing (as nature intended) or from a needle past its prime on your turntable.
CDs eliminated those pops and if you took care of the discs they didn’t skip either (usually), but of course they were smaller, the packaging and artwork were smaller even if you got a booklet and… well, it just wasn’t quite the same. We lost a lot in the changeover. Also, the prices for the new format were generally higher for something smaller – presumably a trade-off for a more “permanent” medium without the pops, hisses, and scratches. But we adapted and CDs became more or less universal.
Perhaps in the future, maybe the next 6-7 years or so, 3D holographic artwork, images and video can be integrated with digital music files so you can get more of that album experience that you once got with record albums. I’m not talking about images on a TV or monitor but some free-standing holographic representation or video/concert footage in 3D right there in your living room that you can walk through, playing in sync with the music. Just a thought… (maybe the fine folks at Apple are already working on this).
Personally, I hope the next generation of standalone digital music players will play .WAV files. They do take up a lot more space than MP3s but I notice a big difference in the sound between the two (funny I haven’t mentioned sound quality up until now) and the .WAV files invariably sound better than the compressed (and normally dithered) MP3s.
At this point, I’m just hoping that if the recorded CD format does go away, I can still get blank CDs locally – as opposed to ordering them online or having to swoop in at the last minute and bid for them on eBay – as they’re currently an integral part of my mixing process. Already those blank CDs take up less shelf space at the aforementioned Best Buy than they used to.
Finally, it will be interesting to see where the record companies will go from here and what the next thing will be because as much money as they’ve made from cultivating and promoting multi-platinum artists, a significant chunk of the revenue for the record companies has come from re-selling us, the consumers, the same music over and over again in all the different formats, from the vinyl record, through cassette tapes, the exotic reel-to-reel tape, 8-track tapes (that one’s for you David), CDs, and now MP3s. For now, digital music files are the ‘final’ format, where we’ve been heading all along, but don’t throw out those CD players… or your turntables.
New music is coming soon, as always…