📜 Feature The resurgence of CDs? Maybe. Maybe not.

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Some pundits in the music press have taken note (or even celebrated) the resurgence of the CD. In 2021, the number of new CDs sold increased over 2020.

However, is it really a resurgence when the industry had major titles released (Adele, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, ABBA) that sold in large numbers in all formats? Nope. Even if 2021 bumped up slightly, the number sold is still a small fraction of what CDs sold in their peak years. And the overall rise in numbers sold only increased by 400,000 units between 2020 and 2021. In fact, Adele sold 378,000 copies of her latest album on CD in its first week of release, which accounts for almost all of this alleged "resurgence." I don't see any mass market retailers reintroducing CDs into the stores.

Rolling Stone, cluelessly out of touch as always, bragged about a CD revival back in January, while more tempered enthusiasm came by way of an article in Pitchfork. Clash perhaps had the most jaded piece of all, acknowledging the increase but saying it was overstated, which is what I tend to believe.

Yet despite those figures for new CDs, Discogs also reported increasing sales of CDs through ther site, by a leap of 37% in 2020 and 8.8% in 2021. (I should also point out that in the weirdness that was 2020, Discogs reported vinyl units jumped 41%.) Discogs does have sellers who offer current, sealed new product, but most of those sales would go to the large retailers like Amazon who sell it at a lower price, often with free shipping.

What gives?

I believe the truth is somewhere in between. There are three directions that CD sales have split into.

First, for the mass market, who has moved primarily to streaming and downloads, the CD is pretty much a dead item. Those who only stream music are renting the music on a month-by-month basis, where downloaders are paying to support the artist. There are still some out there who own CD players and use them (evidenced by the small spike in CD sales for blockbuster titles in 2021) but by and large, the mainstream has moved on to the next popular format. The mass market is where CD lost its footing as a dominant format.

Second, for indie artists, CDs remain one of the best ways to get music to listeners cheaply--CDs are inexpensive to manufacturer. Many (or perhaps most) of them offer downloads, but many supporters of indie musicians and bands will purchase the physical CD to support the artist. The CDs are also great giveaways at live gigs--what better souvenir than to take home an artist's latest recording?

Third, the largest market I see for CDs is hinted at through the sales numbers offered by Discogs--the collector market. In 2020, the world shut down. A CD or LP is a cheap form of entertainment that can be enjoyed in our own homes. Even more importantly, bargain hunters are finding dirt cheap CDs at thrift stores, garage sales, even online in lots on auction sites like eBay--it is a fast and inexpensive way to either build a collection or experiment with music they have never heard before, especially younger buyers who have little disposable income. (At my nearest used music store, for instance, they often sell CDs in their sidewalk sale for 25 or 50 cents each. $5 would buy them maybe 10-20 new CDs to listen to.)

There are also collectors who (like many of us here at A&M Corner) are looking for rarer albums whether they are on CD or vinyl and, with stay-at-home orders in place, we had more time to hunt down and enjoy playing long sought after items for our collections. That form of collecting will always exist, just as it has for LPs for several decades now, and it will remain strong because just like with LPs, there are CDs that were available only in limited runs, some even rarer since they were released in countries other than our own.

To sum it up, our CDs are just like our records--we bought them, we own them, and nobody is coming to take them away from us. What overall sales trends reflect about the mass market do not reflect what we already own, or what we place on our wishlists. Sure, future reissues might have to join our collections as downloads rather than as physical products, but that is progress, and the lower cost for the label (no physical product to manufacture, ship, promote, and stock inventory for) means that the potential for an increase in lesser-known releases will be made available to us in the future. This has been happening already for a while. But the collector market for music already released will always remain strong as long as CDs keep trading hands between buyers and sellers. Just as it has for any other physical format over time. CDs are just settling into their new normal as a format the masses have moved on from, leaving a thriving collector market behind where we get to enjoy the riches.

What was your most recent CD purchase? Are you into new releases, or more into reissues or used collectible titles? Let us know in the comments below.
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