For decades, a CD was something you could hold in your hand or carry with you in a semi-sleek binder that might move from your home to your car. Once you got past the surprisingly difficult shrink wrap, you proudly displayed your collection with the spines facing out. And when your favorite CD got scratched, it was the worst day ever.
"I know you just ripped the packaging off your CD/If you like me, you reading the credits right now," says Jay-Z on "Hova Song," the intro from his 1999 album Vol. 3 The Life and Times of S. Carter. The activities Jay-Z refers to may be foreign to most music fans in 2022.
To think that there was a period of time where artists routinely sold millions of albums on compact disc is almost unbelievable in 2022. Today, No. 1 album sales are generally the result of streams, only a small portion of physical sales accounting for hits.
Although CDs have primarily been replaced by all-you-can-consume music streaming services, something interesting happened in 2021: CD sales rose for the first time in almost two decades, driving over $580 million in revenue for the music industry. While that pales in comparison to the $12.3 billion earned from streaming, the figure is still significant.
"We've been pleasantly surprised to see there is still a CD customer at this store," says George Flanagan, who manages the popular New York City record store Rough Trade. “It's less than 10 percent of our business, but that's very much in line with the smaller selection we carry."
The music industry has its biggest stars to thank for last year's bump in CD sales. Notable releases by superstar artists such as BTS, Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo and Adele had passionate fans buying up CD versions of their new releases. Adele's 2021 album, 30, sold over 5 million copies worldwide in its first year — 880,000 of those sales were in the form of physical CDs.
But who is still buying CDs, spurring the format's first growth year since *NSYNC was still topping charts. The surprising answer is Gen Z — those born in the mid to late 1990s through early 2000s, when CD players were about to be rendered nearly obsolete with thedebut of Apple's iPod in October 2001. That same generation has been gobbling up new releases in the CD format, taking TikTok todisplay their collections proudly.
And CDs aren’t the only physical music format from the past that are sparking renewed interest. In 2021, vinyl record sales grew for the 15th consecutive year to $1 billion in revenue. Cassette sales had their highest sales numbers since 2003, selling 200,000 units, a 20 percent increase over 2020.
“What I've been struck with lately is that some younger customers seem to give the same reverence to CDs as they do with vinyl," notes Flanagan. "I think this stems from the fact that they've come of age in a world where music consumption is all digital, so any physical format potentially holds an equal level of mystique."
As younger generations rediscover compact discs, and sales of the format begin to generate notable revenue for the music industry, it begs the question: Can CDs make a real comeback?
A Love Affair With CDs
To answer this question, one must go back to what made CDs revolutionary in the first place. The compact disc was invented in 1979 and the first commercially released CD (Billy Joel's 52nd Street) was released in Japan on Oct. 1, 1982. Following the cassette tape era that debuted in the '60s and peaked in 1989, CDs brought significantly more convenience for the music consumer. CDs allowed listeners to skip directly to songs with ease, held more data, and allowed for additional creativity with customized artwork on the actual disk.
From the red lipstick kiss on Aerosmith’s Honkin’ on Bobo cover to the cartoon Vicodin pill on Eminem's groundbreaking debut, The Slim Shady LP, CDs became a canvas for artistic expression and allowed fans to delve into an entire body of work — which had arguably been missing since vinyl LPs went out of style.
Over 940 million CD units were shipped in the US in 2000 — an industry peak. That year's staggering sales numbers were a confluence of pop culture phenomenon, due in part to <em>NSYNC's No Strings Attached (which sold over 9 million units, highlighting the boy band craze) and Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP* (over 7 million units). MTV’s "Total Request Live" — a music video countdown show shot above New York City'’s Times Square — averaged 780,000 viewers per episode that year, and was a must-visit for the pop stars of the day to talk about their new releases, furthering album sales.
"The CD was a total boom for the music industry — people purchased 17,18, 19-track albums to listen to one or two songs repeatedly," says Brian Zisook, SVP Operations at music streaming service Audiomack. "[But] it wasn't ideal for the cash-strapped consumer."
At an average of $15 (or the equivalent of $25 today), the economics of purchasing an entire album on CD to hear a handful of songs was hard to justify in 2000. But the one thing the CD era offered, which is challenging in the streaming era, is tangible value.
There was something special about driving to the mall and going to your favorite record store, sometimes waiting excitedly in line for a hot new release on a Tuesday morning. Because of their relatively high cost, buying a CD was something special, and consumers had to be discriminatory with their album purchases, potentially giving them more sentimental value. Today, outlets like California's popular Amoeba Records carry significant new and used CD stock, while CDs remain the format of choice in Japan.
"CDs remain a core element of Amoeba's sales and identity, as our second most popular format behind only Vinyl LPs," Jim Henderson, co-owner of Amoeba Music, tells GRAMMY.com. "They travel well, and sound great, and the small booklets, though not as powerful or attractive as LP jacket liner notes and full scale artwork, are compelling, and easy to flip through and enjoy."
It's not just the physical attachment to the music that has been lost in the streaming era. In some ways, streaming has made the playlist more valuable than the music itself. Clicking like on a song provides significantly less emotional attachment for a consumer than buying and holding a CD, cassette or vinyl record. In the physical format era, fans invested in their favorite artists.
"I think because vinyl, CDs and cassettes are tangible products, die-hard fans will continue to buy them," says Navjosh Singh, GRAMMY member and Founder and Editor of HipHop-N-More.com. "If not to play, then more like a collectible item."
The Uphill Battle For The CD Comeback
But challenges remain for the CD format to have a proper regeneration, including the fact that CD players are more difficult than ever to find.
A lack of new CD players on the market may stall the format's return, notes Zisook. "They have been removed from laptop computers and cars. In particular, I don't see record labels believing the juice is worth the squeeze," he continues. "Limited manufacturing is much more expensive and would likely only be a discussion among the highest-earning acts on a roster."
Even for artists from the golden era of CD sales, a return to the format's glory days seems unlikely. Buckshot, a legendary rap artist known for fronting groups like Black Moon and Boot Camp Clik, doesn't see a proper comeback as tech evolves.
"CDs had their moment," Buckshot tells GRAMMY.com. "Due to tech, we advance every two years. Somewhere a kid is thinking of new tech to give us a better user experience with music. Mp3s killed CDs, streaming killed the mp3, and now the blockchain will and is killing streaming due to ownership."
The impacts of blockchain and NFTs on the music industry remain to be seen, but one thing that can't be disputed is the convenience of streaming. Who can forget needing to carry CD booklets with you or in your car? Or the pain you felt when you lent your disc to a sibling who scratched it, rendering the album unplayable? Or how about losing your CD booklet and a large portion of your collection? Streaming makes listening to music seamless and easy. And in a world where people are already stretched for time, that's tough to beat.
"It's tough to add value to a CD because ultimately, it's a lot of effort to put it to use," says Singh. "Versus streaming which you can have ready anytime, anywhere without other things to carry and worry about. It's millions of songs in your palm. "
Amoeba's Henderson remains hopeful that CDs will become embraced by the masses once again. "I can envision a time where the CD market rebounds to former glory and the merits of the format are once again widely celebrated," he continues. "Artists like Tyler, The Creator and Frank Ocean have released CDs long before or in lieu of vinyl, examples of contemporary powerhouses helping keep CDs relevant."
It seems unlikely that music will return to the days of trips to the mall for the latest CD releases and record store listening booths, but 2021 sales data shows us that music fans still hunger for an emotional and physical attachment to their favorite music and artists. Once the most widely consumed physical music artifact, CDs have returned to being something special, cherished and celebrated amongst the most passionate music fans.
"The one thing they offered was the ability to play music without a need for the internet," says Buckshot. "It's never bad to keep a stash because you never know."
Long live the disc, man.
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