Last week, Billboard dropped a two-part music retail bombshell. First, Target is reportedly looking to overhaul its financial arrangement with its music and video vendors. Basically, the shopping giant only wants to pay labels for what product stores actually sell, instead of buying inventory up front and returning unsold merchandise for credit. In an even bigger blow, the article also noted that Best Buy has apparently decided to stop selling CDs in its stores as of July 1.
The news brought on waves of nostalgia for consumers of a certain age. Back in the '90s, when the CD boom was in full effect and e-commerce had yet to become an industry force, Best Buy was a mecca for cheap albums. For kids with limited funds or who didn't have the ability to visit independent record shops, big-box stores offered a gateway to cool. (I vividly remember purchasing Elastica's self-titled debut at Best Buy.) Oddly enough, in recent years I've found that Best Buy is the only brick-and-mortar store in my area that stocked certain albums during release week ("Hesitant Alien," the solo album from My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, comes to mind).
Still, people who had shopped at Best Buy in recent years weren't exactly surprised at the move. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the CD section (and selection) in stores has been shrinking for years. This mirrors industry statistics. According to Billboard's deep dive into Nielsen's 2017 Year-End Music Report, there were 88.2 million CDs sold last year, a decrease of 20 percent from 2016. And although vinyl remained popular — sales rose nine percent, to 14.3 million — streaming dominated the year. On-demand audio and video streams increased a whopping 43 percent, to 618 billion. Total physical and digital album sales, meanwhile, decreased 17.7 percent, to 169.15 million.
Taken at face value, these statistics seem to indicate that the days of actually owning music physically or digitally as opposed to enjoying through a streaming service are numbered. However, these doom-and-gloom proclamations can feel like self-fulfilling prophecies. Discussions about how the CD is dying pop up on a regular basis in a way similar to how all those articles about rock 'n' roll's death remain popular. Indeed, many stories act as though CDs are already extinct. "If the majors don't play ball and give in to the new sale terms, it could considerably hasten the phase down of the CD format," Billboard said of Target's ultimatum, while a USA Today headline on the Best Buy move reads, "Music CDs fading fast as Best Buy may hit 'eject' button." It's hard not to think sometimes that people actually want CDs to die out.
Technology trends aren't helping this suspicion. Good luck finding a laptop with a built-in CD drive. Cars are also trending in that direction. For example, the 2018 Ford EcoSport doesn't have a CD player, only streaming capabilities. "Streaming is the fastest growing source of music and video content and particularly with younger consumers, who we've found time and time again prefer streaming and subscription services over traditional forms like CDs," Michael O'Brien, the SUV group marketing manager for Ford, told NPR in 2017.
Of course, the idea that technology and marketing affect how we listen to music is hardly new. Formats have cycled in and out of popularity with the introduction of cool accessories — the Walkman, boom boxes, the Discman, iPod. For its part, the compact disc's futuristic sheen was what originally bolstered its cachet in the '80s. Still, the CD market also came with its own sneaky pressure — namely, that music fans were encouraged to re-buy albums they already owned on LP or cassette, due to the supposedly better-quality sound.
When you don't have a machine to play CDs, it follows you would buy fewer CDs. But in contemporary times, it's not a stretch to wonder if companies are responding to consumer demand when they eliminate CD players, or is this another example of corporations shaping consumer habits and hastening the format's demise, for financial gain? After all, CD (or DVD) drives are still useful and needed for plenty of work purposes, and people now have to purchase them separately. In 2016, The Verge pointed out that Apple's controversial removal of its headphone jack on newer iPhones helped the company's bottom line. It's easy to see something similar happening here.
Compared to two decades ago, when CDs were at peak popularity, of course 2017's sales statistics look anemic. But the compact disc is still the most popular format for people purchasing records. The second-most-popular format, with 66.2 million units sold? Another one pundits love to say is dying, digital albums. And it's certainly not correct to say that all consumers are eschewing CDs. Luke Sardello, the co-owner of Dallas-based Josey Records, told the Dallas Observer that the store has expanded its used CD inventory, in large part because that slice of its business "has grown year over year the past two years."
"CDs are still our third best-selling category behind new and used LPs," he says. "There is still demand for CDs by music fans that prefer to have a physical copies of their favorite albums without making the jump back into vinyl. They still like seeing the artwork and reading the liner notes. CDs still tell a story that streaming can't do."
That used CDs are now cheaper than ever likely explains some of this popularity. But the format's convenience and stability is still unparalleled. Vinyl isn't exactly portable and, unless you're downloading music to a phone for offline listening, you're at the mercy of a solid internet connection if you want to rock out. Artist catalogs disappear and reappear from streaming services all the time. Those of some artists, such as Def Leppard, weren't even available until recently. Physical product also still offers more precise, correct information about album credits. Although Spotify recently started adding this info, Pitchfork points out how imperfect the endeavor has been so far.
Plus, operating under the premise that streaming is now everyone's default illustrates a big (and classist) presumption: that everyone can access or pay for streaming service subscriptions. Reliable and affordable broadband internet access, which is necessary to have steady access to streaming platforms, still isn't available in many rural areas. A January 2018 Rolling Stone feature on country rap (or "hick-hop") noted that artists in this genre still sell physical records. "This fan base of lower-class country folk haven't all evolved to the digital world," says one country rap artist, Big Smo. "We don't have new shit."
Although the CD market looks bleak now, it's likely this won't always be the case. The vinyl resurgence (and, more recently, the cassette micro-boom) illustrates that even formats left for dead can bounce back. Retro nostalgia is always in fashion; people love to fetishize the past, and what it represents. And it's not like buying (or not buying) CDs is an either-or proposition: My household still buys CDs in addition to new and used vinyl, and we also subscribe to a streaming service. Compact discs will still have their place in a music collection, as long as people give them a shot at survival.