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Forty years after their launch, compact discs remain cheaper and more sonically reliable than vinyl.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger
Everyone knows about the vinyl revival. In 2021 UK vinyl record sales reached 5.3 million, according to British Phonographic Industry (BPI) figures, the highest in more than three decades, marking the format’s 14th year of consecutive growth. Streaming still dominates music consumption, accounting for 83 per cent of all music listened to in the UK last year. But the resurgence of the LP – a format launched in 1948 – shows that not everyone is won over by streaming. Many music fans still crave a material aspect to their listening experience.
Yet the vinyl industry is in crisis. In September 2021 I reported on the huge delays at pressing plants, caused by an increase in demand that the limited number of manufacturing facilities just cannot match. The pandemic, Brexit, and now the war in Ukraine, have forced the prices of raw materials to rise, leaving vinyl production impossible for many smaller artists and labels – and unaffordable for fans browsing records whose prices have now inflated.
“It’s just so hard, everything keeps getting pushed back all the time,” said Nigel House, the co-owner of Rough Trade, describing the constantly changing schedules his team has to manage. “Though I think that is going to ease next year.”
There is, however, another format ripe for a comeback. November 2022 marks 40 years since CDs first appeared on the market. At 25 years old, I am an unlikely compact disc devotee. “How old are you?” House asked, when I phoned him up to discuss the current state of CDs and admitted to my passion for the format. I answered. “Are you? Blimey. That’s interesting. I’m 64 and I mean, I like CDs. I like the price of them. I like the convenience of them. But it’s really mostly people my age who like buying them!”
When I first became interested in music in the mid-Noughties, the CD was the default format. My parents gave me ABBA Gold and Fatboy Slim’s The Greatest Hits as birthday presents. Soon I was spending my pocket money on Lily Allen singles, and albums by Sandi Thom and Amy MacDonald. Aged 11, I was given my first iPod – a bright orange Nano – on to which I religiously downloaded music from my growing CD collection. I would sometimes buy tracks from iTunes, but nothing compared with browsing the racks of HMV and bringing home a CD whose lyric booklet I could study until I knew every word.
Had I been older and let loose for longer periods on my family’s PC, I can only imagine the fun I might have had on Napster, the short-lived file-sharing service credited with changing listening habits forever. But it was the CD that caught me. As my peers migrated to downloads, then to Spotify, and some more recently to Apple Music or Deezer, I have stayed committed to the CD. I will always enjoy browsing in high-street record shops, and as I’ve grown wiser to the economic disparity of the music industry, my insistence on financially supporting my favourite artists has only increased.
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While a single Spotify stream is valued at approximately $0.004, a figure that an artist might see a share of if they have paid off their debts to their label, buying a hard copy of an album is a monetary expression of my belief in an artist. CDs remain less than half the price of LPs – this week I bought the new Orielles album on CD for £10.99; on vinyl it would have cost £25.99 – and are more easily transferred to a digital music library. Compared with vinyl, CDs are more sonically reliable and easier to lug between rented flats – and they still satisfy the need for a physical collection. So when will the compact disc get its great revival?
ABBA’s The Visitors, originally released in 1981, was the first album to be produced on CD. It was manufactured at a Philips factory in Langenhagen, near Hanover, Germany, on 17 August 1982 in a project co-developed by Philips and Sony. The first CDs and CD players appeared on the market in Japan in November, followed in the US and Europe in March 1983.
Together, Philips and Sony partnered to position a digital audio disc as a new standard for the music industry. Engineers originally hoped that the disc would hold one hour of audio. (The 12-inch vinyl record, played at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, holds 22 minutes per side.) That was later extended to accommodate a complete performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which typically lasts around 70 minutes. The compact disc – 12 centimetres in diameter and with a capacity of 74 minutes, 33 seconds – was born.
CD sales started to take off in 1983, and in 1985 Dire Straits’ fifth album Brothers in Arms became the first album to sell more than a million copies in the format, surpassing vinyl sales. In the music industry’s boom time of the 1990s, the CD reigned supreme. More than 1 billion units were sold in 1992, and 2 billion in 1996, peaking at 2.455 billion in 2000. For contemporary listeners of the era’s biggest albums – Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill, Oasis’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, Radiohead’s Kid A – the CD format is inextricable from the music itself.
“If you go by what you read in the newspapers, CDs are dead and nobody buys them,” said Nigel House of Rough Trade. “But of course people do buy them, and people do like them.”
In the UK the CD has been in decline since 2000. It remains that way – but only just. According to data from the Digital Entertainment and Retail Association, in 2021 CD album sales were down 3.9 per cent from the previous year, amounting to just over £150m, or a 9 per cent share of total music sales. While it is still a decrease, in context this represents something of a recovery: in 2020 CD sales declined by 28 per cent. What’s more, CDs still sell more than vinyl records: more than 14 million CDs to 5.3 million vinyl LPs in 2021, according to the BPI.
In the United States, however, the format seems to be in far ruder health, with CD sales increasing in 2021 for the first time in 17 years. Adele’s 30 was the highest-selling album in both countries, selling 898,000 copies on CD in the US and 409,406 in the UK.
Vinyl still reigns at Rough Trade, where House said CDs account for just 20 per cent of sales by volume – across shops online and in east and west London, Nottingham and Bristol. He has noticed CD sales increasing, but puts that down to in-store gigs, where fans must buy either a CD or vinyl copy of the artist’s latest album to gain entry. Lots of people will choose the CD option given that it’s so much cheaper, but won’t bother to pick it up. After a series of recent in-store events with Easy Life, an indie-pop group with a young fanbase, he noticed some attendees had not collected their paid-for CDs from the shop. “I always think, well, that must be people who don’t have CD players. With computers not having drives anymore, cars not having CD players, lots of young people don’t have players now.”
CDs are even less popular at Drift Records in Totnes, Devon, accounting for 8 per cent of sales, compared with 88 per cent on vinyl (the other 4 per cent is artist merchandise). But the CD market is safe, said Rupert Morrison, a co-owner of the shop. “It has been reliable and steady for a long period of time. I don’t see it going anywhere.” He compared vinyl buyers – who are “quite susceptible to the novelty releases or the very limited, fetish end of collectors’ items” – to CD fans, who are “just so clearly ardent music fans. I think that’s quite a rush, really”.
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Sound quality is important for customers of Burning Shed, an independent record label that hosts official stores for artists and labels including Robert Fripp, Jethro Tull and All Saints Records (which has put out music by Brian Eno and John Cale). “We have a lot of hi-fi buffs who buy from us,” said Tim Bowness, the store’s cofounder and one half of the art-pop duo No-Man. “They care about how they listen to music and the sound of their music. Vinyl is fantastic, but it is more variable.” Analogue fans often praise the “warmth” of the sound of vinyl, but for those listening for accuracy to the master recording, the digital nature of a CD offers consistency across many discs.
CDs have dominated at Burning Shed since 2001, when the label launched: in 2021, they accounted for 62.5 per cent of total purchases. “I would say that over the years it has plateaued rather than fallen,” Bowness said. “We’ve seen ten to possibly 15-fold increases in sales of vinyl. It is true: the vinyl resurgence was genuine. But we didn’t see a fall in sales of CDs.”
“People are looking for substance, value, connection,” he added – and vinyl, with its blown-up artwork, tactile packaging and ritualistic playing experience is the obvious antithesis to streaming. But for the average consumer, CDs seem to have got lost somewhere in the middle, offering neither the ease of a streaming platform, nor the physical heft of a 12-inch slab of vinyl.
Certain genres and styles sell particularly well on CD. Alongside the left-field rock and pop that Burning Shed specialises in, Bowness notes that ambient, electronic and classical artists who produce experimental, longer pieces of work often prefer to release on CD because of the practicality of the format. On vinyl, such a work might require “a triple album or a big double album, and this is very costly. The CD is still a cost-effective way to work, and artists feel it projects their music in the best possible way sonically.”
The week I spoke to House at Rough Trade, the Arctic Monkeys and Dry Cleaning were due to release new albums, both of which would do well on CD, he said. Certain back catalogue releases are particularly popular on the format, such as a newly mixed reissue of the Beatles’ Revolver, out on 28 October. “We’ve done really well on those.” Other “heritage acts”, such as country artists, and bands like the Rolling Stones, continue to perform well on CD, as well as soul compilations. “Personally I love the reggae compilations on a label called Doctor Bird, by Cherry Red.”
As the priorities of listeners and labels evolve, so do prices. For back catalogue releases, shops are dependent on labels maintaining fair costs. House said that Sony has recently increased its prices of back catalogue CDs, meaning that to make a profit, Rough Trade needs to sell a classic album such as Lou Reed’s Transformer (1972) for £15. “Nobody’s going to pay £15 for that! I guess a lot of the major labels would be quite happy if there weren’t physical products, because streaming is so much easier to do. They make so much money from it.”
But it is physical products that are crucial for record shops. Yet, as well as having to put up with ongoing delays with vinyl production – CDs take just four-to-six weeks, Bowness said – vinyl records are incredibly fragile and prone to breakages.
“It’s the bane of our life when a box turns up and it’s been kicked about en route,” said Morrison at Drift Records. “We have to return the stock and there isn’t really anything anyone can do about it. I have to pay for shipping to have it sent back to the distributor, then the distributors pretty much just throw it in the bin. It’s wasteful and depressing.” The hardy CD is nowhere near so susceptible to damage – and, Morrison added, “all components of the CD – from the disc through to the case, the liners, everything besides the shrink-wrap – is very recyclable”.
Recently, House has noticed that Rough Trade customers are “more wary of taking punts on things”. He has watched them grow “more conservative in their buying, which is understandable” given the present cost-of-living crisis. Might music fans who are still dedicated to the physical album, but wary of splashing out quite so much, migrate from the LP to the CD?
Forty years on from the format’s appearance on the market, Bowness isn’t ruling it out. “It’s possible. I never thought that cassettes would come back, but they are definitely having a moment in the sun. I don’t see why the CD can’t do the same, given that it’s an infinitely better format.”
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