Compact disc

The era of the compact disc could finally enter its phase of palliative care


Thirty-five years after the format was billed as one of the greatest audio advancements since the birth of recorded music – and unwittingly unleashed digitized music in nature – the once-indestructible compact disc received yet another existential wound. in early 2018 after a report that two big box retailers were re-evaluating their approach to physical CD sales.

The electronics store Best Buy will stop carrying most CDs in its stores, and Target is trying to negotiate with distributors to try to switch to a consignment model, according to music industry sources who have refused to sell. express for fear of jeopardizing business relations. . The news was first reported by Billboard.

The change further confirms the format’s dizzying drop: since the plastic peak in 2001, CD sales have fallen 88%, from 712 million units to 85.4 million in 2017, according to Nielsen Music.

With occasional music fans using records in favor of streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music, Best Buy is ceding the market to online retailers including Amazon and independent mainstays like Amoeba Music.

CDs are on the shelves of Amoeba Music in Los Angeles on September 4, 2003.

(Matt Sayles / AP Photo)

Which begs the question: as with 78rpm records and 8-track cassettes before them, does the news advance the compact disc‘s march towards redundancy? Is the CD on the way to becoming a niche product like the cassette?

Best Buy will reduce its CD selection over the next four to six months and at some point stop selling CDs through its online store, according to a label distribution seller who serves music channels.

After eliminating its racks, the store will likely sell discounted discs the same way DVDs do. (Best Buy did not respond to requests for comment.)

Independent retailers, meanwhile, found that there remained a constant appetite for CDs. New CD sales have been declining for a long time, but the used market is on the rise. In 2017, for example, CD sales in the secondary Discogs market jumped 28% from 2016. That’s a larger increase than vinyl, which grew 19%.

With streaming services like the present, the news comes as no shock to the music industry system. In 2017, chain stores such as Best Buy accounted for just 11% of CD sales, according to Nielsen Music.

By comparison, in 2004 this same retail sector, which then also included Borders, Circuit City and other now-closed sellers, accounted for 48.5% of CD sales. Their dominance has often been cited as the main reason independent outlets and mid-level retailers such as Tower Records suffered.

“I think Best Buy is unfortunately figuring out why these retailers are no longer in business,” said David Bakula, analyst for Nielsen Music. “They’re trying to be smarter to move into the future, and that future is access to entertainment, not necessarily the permanent storage of entertainment.”

For its part, Target previously signaled its ambivalence towards the format in the fall, when it reduced CD rack space to just four feet wide, a far cry from the glory days when music occupied multiple aisles.

Yet every week, thousands of records still pass through Amoeba Music in Hollywood. Store co-owner Jim Henderson looked puzzled over Best Buy’s disinterest. He never saw it as a music retailer in the first place.

But there could still be some fallout. For him, the news reinforces a mistaken perception that record stores and physical formats are an endangered species.

“I don’t know if you can take that signifier alone as symbolic of how everyone is going to react to the viability of the format,” Henderson said. “The world is so much more complex than it used to be. With people’s buying habits, individuality really rings more than in previous generations.

Teens, for example, don’t need to buy vinyl records when they’re more easily accessible through Spotify, but have embraced the tangibility of the analog format.

When it was launched, the CD was marketed as a durable and rugged replacement for what the music industry called long-lived albums and unstable cassettes.

Behind the marketing twist, the format was seen as the savior of struggling record companies whose main material expense at the time, vinyl, fluctuated with the price of oil. The compact disc promised the big labels higher and more predictable profit margins, which is one of the reasons the digital reproduction system enjoyed the full support of the industry.

“The system is real, it works, and the consumer won’t have to worry about something six months from now making it obsolete,” Emiel Petrone, vice president of marketing for PolyGram Records, told The Times in March 1983.

He was not wrong; it took about 15 years until Napster crushed the party. Billions of records have changed hands in the meantime, although the argument of the format’s superiority over LP remains a hotly debated topic among audiophiles.

It may be the end of an era for Best Buy, but that doesn’t mean people are done with the format in general.

Owner of permanent files Lance Berresi

Permanent Records’ two vinyl locations in Los Angeles always have a small selection of used CDs, says owner Lance Berresi. When he opened Permanent’s first store in Chicago in 2006, 80% of his business was used CDs. Now, says Berresi, it’s less than 5% – but people are still buying them.

“It might be the end of an era for Best Buy, but that doesn’t mean people are done with the format in general,” he says. “It just means that it’s not profitable enough for them to claim their square footage.”

Lots of cars still have record players, Berresi adds, and despite Apple Music’s best efforts, he says, not everyone is in a rush to upgrade.

When asked about the trends at Amoeba’s three locations in California, Henderson conceded that CD sales continued to gradually decline, while vinyl sales have maintained their striking increase over the past decade. He added that records still represent a third of Amoeba’s business and that the slowdown has eased in recent years, after a period when first-generation streaming services initially slashed downloads and physical sales.

As when CDs supplanted LPs from the late 1980s, the perception among fans that a new future has arrived caused a mass exodus. It is currently a buyer’s market for used CDs, with independent stores only paying a dollar or two for used stock.

There might be a benefit for mom-and-pop stores, explains Bakula of Nielsen Music: “The independent stores that benefited from the LP boom, when you couldn’t get them anywhere else, maybe they benefit. also CDs. “

Trends raise another question. How much longer will it make financial sense for artists and labels to make CDs?

While the future of the industry may be in streaming, the compact disc still has a boost, says Bruce Resnikoff, president and CEO of UMe, the global catalog business of Universal Music Group.

Make no mistake, streaming will continue to grow and become even more central to how fans discover and listen to music.

Bruce Resnikoff, President and CEO of UMe

“Make no mistake, streaming will continue to grow and become even more central to how fans discover and listen to music,” Resnikoff said in a statement. “At the same time, CDs and vinyls remain an important part of our business and will be around for a very long time.”

He added that many overseas markets are still quite in tune with CDs.

“Our industry is global and CDs remain an important way for people to buy music in some of the world’s biggest markets like Japan, Germany and France,” Resnikoff wrote. “As long as there are music fans who want CDs and vinyls, and there are a lot of those customers out there, we’ll make sure our music is available in those formats.”

Harout Hovsepyan, owner of the Hollywood Disc compact disc duplication company in Glendale, had not heard of Best Buy’s retirement, but said so few musicians had already deposited their work in the chain’s racks. that this would probably not affect his clientele, who normally order a few hundred at a time to sell at concerts.

“Now I have so many clients doing small prints. Small amounts, but they do a lot. It’s crazy, ”he said.

Gone, he explained, is the time when these same acts commanded 5,000 copies. They are now committing to 200-500 series. But also, Hovsepyan added, not so long ago, its customers trusted digital retailers to accurately pay them for downloads and streams.

“They never had any money,” he said, “so they came back and said, ‘Sorry. We want a hard copy and a sale. We personally want to give a hard copy to the customer as a gift, or sell it. This way we will be responsible and we will know how much we are winning, or we are losing.

Henderson of Amoeba said he could imagine a time when CDs would experience a popular resurgence, but he wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that the format would become as popular as vinyl, and he didn’t expect either. that a CD collector’s market rivals LPs.

Part of this is because of the sheer amount of used products floating around. Equally important, most compact discs lack the signifiers that create demand: various presses, unique packaging, and nifty sleeves – the unique markers that make vinyl records collectible.

The future of the format mainly faces a less objective hurdle, says Henderson. “At the end of the day, it’s a great product. It’s just that right now he’s in a bit of a rush and has a little identity crisis. “

That is, bragging about your immaculate and incredibly deep CD collection is not all the rage – yet.

To read this article in Spanish click here

For tips, records, snapshots and stories about Los Angeles’ music culture, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter and Instagram: @liledit. E-mail: [email protected]