Rolling Stone has declared CDs dead. But are they, and could they ever make a comeback?
There is an entire generation growing up that has never bought a single. If you’re older, that might take a while to sink in. Singles have been a staple of the music industry since the very beginning. First, they were ‘45s lining the New Release shelves of record stores. Then they were CDs lining Woolworths’ checkout counters. Now, almost like Woolworths itself, they barely exist.
Artists still release singles, sure. But they come out as tracks available for digital streaming. Often, they are eventually joined by the rest of the proceeding album to maximise streaming numbers, leaving trace evidence that the single ever came out at all.
Releasing a single song, no matter the format, will always be called a ‘single’. But if people don’t need to pick them up in stores anymore, there’s really no need for single CDs to exist. So, with a few exceptions, they don’t.
It’s still relatively easy, though, to find albums on CD. Which makes Rolling Stone magazine’s recent proclamation that CDs are dead controversial. Surely there’s life in them yet, or are the albums that are stocked in the non-DVD sections of the country’s remaining HMVs simply corpses?
Rolling Stone’s argument is actually quite simple. Vinyl has overtaken CD as the physical format of choice. CDs’ days are numbered. As vinyl connoisseur Jack White told the magazine, “I definitely believe the next decade is going to be streaming plus vinyl. Streaming in the car and kitchen, vinyl in the living room and the den. Those will be the two formats.”
Indeed if physical sales continue at their current trajectory, that does appear to be the case. But that doesn’t have to be the end of it.
How CDs could have a renaissance
Let’s not forget that vinyl is nothing new. It goes without saying, but vinyl as a format is old. It’s older than CDs, cassettes and streaming combined. Its current popularity is the end result of what was seen as a fad revival. The fad had legs, and vinyl records are once again the king of physical music. Even though they remained dormant for many decades. Most music fans actually sold all their vinyl records, or even donated them to charity, in order to replace their music collections with CD equivalents. This was completely unanticipated. So, too, is the return of the CD.
It’s difficult to see how CDs could come back though. Here’s how records did it. Cassette tapes and CDs took over because they were more compact — they’re called compact discs for a reason. You could store more of them in less space. You could bring them on the go in a walkman. You could play them in your car instead of the radio. They took off while vinyl records gathered dust. And gathering dust is another one of their issues. While records could easily become dirty or damaged, rendering them unplayable or distorted, CDs were much more robust.
CDs went out of style for almost all the same reasons vinyl did. A new format came along that beat them at their own game. Want your music to be portable? Thousands of digital songs can fit on one hard drive. Even more fit on the cloud. Want your music to be robust? It’s impossible to break a streaming file (from the user end, anyway). And now you can get Spotify in your car, there’s no need to fill up the glovebox with CDs.
CDs may have won the convenience battle against vinyl, but they were never as satisfying to own. Their plastic cases were easily broken, they were too small for any album art to be striking or beautiful, and they were easily lost or misidentified. People who grew up with vinyl recall just staring at a record’s album art for hours while they listened to it again and again.
So once CDs’ convenience became irrelevant, there was a clear gap in the market for vinyl to return. What would have to happen for a similar gap to open for CDs?
Perhaps something would have to go wrong with streaming. Perhaps the platforms become too greedy. Artists get fed up with receiving so little in royalties and withhold their music. This would mean anyone who wanted to listen to music on the go would reconsider CDs as an option.
This might be the only way CDs could make a comeback, and with streaming only growing in popularity, it’s an unlikely one at that. But perhaps there is another way. Part of the reason so many dismissed the vinyl revival at first is that they saw it as a ‘retro’ fascination. Something that hipsters had started to bring back the ‘golden age of music’ — ie. before they were born. With vinyl now in Tesco’s, it’s no longer hip. Those who buy records do it because they like them, not because it’s fashionable. Once CDs leave supermarket shelves, a similar nostalgia appeal may arise. This won’t lead to a sustained comeback, but it could give them a new lease of life. Perhaps we’ll see more CD singles at the checkouts after all.