AHalf a decade ago, I did the sensible thing: I boxed up the stacks of dust-covered CDs (most of them unheard for quite a while) that had followed me to various roommates. Over the next few years, I carried these boxes to another rented house and to a warehouse when I moved to another country. But I couldn’t really let go of CDs, even though Spotify had been my main source of music for at least 10 years. I don’t even own a fully functional CD player anymore.
I sometimes half-joke that CDs are due for a revival, largely to justify the above state of affairs. But that doesn’t seem to be beyond the realm of possibility, given the 20-year nostalgia cycles and revival waves of things in the 1990s and early 2000s; perhaps the CD could now be taken into the wreckage.
Cassettes and vinyl have been revived to varying degrees. The band’s resurgence seems like a staple of the music press, but it remains a constant, albeit minor, concern. The vinyl revival has been much more widespread (and widely documented).
When vinyl seemed dead in the water in the 1990s, many abandoned vast collections and let record players sink into obsolescence. But now the interest in vinyl crosses several types: serious crate-diggers looking for original pressings and obscure sounds; audiophiles and gearheads happy to drop cash on Klipsch speakers; the occasional buyer who likes to own a few records; the lifestyle collector tastefully associating a record with a bottle of natural wine. All of these elements have combined to create a strong and ongoing market for vinyl, as evidenced by the growing number of independent record stores in many cities. Demand has even started to outstrip supply, as sales in the UK last year were at their highest level in 30 years. Vinyl sales are now on track to overtake CD sales according to figures from the Entertainment Retailers Association.
That would suggest vital signs aren’t good for CDs, but buried in that report was a silver lining for the unloved record: the sales decline has slowed – well, OK, that’s not much, but it’s a start. And in the United States, CD sales rose last year for the first time in 17 years, although that was almost entirely due to Adele’s album. Pitchfork also reported more anecdotal hints of a slight CD revival, while Discogs, the leading online music resale marketplace, has made big leaps in the number of CDs sold over the past couple of years. years, with some younger fans also being drawn to the format.
All of this, of course, doesn’t equate to a full-scale comeback of anything; evidence of a revival for CDs may simply come in the form of comments wondering if the CDs are due to a revival. And yet, I found some comfort in returning to physical music formats during the Neil Young/Joni Mitchell setback with Joe Rogan and Spotify. Although the former were just two figures in a losing battle with a streaming giant, it hinted at the unspoken precariousness of streaming music: you might not be a fan of Neil Young, but what if your favorite artist argues with Spotify? What if Spotify was fighting with a record label? What if Spotify goes down or collapses? Admittedly, it now seems to fall into the “too big to fail” category, just like the majors were, until they weren’t. (God help us all if Apple Music is the answer.)
Music analyst Ted Gioia recently asked, “Is old music killing new music?” Most of the money made is in old songs, so all of the music industry’s energy is directed there, at the expense of new music, with various other factors compounding the problem. I’ll introduce another theory into the mix: often when I’m listening to a new artist, I remember an older artist – as is often the nature of music – at that moment I’m thinking: “Why don’t I just listen to the old band instead?” then I quickly find myself drifting away from the new to the comfort of the old without difficulty.
In earlier times, you probably didn’t have privileged and easy access to an artist’s entire output, but there might be a treasured record that you’ve become deeply engaged with. When I bought CDs, I focused on each album: it was less easy to click if you didn’t like the first two songs. I was listening to something repeatedly because I had spent money on the sucker. In the age of Spotify, my easily distracted brain is unlikely to stick to new music that doesn’t immediately appeal to me.
Streaming remains relentlessly dominant, but vinyl shows there are still gaps to fill. Last year, “elite bicoastal” duo How Long Gone, who do a semi-nod to culture podcast with a contrarian eye on being ahead of the curve, signed with independent label Jagjaguwar to release an album of sorts – a compilation of the label’s music interspersed with conversations from the duo. They only released it as a double CD. “It’s just a fun thing to do,” co-host Chris Black told The New York Times. “The tapes are corny. Vinyl is corny. CDs are cool.
I took that to mean that both cassettes and vinyls require a certain amount of seriousness – DIY sensibility cassettes, studied connoisseur vinyls – and both are overrated to boot, whereas CDs can have a certain casualness that please. Perhaps this then points to a future for CDs: an occasional tangible object for people who don’t want to try so hard. Maybe someone could start selling a cheap, sleek little CD player that connects to a Bluetooth speaker? Either that or I just need to admit defeat and finally get rid of these neglected boxes of musical relics.