What’s the future of compact discs?

Since their debut in 1982 (though they first went on sale in the United States in 1983), compact discs became the dominant format for music by the 1990s. CDs’ convenience and digital audio nature overcame their expensiveness, as CDs cost more than vinyl records and cassette tapes.

Still, CD sales have been falling for years, starting with the debut of the iPod (and iTunes/other online music stores) in the early 2000s. Below’s an infographic outlining CD sales to date.

Infographic
Infographic by Statista (CC BY-ND)

As the infographic shows, CD sales peaked in 2000, then rapidly declined in the 00s and 10s. Today, they sell at their lowest point since 1987.

Why compact discs’ popularity is dying

While CDs are technologically superior to MP3s/streaming audio in audio quality, CDs are both more expensive and less convenient to use. Compared to CDs, MP3s and streaming audio are the equivalent of cassettes: cheaper and more convenient. Also, most non-audiophiles consider the sound quality of MP3s as “good enough,” with 320 kbps now a popular MP3 standard. (Other audio formats, such as AAC, are also popular/offer similar quality.)

Meanwhile, audiophiles now have some digital options, such as lossless tracks through services like Tidal. Audiophiles can also still buy and rip CDs to lossless formats like FLAC or Apple Lossless.

CDs also never really dropped in price. As webcomic The Oatmeal wrote, the turn of the millennium saw CDs costing upwards of $15-$20 each, with singles barely released for songs. The music industry assumed you’d just buy the album for only the one or two songs you really wanted. One reason iTunes (and the MP3) undermined CD sales was the ability to buy only the tracks one wanted for only a dollar each. Other online stores, like Amazon, followed suit. Of course, piracy (Napster, etc.) also played some role in MP3s’ initial popularity.

Finally, the rise of digital streaming in the 2010s started to eclipse both CD and digital track sales. Why pay $10 for a single CD (or digital album) when that gets you access to millions of songs from Spotify for a month?

Compact discs’ future

Google Play Music on smartphone
Photo by FirmBee (Pixabay / CC0)

Ultimately, price and convenience combined to kill CD sales. Streaming music revenues eclipsed CD sales back in 2014. By 2016, streaming became the US music industry’s dominant form of revenue. 2016 was also when digital media sales first eclipsed physical media sales worldwide.

Best Buy recently announced they’ll stop selling CDs in stores by this summer, which seems like a pretty big sign of things to come.

As for CDs’ future, I’m not sure if they’ll completely vanish like vinyl (until recently) did. But given most computers don’t include built-in CD/DVD drives anymore, it doesn’t sound promising.

At this point, I assume the future for compact discs will largely be limited to:

  • Audiophiles who want CD quality audio and/or the ability to rip to lossless digital formats on their own.
  • Users who need to burn data to CD-Rs for various reasons.
  • Those looking for something obscure or older that isn’t available through iTunes, Amazon, etc.
  • People who don’t use the internet often or at all. This group’s likely either an aging demographic or can’t afford internet access at home.

Unlike vinyl, I’m not sure how much nostalgic appeal CDs will have in the future. Vinyl albums offer large album cover art and nicer liner notes. Meanwhile, CDs’ appeal and selling point is largely its technological qualities (digital quality sound), with only perfunctory packaging aspects. There might be nostalgia for burned mix CDs (akin to mix cassette tapes), but even playlists replicate much of those.

Do you still buy CDs? How are you obtaining music nowadays?

Sign up to receive new blog posts by email.

Leave a Comment