What’s the future of compact discs?

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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 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?

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  1. If I want to listen to music, I want a three dimensional object with music on it. Streaming is fine. Why not keep the option of a compact disc? It’s as if suddenly books would disappear and only e-books were available. I shudder at that thought.

  2. I whole heartedly agree with Christine. The sound quality of a CD is also much better and having the option to continue adding to my music library with CDs is most important to me as a buying customer.

  3. I’ve had USB’s & External Hard Drive’s & smartphone’s all DIE on me or become CORRUPTED and just literally end up in landfill, at some point or another, taking my ENTIRE music collection with it….GONE in utter seconds! I don’t really want to rent music from ‘Spotify’ or put all my hope & faith into “the cloud” (which is actually just some server-farm in Silicon Valley that sits right in the middle of a huge earthquake zone!). Recently I dug out some old CD-R’s that I had burnt during the old ‘Napster’ days that I forgot I had, stuffed in a box in my garage where they had braved extreme cold winters and searing hot summers for nearly two decades. All of them played beautifully as if they hadn’t aged a day… what a durable media format! When the next ‘Solar Flare’ hits the earth and the electricity-grid shuts down for months on end and the Internet is no longer an option, I wonder how “cool & hip” streaming services & smartphones will really be?

  4. In the days of vinyl I was looking forward to CD’s with its lack of clicks and pops. I started buying CD’s before I got my player (a Sony CDP101 which was one of the first available and which I still have and use).
    I currently have 100’s of CD’s that I love and will never sell.
    But I’ve gone back to vinyl in a limited way. I have a beautiful, new ProJect Carbon turntable and am adding to my vinyl collection again with 180 gm re-issues. I still have every LP and 45 I ever owned over the last 50 years.
    Obviously my relationship with music is very complicated but I can tell you one simple fact. I will never accept degraded quality in my listening.
    Good bands and artists spend a lot of time, using higher and higher quality equipment to record their music and I will never accept listening to it at 320 kbps lossy MP3 quality or worse, streaming Spotify crap quality.
    I really wish kids would listen to high quality recordings (without the Bass turned up full) and take the time to appreciate what is possible in this day and age of technology.

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