Net Results: Death of the CD?
In last week's Part Two of this series, we looked at the growth and volatile future of Internet radio, including the rise of podcasting. Today, in Part Three, the final part of this series, we examine a question many are asking: Does all this mean the death of the CD?
I have buyer's remorse. I only spent five dollars, but I still feel guilty.
I recently bought a "digital album"—a live EP, exclusively on iTunes, and I did get six songs for my five bucks, a pretty good deal. Trouble is, I've got nothing to show for it. They're on my iPod, and my computer, and I could burn them onto one of those insipid blank CD-R discs which I would probably forget to label, but I can't get over a very basic deficiency: I'll never be able to pull out the booklet, ponder the lyrics, read the liner notes, and round out my music experience.
I miss the tangible things.
In July, a small story in TheNew York Times included this not-so-surprising headline: "Digital Purchases Rise as Album Sales Fall." In the first half of 2007, almost 230 million albums were sold in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That seems like a large number, but it's down 15 percent from last year, and is dwarfed by the sales of digital tracks (single songs) during the same period: 417 million.
So now, in a day when more people are downloading individual songs rather than buying whole albums, a big question looms: Will music stores soon be extinct, because we're soon coming to a day when music only exists online?
Phrased another way: Does this mean the death of the CD?
Kevin Peterson, Christian Editor for Radio and Records, thinks so: "Just like vinyl records, 8-track tapes and cassettes, I'm sure the day will come when CD's will no longer be pressed."
The London Sunday Telegraph even predicts when it'll happen: "The rise of downloads could render the compact disc dead as a mass-market music format by 2020."
CDs: We're Not Dead Yet!
Compact discs really only have themselves to blame. They marked a change from the analog signal that had long been recorded on vinyl or tape, to the digital signal that may have found its beginnings on CDs, but is now less and less media-specific. If one can listen to music through the computer, the cellphone, or the mp3 player, at home, work, the car, well, essentially anywhere, why bother with CDs?
Probably because they'll be around at least a while, says Peterson: "There are still people that are just now upgrading from their cassette deck to a CD player."
Jim Schunemann, Music Editor for Christianbook.com, concurs. "I don't think CDs are going the way of the dinosaur just yet. With the relative ubiquity of CD burners and car CD players, and low cost of blank CDs, I think the CD's disappearance will be slow."
Still, Schunemann notes that digital is the leading format, and that the single may now be king. "I think a lot of this came about because the consumer got tired of spending $16 on a CD that ended up having only 2 or 3 good songs, sometimes less. The matter revolves around convenience and choice. It's a lot easier to just hit up the iTunes store, where you can listen to each song and decide if you want it. [If an] album only has two good songs, those are the ones you'd buy."
The rise of the single is nothing new. On vinyl, 45s once dominated LPs, and CD singles remained healthy in Europe even as Americans became enamored with full-length CDs.
Nonetheless, the accepted format for artists for decades has been to prepare enough songs for a complete album. This approach has meant that listeners occasionally suffer through "filler" songs, but it has also permitted the unreleased gem to reach people in a personal way. The casual fan who downloads only "Awesome God" from the 1988 Rich Mullins album Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth would tragically miss the tempered praise of "Home." In addition, the concept album (Sgt. Pepper's, anyone?) certainly relies on a complete album structure.