Recent figures show that digital music sales have overtaken physical ones for the first time. Some might be surprised that it didn’t happen years ago, or that physical sales still exist. We’re constantly told that the CD is dead, physical formats are dead, the future is digital. And yet the CD persists. The record stores (another thing that continues to exist despite declarations of its death) are stocked with new CDs. The programmers on campus radio (again, still exists) prefer CDs to the trauma of fishing through the sea of harder-to-manage-or-archive digital files or streaming options.
But there’s no doubt that the CD occupies a weird transitional space at this particular moment in time.
In 2008, I swallowed whole the gospel of post-CDism and released an album as a printed booklet with a download code. I called in favours with almost every artist I knew, and my designer and I put a lot of effort into to making the booklet look nice.
But when it was on the merch table at the release shows, all I’d hear was “where’s the CD?”
I’d be like, “the CD is dead, man, what do you mean?”
At the release show in Montreal, some guy was like, “Why should I pay $10 for a piece of paper?”
My argument that a CD is merely a piece of plastic was unpersuasive. The fact that I’d spent thousands of dollars of my own money on recording, mixing and mastering the album as well as printing the paper, equally so.
As I was preparing to release another album in 2011, the question of format was vexing. Among the hipster community, it’s self-evident received wisdom that vinyl is the only format worth releasing (or, even further underground, cassettes—which is a whole other topic).
But vinyl is expensive to produce. A guy a know from a once-prominent Montreal indie label told me that they had to sell every single vinyl record they produced to make a profit. And that was a label with over a decade’s experience and a solid reputation.
When the publicist I hired told me that I’d need a certain number of CDs for promo, I thought, fuck it, I’ll just produce CDs.
I had 500 made and used about 100 for promo. The second box of 250 is still sitting in my office, opened only recently. When I give them out to people as gifts, they’re regarded as a quaintly obscure item—at best. Recently, I gave a CD to a friend. She seemed perplexed and explained to me that, since the new Mac laptops no longer have a CD drive, she actually had no way to play it.
The only people I know who regularly buy CDs are my parents. I sometimes suspect that, aside from the format’s continued importance in the promotional arm of the music industry, the continued commercial relevance of CDs is attributable entirely to the boomer demographic, whether for themselves or as gifts for their children or (no doubt bewildered) grandchildren.
But then, in the spring of 2013, I interviewed Marie LeBlanc Flanagan of the music blog Weird Canada about their initiative to start a record distribution centre. She told me that the CD was experiencing a renaissance in the underground scene, as vinyl and cassettes had before. This was so counter-intuitive to everything we’ve been told, it left me speechless and stammering (which was inconvenient seeing as it was a live radio interview).
But the “backlash against digital” she described made a lot of sense: people like something they can put their hands on. Digital culture is so overwhelming, there’s a certain relief in the simple pleasures of a physical format.
Still, as it is with the recording industry, as long as manufacturers keep prices high, releasing stuff physically is going to stay stratified between those who can afford to do it properly, and those who don’t mind doing it in a sloppy DIY style.
Is there any love for the CD out there? Enough to bother manufacturing a batch for my next record? Or should I just burn a few CDRs from my laptop for the remaining market?
At the very least, I’ll burn a copy for my parents.