Reports of Music CDs' Death Are Exaggerated

Given the continued decline in CD sales overall for the past 15 years, it’s only been a matter of time for big-box stores to stop selling them.

The dominant format from the early ’90s to the early ’00s is about to be gone from all Best Buy locations, and Target will decrease its inventory by the end of this year. According to Billboard, starting July 1, Best Buy will pull all CDs from its locations but will keep selling vinyl for now. Target will carry only CDs bought on consignment.

While the national chains give up on the format, the production and sale of CDs will still live on in locally owned independent stores. And bands, from locals to national touring groups, aren’t about to abandon the format. The CDs that nearly killed vinyl are seeing a boost from vinyl's resurgence, says Mark Burke, owner of Denton-based Mad World Records.

“As vinyl prices rise, so do CD sales,” Burke says. “Some younger collectors have caught the hard-copy bug, but they can’t afford to buy everything they want on vinyl, so they buy only the essentials on vinyl and the rest on CDs. The percentage of CD sales has been catching up to vinyl sales over the past couple of years, to the point that it is almost 50/50 in our store.”

Throughout the 1990s, selling compact discs below cost was how Best Buy, Walmart and Target brought in shoppers in hopes they would also purchase other items. The tactic was simple: sell CDs for $11.99 each while stores like Tower Records, Blockbuster Music and Sam Goody sold them for $17.99. That, coupled with the growing accessibility of downloading music on peer-to-peer networks, online stores like Amazon and the iTunes music store, led to the end of those smaller chain stores.

Best Buy once had a half-dozen long aisles devoted to CDs, but it reduced its stock to a few short kiosks near the front cash registers. Instead of being the product that brought people in, CDs became the impulse buy on the way out.

For Josey Records, which expanded its stock of used CDs last year, Target's and Best Buy’s moves will be beneficial.

“CDs are still our third best-selling category behind new and used LPs,” Josey Records co-owner Luke Sardello says. “There is still demand for CDs by music fans that prefer to have a physical copies of their favorite albums without making the jump back into vinyl. They still like seeing the artwork and reading the liner notes. CDs still tell a story that streaming can't do. Our CD business has grown year over year the past two years, and with these moves by big-box retailers, we expect that trend to continue and will be adding floor space to accommodate additional stock.”

Chris Penn of Good Records echoes these sentiments.

"There will always be a market for compact discs, albeit drastically reduced from 1999, which was the biggest selling year of the CD,” he says. “Having people stick in their lanes will, of course, help Good Records. We don't sell TVs, groceries, cellphones, etc. We sell music, so having less competition will force people to come back to where it all began, the record store, if their format of choice is physical."

The Recording Industry Association of America says U.S. consumers bought 938.9 million full-length CDs in 1999. By 2016, the number had fallen to 99.4 million.

For bands, fewer CDs in big-box stores is not a major issue as they continue to sell them.

Corey Howe put out Let Me Be, the latest by his band, Dead Flowers, independently on vinyl, digital and CD.

“We have a more mature audience,” he says. “One of our promotions is ‘Hide your fathers’ as our joke instead of ‘Hide your daughters.’ We typically do sell a lot of CDs because of that crowd and the more suburban crowd as well. The young folk are streaming or downloading through iTunes.”

Tiny Moving Parts is a trio from Benson, Minnesota, that attracts a faithful and young audience that loves its powerful, mathy tunes. When it hits the Dirty 30 in Dallas in a few weeks, there will be CDs at the merch table with vinyl and T-shirts. The group's label, Triple Crown, makes sure it has enough vinyl and CDs to sell on tour, including its latest, Swell.

“I think it’s weird how many CDs we still sell as a band,” bassist Matthew Chevalier says. “We definitely sell more vinyl.”

As convenient as streaming and downloading are to a mass audience, bands and stores are smart to keep various formats, no matter how unhip they might be.

“At the end of the day, you as a business owner have to be able to provide what the buyers want,” Howe says. “Not everybody wants a record. Some people just want a CD.”

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