[24 September 2009]
For music journalists, it would be easy to declare the release of the remastered versions of the Beatles albums as the end of the CD era. Bloggers and music writers, most notably NPR’s “All Songs Considered” host Bob Boilen said the new Beatles remastered CDs will likely be the last CDs many people will buy.
It would be a fitting epitaph for the format: Born: 1984 with Born in the U.S.A the first CD massive produced in the United States. Died: September 9, 2009 with the Beatles boxed set. Where I live, there is even some serious circumstantial evidence to back up this claim: the same month The Beatles released their remastered albums, Homers Music & Gifts, the largest independent music distributor in Nebraska will close two of its four locations.
Unfortunately, the end of CD purchasing just isn’t true. Yes, downloads are eclipsing CDs in terms of how people get their music, but what will keep the CD alive is not lower prices or even the quality of the product, but our insatiable desire to display stuff.
When a new girl or boy comes into your life or you have a group of people who you think are cooler than you come up to your place, you may go through a ritual of relocating certain books, albums and yes, CDs in your place. Your copy of Aretha Franklin’s Spirit in the Dark and the Knife’s Silent Shout may find a more prominent location on your CD tower and Sheryl Crow’s self-titled album and AC/DC’s Black Ice may find a new residence in your t-shirt drawer. Just like how you may find yourself doing a switcheraroo of your sophomore literature’s copy of Franz Kafka’s The Trial for your hard copy of The Ultimate Spiderman. These are not lies, merely a reallocation of your resources.
Not all people are this vain. But it does display an almost universal wanting to possess a physical product of something that genuinely makes an impression. During the Internet’s growing years in the ‘90s, people had no choice but to buy the CD if they liked a song on the radio or read a five-star review from a band they never heard of in their favorite publication. Both actions required a certain amount of risk. Listeners may have found that one song on the radio was either the album’s best track or that one track was unlike anything else on the album. The bigger gamble was blindly taking the critic at their word. Each risk resulted in the potential loss of $15.
Nowadays, thanks to sites like Spinner, LastFM and LaLa, people can freely listen to full albums risk free. The good news is obviously people can go through a full listen before buying a CD and people can escape being duped by artists who release their best single from an album of filler. The bad news is that a lot of times, people listen to these downloads in the most distracting of environments: at work, in cars and during general multitasking habits like updating your Facebook page while studying for a Molecular Biology midterm. Therefore, most people who listen to music this way are going to have the patience to allow an album to sink in with repeated listens.
Even these distractions will not prevent that one album from hitting you at the right moment. It is during these times when a downloaded copy of the Antlers’ Hospice or the Drive-By Truckers’ The Dirty South isn’t enough. The impression is so strong, you want a physical copy to become part of your habitat. It’s the same drive that gets people to pick up an opening act’s CD at their merch booth after an unexpectedly amazing set. It’s a shared experience you want to be a part of and it’s an experience that just cannot be replicated with a simple download.
If this new habit of buying is similar to any other music medium, it’s the LP. In the past few years, record sales have defied the sales trends of other physical media by increasing each year. If bringing another CD into your home is a commitment, then buying a record is a damn marriage. It’s far bulkier, more of a pain to move to a new apartment or house and requires far more interaction. A typical 70-minute CD will most likely take three trips to the turntable to switch sides. As a result, most people usually do more research before buying a record than a CD. Nowadays, people are starting to treat CDs as records: if it’s not worth dusting or hauling in a box, it’ll do just fine on your laptop.
Despite the fact that almost each time you read the weekly Billboard charts you hear news that CD sales have fallen almost ten percent from the previous year, millions are still sold each week. While not as popular, they still bring in the buyers. The best indicator of this came from the biggest shared pop culture event of this year: the death of Michael Jackson. Unlike The Beatles, his music was readily available on iTunes, but that did not stop all of his CDs from selling well into the six figures a week even two months after his death.
This type of buying behavior is something record executives probably don’t want to rely on for their livelihood. But as downloads become the norm, people will start to treat CDs more as collective items. Some companies have already started to capitalize on this, preying on Gen-X nostalgia by releasing collections from Radiohead, The Beastie Boys and Pavement. It’s cruel, manipulative and it works brilliantly. You like Wowee Zowee? If you were really a fan, you would buy the “true” version, complete with separate b-sides and a snappy display box filled to the gills with liner notes. You already have it, but this one looks so much cooler on your row of awkward-shaped CDs that can’t neatly fit in your CD tower. Plus, that girl you met last week at Urban Outfitters is a huge Pavement fan…
Until another physical form comes out where you can show off your taste, CDs aren’t going anywhere for awhile.