There Is No CD Revival
Unless Maybe You are Adele
For the last couple weeks, the same headline has been going round and round…
All these stories have the same source: the release of the 2021 MRC Data Year-End Report, and an accompanying article in Billboard on January 6 (Billboard is a co-sponsor of the MRC report).
But just reading that Billboard article all the way through is enough to debunk the idea that CDs are back. Yes, according to MRC Data, CD sales in the US increased 1.1% in 2021 from their sales in 2020. But in 2020 they had fallen 26% from 2019, “the format’s biggest year-to-year decline ever,” leaving the CD at an all-time low since its introduction as a commercial format.
And that’s not the only misread of the original article. According to MRC/Billboard, Adele’s new album alone accounted for 2.35% of all CD sales in 2021. In other words, without Adele, the format continued its total decline.
But wait there’s more… Adele CDs, as well as Taylor Swift CDs (2.21% of the total) and BTS CDs (2.54% of the total) - the three together accounted for more than 7% of all CD sales in the US - were packaged with “both musical and non-musical collectibles.” Adele’s blockbuster sales were boosted by a special edition with bonus tracks unavailable anywhere other than Target, and a “boxed set” of a CD bundled with a t-shirt.
These are not the makings of a CD revival. If you are not Adele, or even if you are but you are not selling your CD packaged with a t-shirt, or with tracks exclusive to a promotion at Target, your CDs will do what they have been doing for much of the last decade: sitting in boxes on warehouse shelves.
The CD is not a viable commercial format in the US. Look at the data, for god’s sake.
So why the endless stories about a “CD revival”?
I don’t think any of the writers or outlets publishing these headlines are out to mislead. But none of them seem to have consulted anyone actually trying to sell CDs, either – there isn’t a single record label, distributor, or retailer quoted in any of the articles I’ve read. There is simply the same reference to the same industry report from MRC/Billboard.
What this really points to, for me, is not anything about the CD, but how the music industry represents the fortunes of a very few as the concerns of a very many. Yes, a few people made money from CDs this past year. But that does not mean the rest of us did, or can, or ever will again. If you run a small label, or an independent record store, do not expect to sell CDs based on what Adele managed to do through Target.
This kind of false consciousness, substituting the interests of the rich for one’s own, is rife in the music industry. The “boom” of streaming media has only been a boom for a few. The industry might be growing as a whole right now – like that 1.1% increase of CD sales in 2021 – but that does not mean those of us in it are actually benefiting.
Here’s another bell curve, not unlike the real trend of CD sales, that puts the present moment at one extreme:
Income inequality is at its most severe in the US since pre-income tax, pre-Depression, pre-New Deal days. And yet the “economy” is booming – same as the music industry. Just don’t ask any of us working in it.
The problem with hyping a CD revival that isn’t, is not just that it might cause those who make commercial decisions to invest in the wrong format - but it distracts from the deeper problems faced by those of us who make and distribute recorded music. Physical media altogether account for only 9% of revenue for recordings right now. 83% is streaming. And streaming is not returning enough to musicians for them to survive; it is only serving to increase income inequality in our industry. The revival we need, urgently, is of recorded music income - and that revival is not coming from silver discs.
Listening to: Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson