It has been forecast for years, but this year may mark the demise of the CD. So those of you who, like me, who have hundreds or thousands of CDs around the house, the question remains…what do you do with all these?
It is really no surprise, but industry execs and other analysts have been slow to give up the ghost. It now seems clear that streaming is cannibalizing album sales. I don’t know why anyone considered that it would not have this affect. Not for a second!
According to a recent article in Billboard Magazine, overall sales have not hit the 5 million unit mark for five straight weeks. A record. Though sales have been in steady decline for years, the market is showing no signs of bouncing back this time. According to MIke Dreese, CFO of the iconic independent retail chain Newbury Comics, they have experienced a 14% decline of CD sales this year. Streaming revenues are up, but digital album sales are up only fractionally, despite a decent increase early this year.
This all translates into the death of the album as a format. Some industry analysts blame a lousy release schedule to this point this year for the decline. They are right, but they are not putting the blame where it belongs. There are fewer bigger artists these days. The industry is “breaking” artists at a slower rate than in the past. Unknown artists developing into stars or superstars were the heart and soul of the industry since its birth. People are just not finding out about new artists. Couple that with the fact that rock music has almost totally fallen off the map and you have a recipe for disaster.
There are a lot of factors that have brought us to this point, but its origins go back 25 years. In the heyday of rock music, almost each market had was was called a “progressive” station. Stations that would play diverse styles of music and a good deal of music from emerging or unknown artists. Then radio evolved from being a mom & pop medium to big business. Most of the stations that were owned by families and individuals were bought out by big broadcast companies like Cox, Infinity and Clear Channel. All of a sudden, radio became big business.
Not coincidentally, radio consultants began to acquire more stations and more power. Owners felt more comfortable if they had someone else telling them what to program. Stations that previously played two or three tracks from the same album, suddenly started focusing on one at a time. Then the number of new artists they played dwindled. Eventually something called “Callout or Passive Research” was deemed science by consultants. As a result there was far less new music on the radio and even album radio became a singles-driven environment. Sure, tracks that researched were played a great deal. But this still promoted a song-based mentality. Record executives, like myself, frequently wondered out loud, if artists that researched were necessarily the artists that people wanted to hear most. There are a lot of holes in the “science”. One thing that was always puzzling is that some of the world’s biggest artists such as Bruce Springsteen and U2, usually did not test well. How could that be? The main problem was and still is, is that there is no better way to determine what music radio listeners like. This is fodder for another blog.
Tarney Spencer Band-1979 “No Time To Lose” The Tarney Spencer Band was a darling of Callout Research- The band’s music researched very well and as a result they got a lot of airplay. But, no one seemed to care. Good music or a numeric anomaly?
Bruce Springsteen circa 1985-“Growin’ Up” Live, with the infamous story of when he and Clarence met. Arguably the biggest rock star of our time, yet historically an artist that tanked in radio’s tool of Callout Research. Huh?
This has been the way of the world for decades. Despite this, albums were still selling. They were cheap and it was a longstanding western tradition. The real beginning of the end was Apple. Once it was possible to download individual tracks from an album there was very little reason to download entire new CDs. After all, who had time or the patience to listen to all that unfamiliar music.
Although it came earlier, probably the singular invention most responsible for the demise of the album is also responsible for the revolution in TV. The remote control may be one of the most important inventions in the history of the media. It sanctioned our ADHD and allowed our attention spans to approach those of a moth. How long do you actually stay on a TV station as you are scrolling through the guide? Milliseconds! We know who invented the radio, the vacuum tube and the telephone. Who invented the remote control?
What is astonishing to me is that record labels still are holding onto hope. They have essentially been reduced to a singles business. The CD single had essentially gone out of existence in the 90’s. Sure, they were there, but no one bought them. Now all labels seem to care about is single (downloaded) sales. How can they possibly exist with this as their chief source of income. Along comes streaming and there is absolutely no need to buy a single. Though the labels try to resist the temptation, artists want their music available on streaming services. After all, they get very little of their revenue from sales. They make most of their money on the road. So, really what is left for the label?
The final blow will come this fall when Apple will roll out its product for the streaming landscape, iTunes Radio. Though it is aimed directly at Pandora and their 70 million subscribers, it will decimate all the competition. There will be over 200 radio stations, with the ability to be personalized. It still remains unclear as to whether users will be able to compose their own playlists as is possible with Spotify, Mog and others.
Streaming services leave much of their programming decisions to algorithms. It is almost totally arithmetic. One of the things that music fans and record execs feared most in the decades past, was that research would de-humanize radio. We have now crossed borderline and are into the outer limits.
All this is a vast simplification of a process that has taken decades to play out. Two questions remain. What do I do with all these CDs? What happens when the MP3 becomes extinct?