Are physical CDs still important? (Seven industry insiders weigh in)

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Do CD still matter?CD sales and the modern musician

For many musicians these days, setting up the merch booth is an afterthought.

Since everyone can easily find music online now, some bands assume that people in the audience are less likely to purchase physical discs. Whether that assumption is correct or not, it’s conditioning many musicians to leave their discs at home, or in the car, or just… on the side of the stage, in case.

I’ll admit that I’m sometimes guilty of this myself. I played a show three months ago where I sold ZERO CDs. So when I returned to that same venue earlier this month I almost didn’t bring a full box of discs. I thought to myself, “I’ll just put a handful of CDs in my bag, and that should suffice.”

But something made me think twice. I brought the box and set up the merch properly. It was a great night, a great audience, and the RIGHT audience. I sold out of that box of CDs and wished I’d brought plenty of extras. So the quick moral of the story is, from my perspective: don’t leave home without ’em.

It’s better to have a stocked merch booth and no sales than to have people there that want to pay you but can’t — because you didn’t bring CDs.

But that’s just one man’s opinion. Let’s see what other independent artists and industry folks have to say.

The experts weigh in: do physical CD sales still matter?

Yes. People still buy CD’s at the table after the show. They want them signed, they want to say hello, and they want to help me keep the tour going. CD sales are an important source of income for me.

Mary Gauthier

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Less than ever. Even though they still contribute to a large portion of global music revenues, they are quickly being overtaken by downloads and particularly streaming. The latter is the future, as everyone is becoming used to having everything accessible at the click of a button – no purchase or trip to the store required. This is backed up by the recent IFPI Recording Industry report which shows that global music revenues in 2012 consist of 57% from physical revenues (5% decrease since 2011) and 35% of digital revenues (7.4% increase since 2011).

Budi Voogt

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“Are physical CDs still important?”  Yes.  But not as “important” as vinyl which actually has gone up

The short answer is as long as there are stores carrying physical product you should aim to be in stores, right?  Can’t win if you don’t play.

– Christen Greene of Onto Entertainment (Management for Lumineers, Hey Marseilles, Phox, Andrea Gibson)

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Physical CDs are definitely still important. Putting aside that most terrestrial radio (and digital radio for that matter!) still operate off of a library of CDs, having a physical copy to sell at shows gives your fans a tangible way of connecting to your music.

– Jon Ostrow

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A small number of people still enjoy having the physical CD rather than just a digital download, but I think they’re becoming obsolete. I still do a very small run of physical CDs, but as time goes on it gets harder and harder to justify the cost.

– Kari Kimmel

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“Are physical CDs still important?” I asked myself the same question in advance of my new record. Then I remembered that my parents can barely find the App store on their iPhone, let alone figure out how to get music on there and then hook it up to their car’s stereo which doesn’t have an aux (or USB) input. Yes, until the 45+ crowd is as proficient at playing music from Spotify or iTunes as they are at popping CDs into the player, they are still important.

And it’s not just for the elders. I have a CD player in my car. And a Spotify Premium subscription. If someone hands me an unwrapped CD I’ll pop it in my car for a quick listen. It’s still much easier than having to download an mp3, open it in iTunes, drag it to my iPhone folder, plug in my iPhone to my laptop to sync it, wait 3 minutes for it to go through all 27 steps and then hook it up to my aux input in my car while driving.

For a physical interaction with someone who you’d like to listen to your music, hand them an unwrapped CD and I bet you’ll get a listen.

Ari Herstand

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“Are physical Cds still important?” —  It depends on your target market. If your market is a little younger, most of them purchase their music with their phones or Itunes or they listen to it through streaming services. However, I know some artists that sell to an older demographic and their audience still wants the physical product.

– Jo-Ná Williams

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What do you think? Are physical CDs still an important part of your band’s merch offerings? Are they crucial to your PR efforts? Let us know in the comments section below.

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[CD image from Shutterstock.]
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  • Jeff Montgomery

    Just posting a little love for the 45+ crowd – I happen to be 54 and have a premium Spotify account, which I use every day at home, work, and on the go. I do still buy a CD from time to time, usually for independent artists that I don’t find on Spotify. Not all of us middle-agers are slow to adopt technology.

    • Jill

      I’m 33 and I remember when CDs came out when I was lik 5 years old. Got my first CDs probably when I was 10. Don’t remember them. But I still collect them. I remember when DVDs came out in late 1990s as well. VHS Tapes I had tons of them before the 90s

    • I do like Spotify for discovering new music. I feel bad for artists who get screwed by it, as in not making the royalties they deserve, but what’s different about that as opposed to people listening to it for free on the radio? Maybe if the radio didn’t play the same things on rotation all the time, Spotify wouldn’t even be necessary.

  • I hardly ever sell CDs at gigs, but it’s always nice to have the occasional sale.

    Digital download cards NEVER sell for me. I give those away, and my stats show that nobody ever actually uses them to download the tracks. They just aren’t good for distribution.

  • Vandell Andrew

    CD’s are very important in my world. I still do sell quite a few at shows and a run into a lot of people after shows who tell me that they’re enjoying the CD , and want to buy a few more copies for friends and family who also enjoy my style of music.

  • Vic Rattlehead

    For me its really up to the people. Some people still enjoy opening CD booklet, seeing band photos, reading lyrics & liner notes while listening to that particular album. I still have quite big collection of cds but I also have tons of songs on my PC & iPOD. I still love having a tangible product of my fav artist/band. But there many albums that I only like 1-2 songs on it so there’s no reason for me to pay for the whole album. That’s when I’d go for download option.

    In my country there are tons of indie bands that producing a limited number of physical copies of their album in Cd, vinyl and even cassette format. Usually only about 2000-5000 copies but it will eventually sold out on the record stores. So I think physical product of music will never really go away even when one day all major record stores are closing.

  • My 18-year old daughter prefers CDs to downloads, mostly because of the physical artwork. She says she’d rather rip the CD to her computer than go through the hassle of downloading what may well be an inferior format (i.e., data compressed)

    • that’s parenting done right!!
      most people download from youtube and can’t even tell the bad quality….

    • My 19 year old sister only downloads music. The new mac she bought for school, since she attends full time, doesn’t even have a disc drive. I’d say she’s the average consumer since she’s not an audiophile but just listens to songs she likes.

      I’m 23, I stream all the time (Spotify mostly) and purchase physical merch from artists. CD’s sometimes, but I’d rather buy vinyl than a CD since CD’s quality isn’t very high and you can get higher quality sound from a download if it’s available in the right format.

    • Exactly. The problem is that one day when all those download services no longer face the problems of limited internet speed and maybe upgrade to higher bitrate files, then you will pay again to upgrade like when iTunes upgraded to iTunes Plus from the 128kbps format they started out with, as opposed to buying the CD one time and making your own lossy versions.

  • Ronnie

    I buy CDs at shows.
    If I like a band I want to support them. Sure I could download their hit but buying that CD is sometimes equal to a months worth of download revenues. And I get all the songs it’s great for discovery. All that said, the first thing I do with a new CD is burn it to my digital collection.

    I sell CDs at shows.
    I’ll go for ever without selling any cds. then I’ll have a show that really connects and I sell out. As Chris said “don’t leave home without ‘em.”

  • POOR LEGACY

    Had to remind one of my artist friends that you still need a few hard copies on your person..

  • Shirley Márquez Dúlcey

    I don’t think it is true that most radio stations operate from CD libraries. The ones I’m familiar with are using media servers now.

  • Some Guy

    I am under 30 and absolutely refuse to pay money for digital music. If you give me a free download, that’s cool but I would rather overpay for a disc than get a free download..unless the music sucks (which is often the case as I associate with a lot of “rap” acts)..it’s easier to delete digital files than to throw away a physical disc.

  • Hey – why not have more than one type of media to sell? CD’s, Vinyl, downloads, Etc. I guess it also depends on the type of music you are selling, and your audience ages can make a difference as well. Our band sells a lot of CD’s at every show, but our audience is an older crowd – usually 30 yrs and older. Younger people tend to do downloads, and occasionally CD’s. Technology has changed band sales for sure.

  • Annetta Nesler

    I buy CDs for the lyrics inside. It is hard to find lyrics for some songs on the web. So it is great to have a physical copy of a CD which enables me to go back and figure out exactly what they are saying. Also, the art work is a nice thing to have. Having a physical CD gives you the feeling of ownership too! A feeling that I never get with just downloads. 🙂

  • Michael Dolan

    I usually sell a couple CDs per gig- Although as near as I can tell it’s they’ve become more a medium for autographs or a way to demonstrate support than a way to listen to music.

  • James S

    I still prefer a CD because of the uncompressed sound quality and the fact your are actually getting a real product you own (rather than essentially a loan from download services, look into the legal fine print and you will see). This means with a CD you can legally resell it, make copies for yourself as many times as you want and leave your music collection to your kids. Plus it’s nice to be able to buy a used CD off Amazon, not only is it unrestricted but it is often cheaper than downloading the whole album. And as far as buying CDs, Amazon is providing the download for free if you buy the CD for many albums so why not get both? (not promoting Amazon in particular, just where I usually shop). As more digital download services provide uncompressed, CD quality downloads I might be more inclined to buy downloads but I’ll probably stick with CDs for now. (I do buy downloads for the occasioanal hit I want to add to my collection without buying a whole album I am not interested in listenting too).

  • plish

    You can’t autograph a digital download. 🙂

    • Jill

      true to that!

  • TheSwan

    Agree with Ari Herstrand. CDs are much more convenient to buy and play than mp3 downloads. And nowadays CDs are often cheaper too (if you know where to buy them), so I see no reason to buy mp3 downloads. I only buy an mp3 album if there exists no physical copy and even then, I rarely play it. Most of the time, I forget about its existence – maybe because you can’t SEE an mp3 album? Most things you can’t see have little value.

    And then there’s sound quality. CDs are superior to mp3s and as an artist, I sometimes feel pretty ridiculous spending days on mixing and mastering when I realize that many people listen to the song on smartphones and other poor sound systems on which half of the highs and lows are never heard.

    Streaming audio? I tried Spotify Premium but canceled it. Through the years quite a few indie labels have removed their music from Spotify and half of what I like to hear, is not even on it. And the sound quality isn’t that brilliant anyway – it’s mp3. Spotify was designed for people who think music is background noise. I prefer to LISTEN to music.

    So, are physical CDs still important? To me, they never lost their importance.

    • Even brand new through Amazon, they are cheaper than if I go buy the album as an MP3 download.

  • I always sell CDs and merchandise at my shows. What helps is I have my table set up, as well as a person going around in the audience, asking people if they want CDs. It really works! When people buy something at a concert, they buy it to have a memory from it. And they get really excited when I personally sign the CD. So I believe having physical copies of your music is very important and cool 🙂

  • Julian Angel

    I’m in Hard Rock / Heavy Metal and 90% of my sales are physical (CDs).

  • Fil

    CD sales are very important at gigs for me … it’s really the only place they sell now. However I have noticed that sales are way down on what they used to be both for download and physical product.

  • Butch Ross

    My audience is older (40+) and are definitely CD buyers. Even attempts I’ve made to move them in the download direction (via exclusive downloads) generally aren’t met with much enthusiasm.

  • You have to know who your typical audience is going to be. My crowds buy 98+% CD’s, and less than 2% downloads. CD’s are my bread and butter. I would NEVER do a show without plenty of inventory. In your “style” of music, if you do any performing at all, you should evaluate and know who your typical crowds are. I don’t believe that this is a one size for all scenario.

  • Sometimes selling CDs is not a matter of preference of format but a matter of bare bones convenience. Sure, in the overall it may be easier to just pull up iTunes and purchase a single track, or pull up Spotify and listen to a stream. However, when you’re at a show you want to take action there. Most fans are only going to be average tech users. They don’t post to everything, they don’t pull up every QR code that catches their eye, and they aren’t premium subscribers to anything. Those people, the average music consumer, the average concert goer, they drive your band, your music. Without them you can’t get anywhere. You can post to Facebook and Tweet all day (sorry Google+), but it’s the fans that have invested time and effort into you that carry the passion that is needed to spread YOUR love and passion for what you do. So what does that have to do with CDs? Do you want only fans who put most of their time and effort into interaction with a screen or interaction with the world around them? I’ve heard more music in the past ten years from people who have handed me a CD or popped one in when we’re hanging out than I have from streaming, downloads, and Youtube shares put together. I have never purchased a download card or anything of that nature at a show, or even seen one purchased when standing in line at the merch table or receiving fans at my merch table. CDs are an immediate, effortless response at a show- the actionable moment when you convert average fans into ravenous, passionate proponents of your art. I am a big fan of many bands, but most people don’t understand the ones I am most passionate about until they here about the experience I had at a show. A show is a face to face interaction- no screen involved. And CDs? Well they are the physical trigger to remind the fans of what they experienced. Every time they pop in the disc, every time they put it away, every time they let a friend borrow it, even every time they clean up a monumental mess from their desk and find it- they are going to remember that brief, passionate moment in time when your art moved them. That’s what keeps our art alive. That’s what separates the long forgotten bands from the timeless artists. That’s why CDs are still important.

  • The Hills of Malibu

    I hand make CD covers for our music and they are very popular at our shows. People appreciate the uniqueness of the art (they are all different). We offer them “by donation” and it is not unusual to receive $20 per disc.

  • Xan Angelfvkk

    On the extreme metal underground CD sales are still healthy. In fact much better than Mp3’s because here, people don’t expect to actually pay for Mp3’s but they will purchase physical CDs. No doubt it’s the artwork & it’s a good backup even to those who mainly listen to digital players. It is not hard to rip from CD to computer. But what is surprising, is that cassette has actually made a comeback. However that is not something I am keen on at all.

  • Mike Vial

    Last week, my six-year-old Macbook Pro’s video card died, and I decided to buy a new computer. Well, the new Macbooks don’t have disc drives.

    At first, I freaked out. Then I realized I haven’t burned or ripped a CD in years, and I couldn’t remember the last time I listened to a CD.

    That same day, a friend of mine offered to give me his band’s CD. I paused and realized, I don’t own a CD player anymore, except for my wife’s clock/radio. “Have a digital version?” He told me to check out his Bandcamp. Cool!

    One consequence is I haven’t remembered to download his music on Bandcamp (until today). Once I got home, the dog had to go outside, the emails were waiting, the next episode of Scandal was on TV. I forgot.

    Hopefully, bands will be able to adjust. You still need to give folks something as a reminder.

  • CDs are still important for PR, tastemakers/influencers, superfans, but most important, they signal a level of seriousness about one’s career. It’s under $100 to do a digital-only release, it’s several times that to press a fairly minimal batch of CDS (100-500). It takes more time and attention to the art and layout as well. People know what that means and respect the effort and investment that physical CD represents. I think, like a nice website, nice looking physical CDs add credibility to a musician. It’s like your business card. You want a nice looking business card that says who you are – and you certainly don’t want to be lacking any business card at all.

  • Jill

    I love CDs! I love those $5 CD racks in the Electronics @ Walmart and Target. Sometimes I buy like 2-3 CDs a week. I currently have almost 60 CDs so I also still buy Blu-Rays/DVDs for that matter! Digital is great, but in away, you don’t actually OWN anything, only the files. I rather keep all my movies and CDs on Discs. Also if the computer crashes, I can always re-upload the songs.

  • Oh yeah, I remember my first CD: Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation!

    @ChrisRobley

  • BacktoDisc

    the hassle of buying physical cds and the price might be the reason why people turned to digital music nowadays. but for me, it is that experience we can only get from physical cd that matters. the moment we open up the wrap, the artworks, the collection, the way we listen to it while reading the lyrics, is just priceless.

  • BacktoDisc

    the hassle of buying physical cds and the price might be the reason why people turned to digital music nowadays. but for me, it is that experience we can only get from physical cd that matters. the moment we open up the wrap, the artworks, the collection, the way we listen to it while reading the lyrics, is just priceless.

  • Osbourne Currall

    I download music from the Internet, but only because I’m planning to burn that music onto a blank CD.

  • Steve

    Just signed up and reading. I like classical music – and as such, it’s not a era that ‘goes out of fashion’ – current popular music artists cost an arm and a leg to purchase their music because they need the quick buck before some other wannabe artists take their spot in the charts – effectively from hero to zero in no time at all.

    Consider iTunes – the price from where I live in NZ is $1.79 dollars US each track, whereas if I really want music of choice I’d download only if I must.

    However, these days, charity shops etc are almost giving them away. Then I rip them to MP3; if they are A list artists I keep the CD, otherwise the jewel case is the best part to keep and the other I use as frisbees or placemats – and the cost – about $1-2NZ (and that includes boxsets).

    I like the CD – you actually own the thing, their is usually extensive documentation, a nice cover (front and back), and with a little alcohol wipe – the box is as good as new; and you don’t have the hassle of converting downloads – or God forbid! the HD crashing and whoops! their goes my music and my money.

    Also, because classical music never really goes out of fashion, it keeps it’s value. I admit that if you have a copy of Beethoven’s fifth symphony – then that’s like a 60’s compilation of pop music – everyone has one – and the value drops – but rarities? I have a quite few of them, because I know the value of my specialty. And then theirs my favourites……

  • I’m 28. I grew up with cassettes and remember in ~1997 when I bought my first CD. My main reason for buying music on CD still is price. You get better sound quality, a physical product and longevity, for less money most of the time with a CD as opposed to a download. I just wish the mastering were a little better sometimes. I feel like a lot of times, especially with classic rock material, they don’t use good sources and they make it way too loud. I never understood the appeal of vinyl over a CD either. I get people like it because of nostalgia and the other tactile characteristics, but I wouldn’t argue it is better than a CD.

  • almark

    It’s now 2016 and the one thing that sells is pretty much nothing. It seems we are fighting against the streaming market full force. It isn’t going to go away. The problem comes from if you are an artist with less than 100 listeners on these streaming sites, you get paid very little, if nothing at all. Some hobby fans, let’s call them, buy your physical music, but that’s become slim to none now. Owner of WEATNU Records since 2014.

  • Mike P

    Vinyl is an overpriced pain and the problem with streaming is that I don’t have unlimited data. I would rather just buy an album on a CD. You have the potential for the best sound quality, they are usually the most affordable and you have the most longevity.

  • Jeffrey Ventola

    I bought over a 1,000 or more CDs since they came out after cassette tapes and 8 track

    They all scratch and become useless in time

    So I created something for Rock Bands the day David Bowie passed away

    http://www.customsmartdecks.com

    Featuring the http://www.threestooges.com because they saw the value in it

    Now if only Rock Bands would contact me

    I am here to create Decks for them

    jeffv16@yahoo.com

    Jeff