Note: this cautionary guest post was written by Portland, Oregon’s Rob Stroup, a talented singer, songwriter, guitarist, drummer, band leader, sideman, engineer, producer, owner of 8 Ball Studio, and all-around abiding dude.
A merch booth without CDs is like a grocery store without milk and bread.
Confession: I have a romantic attachment to vinyl. I listen to a lot of it. At home – almost exclusively. So when I went to press my last record – at great expense, I pressed my record to vinyl and included a digital download card inside. The thought was that, surely, people would want to buy the vinyl! For vinyl enthusiasts – it would be a no brainer. Even if they did not currently have a working turntable, they could download it digitally, burn CDs for the car, listen in itunes or whatever they wanted. Then they could have the larger album art. And one day, when they get that old turntable back up and running, it’s on! Right? Unfortunately – wrong.
Here is the most common reaction I got from a visitor to the merchandise table: “Wow – vinyl… cool! I love the artwork!” At this point they pick up the record and examine it front and back and you think: “I got um. They are totally going for it.” Then – out of nowhere – they place the record back in the stack and say “Do you have any CDs?” At which point – I call their attention to the digital download card sticker on the record. Their response? “I just want a CD thanks.” At first – I was completely confused by this interaction. Actually – somewhat irritated with 500 copies of the vinyl record in my basement at over 4 bucks a piece. Luckily I had done a short run of CDs as well and had something to sell them. But it was still perplexing.
Most of you reading this blog are probably coming at this dilemma from the complete opposite angle. Where the decision is to a) release digitally-only or b) go to the expense of pressing CDs. Here’s the thing: People still like CDs. It’s what they’re used to. When they plop their money down at a show – they want a tangible item in their hand. Of course there are those who have reached a certain comfort level with downloading their music. And for those people, obviously that is easy to accommodate. But for those that want a disc, there is still value in pressing the old familiar CD that they’re used to. These days there are some pretty good options for shorter runs if you don’t want to press 1000 copies to start. Sure – it costs a little more per unit, but the upfront cost is much easier to swallow. (And believe me – still a heck of a lot cheaper than vinyl!)
In addition, if you are releasing a recording, you are probably going to be sending out some promo packs to clubs, press, radio etc… right? I have also found that, by and large, these folks don’t want to be hassled with downloading your music or trying to listen online. They don’t even want to be bothered with cellophane. What do they want? A CD without any shrink wrap in your promo pack. And let’s face it, we are doing absolutely everything in our power to get those people to listen. Minimize the amount of barriers between your music and their ears – that is the goal.
There is yet another argument for the CD. Most digital download cards are redeemable for MP3s. CDs are pressed at 16 bit / 44.1 sample rate. You don’t need to know what that means from a technical perspective other than that it simply sounds better. And these days – some folks are frustrated with shrinking fidelity to fit on ever smaller devices – and there is actually a movement to seek out even higher resolutions. There are sites now that sell recordings at resolutions up to 24 bit / 192 sample rate. One of the customers at my merch table actually explained to me that he wanted the CD because it sounds better than the download card.
Like any technology, CDs won’t be around forever. But we’re not there yet. If you are trying to decide if there’s still value in the physical CD – there is! As you know – recording an album can be expensive. If you have come this far – go the little extra distance and spend money to at least do a short run of discs. The technophobes, industry folks, and audiophiles will thank you.