Do People Still Buy CDs?

People still buy CDs, and the format is on the rise for the first time since the start of the millennium. While CDs are far from being the fastest-growing format of recorded music today (that title belongs to vinyl), many music collectors still buy CDs and there are plenty of new CD releases out.

In many ways, CDs are technically better than vinyl records. They have better sound quality, better stereo channel separation, and higher durability. However, CDs are less charming than vinyl and, for that reason, they are often considered the second-best option around for diehard music collectors.

It wasn’t always like that, though: CDs used to be number one before sales took a heavy tumble at the start of the millennium.

According to Wired and Pitchfork magazine, CD sales dropped a whopping 97% between 2000 (their peak year) and 2020, going from an impressive $19.9 billion to a disappointing $483 million in just twenty years. From 2020 onwards, however, CD sales have been on the rise, proving that there’s still a future for a format many (including Jme) considered to be dead.

So, are we witnessing a CD revival? And is there a place for CDs in our digitally-dominated music industry? Disappointingly enough, the short answer is… Kind of.

How many people still buy CDs?

According to the latest U.S. music sales database report published by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the sales volume for the CD format equaled 46.6 million, meaning that CDs sold more than vinyl records (with annual sales of just 39.7 million). Does this mean CDs have taken back their place as the number-one music format in the United States?

Well, not so fast. While CD sales grew by 47.7% in just one year, vinyl sales grew by a staggering 67.3% during the same period. When you add up the fact that vinyl-record sales have been growing steadily since 2007, it’s easy to see why vinyl can still be considered the undisputed king of recorded music sales.

However, the future looks bright for the once-forgotten CD, as 2021 proved to be the year of transition during which CD sales started increasing for the first time since the start of the millennium. The RIAA isn’t the only source pointing out a comeback of the CD: the trend is even more apparent in the music database and marketplace website Discogs.

CDs are making a comeback – says Discogs

While CDs remain the second best-selling format on Discogs, there’s no denying that they’re making a comeback. Discogs is one of the most popular music marketplace websites in the world and makes for a viable source for understanding the current value of the CD format. In other words, the Discogs sales numbers are a fine indicator of how music collectors are behaving in general.

In this report, the people at Discogs asserted the comeback of the CD and backed their opinion with some cold hard facts. The number of CDs listed for sale on the platform has been growing steadily for the past few years, going from less than 5 million in 2017 to close to 15 million in 2022 (an increase of more than 450%).

During the same period, the number of CD sales registered at Discogs also grew impressively, going from less than 2 million in 2017 to just under 4 million at the end of 2021. The 208% increase reported by the music marketplace website is expected to continue in 2022, even though such data is still not available.

It looks like both old and new music fans are interested in adding up new CDs to their collections. However, it’s still too early to say whether the recent spike in CD sales is going to continue throughout the following decade (just like vinyl), or will make for a temporary phenomenon – perhaps being a mere consequence of the record music sales registered at the height of the pandemic.

For now, the big picture still seems to show that the popularity of the CD is not up to the popularity of the vinyl record and that the format will probably never return to its pre-21st-century levels of traction.

The causes for the downfall of the CD format

There are two major phenomena responsible for the downfall of the CD format. The most significant is the democratization of the digital audio file, made widely available at the start of the millennium. The second is the rise in popularity of the vinyl record, once deemed obsolete by the music industry.

The Internet

CD music sales were worth almost $20 billion in 2000, the year when it first became common to illegally download music from the Internet. Downloading music from Napster for free was so commonplace that, decades after its disappearance, outlets such as The Guardian still blame it for nearly destroying the music industry.

Napster started getting some serious hate in 2001 and eventually disappeared, giving way to a myriad of music torrent websites and specialized blogs distributing CD rips for free through file-hosting websites such as Rapidshare and Mediafire. Hence began the downfall of the CD: why pay for a physical object when you can get the same high-quality music for the price of nothing?

The one obstacle to downloading music from the Internet was the backlash against piracy, which sometimes made it hard for people to find the songs they were looking for. But as soon as audio-file downloading started getting inconvenient, music streaming websites appeared and changed the game.

Going back to the most recent RIAA numbers, it’s worth noting that download sales equaled 209.3 million, overshadowing the 46.6 million CD sales registered during the same period.

The vinyl record

Casual music listeners are all about streaming now, but music collectors still like to buy physical copies of their favorite albums. Sadly for the CD, however, the 21st century was the century of the vinyl comeback. Outlets such as GQ complained about hipsters boosting vinyl sales in 2016, but one thing’s for sure: the trend hasn’t gone away, and vinyl sales have increased every year since that article was released.

Verdict

Yes, people still buy CDs, and CD sales have been on the rise for the first time since the start of the 21st century. However, only time will tell if CDs will make a vinyl-like comeback, or if their boost in popularity is nothing but a post-pandemic fad.

Brian Clark is a multi-instrumentalist and music producer. He is passionate about practically all areas of music and he particularly enjoys writing about the music industry.

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