When the SKUs appeared for Lorde’s Solar Power album, her first record in four years, something was missing. There was a number for a digital download, another for something called a “Music Box” (more on that in a minute), and a vinyl version. There was no mention of a compact disc edition of the album. And for good reason: There won’t be one.
Lorde (well, her label, if we’re honest) is positioning the absence of a CD for Solar Power as an eco-friendly move, a way to distribute music in a more plastic-free way. While fans pining something physical to purchase can always buy the high-margin vinyl, they’ll also be offered the Music Box edition, a cardboard box containing handwritten notes, exclusive photos, extra visual content (whatever that means), and a download code for a high-quality digital (lossless? almost certainly) version of the record.
The download in the Music Box will come with two tracks not available anywhere else along with “some special surprises.” The plan has already met with much approval from organizations that want us to reduce our dependency on plastic. And it’s meant to assuage bricks-and-mortar record stores who need something in lieu of a CD to put on the shelves.
Let’s think about this for a moment: A major-label release from a globally famous artist that will not be available on CD. Is this a sign of things to come? I’d bet on it.
How times have changed. When CDs first appeared in the marketplace in the spring of 1983, they were positioned as vinyl killers: better sound, totally indestructible (they weren’t, but never mind), and more portable (well, eventually). The technology was also pitched as a way for the recorded music industry to dig out of the horrible recession that plagued the world at the beginning of the 1980s.
After some initial reticence, the industry bought in. And so did the general public, largely because the physical quality of vinyl records in the early ’80s had reached a nadir. The use of recycled vinyl, a consequence of the oil crises of the 1970s, resulted in thinner records with shallower grooves incapable of storing as much information (especially bass) as LPs released prior to 1974. They scratched easily and were prone to skipping. Plus, the recycled vinyl contained impurities that affected the overall sound.
When CDs appeared, we couldn’t wait to dump vinyl, even if it meant repurchasing our music libraries at prices substantially more than what we paid for the original vinyl records.
For the next two decades, we bought and bought and bought, even though the promised decrease in CD prices never really came. Money flowed like water through the recorded music industry. And lo, it was good.
Then along came Napster and its file-sharing brethren. Apple then rode to the rescue with the iTunes music store in 2003, saving the music industry from total digital destruction. Five years after that, Spotify went online, ushering in the era of streaming with an endless supply of music for free.
It took a while for the recorded music industry to wrap its head around streaming, but when it finally did, it managed to pull itself out of a death spiral of declining revenues that began around the turn of the millennium. The money isn’t quite what it was pre-Napster in 1999, but overall, everyone on the label side seems to be very happy where things are going.
In fact, after desperately defending their business model of selling plastic, record labels would love it if CDs disappeared tomorrow. And we’re headed in that direction.
Given that over 70 per cent of all recorded music revenues are now derived from streaming, there’s an ever-shrinking need to release music on CD. Think of all the manufacturing, warehousing, shipping, distribution, and accounts payable hassles that would disappear overnight if there were no more CDs. It’s just a matter of time before the compact disc, once the international currency of music, occupies the same niche as vinyl records.
Actually, CDs may fall below that level sooner than you might think. In 2020, several territories, including the U.S. and the U.K. (the number one and three music markets, respectively) reported that the dollar value of vinyl sold exceeded that of compact discs. That hadn’t happened since at least 1991. Canada might have well seen the same thing had it not been supply chain shortages stemming from a factory fire that destroyed most of the world’s capacity for creating the lacquer masters vital to record pressing. However, we seem to have rebounded from that.
Here in Canada, year-to-date sales of CDs are down another eight per cent. With half the year gone, Canadians have barely purchased a million new CDs. And that’s all titles. Meanwhile, vinyl — which, remember, sells at a premium — is up by a staggering 56 per cent, moving nearly 450,000 copies. And that’s just new vinyl. That number doesn’t include used records sold and traded in stores and online.
The Lorde move hasn’t come as a surprise to industry watchers. For the last couple of years, it’s become common for an artist to release the digital version of an album weeks or even months before any kind of physical release. This gave the label a chance to gauge the success of the album and determine exactly how many physical units need to be produced. This has cut down the number of returns from record retailers dramatically.
Again, the CD isn’t going away, probably ever. But the days of expecting every new release to come in a compact disc version are over.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.