The Future of CDs

I've got lots of CDs. Thousands of them. But when I look at the wall of discs in my home-office, I see the past; I see dinosaurs and dodos. For when I buy a CD, the first thing I do is slip it into my Mac Pro and rip it in iTunes. Then I file it on my wall.

Now most of us--those of us here at Macworld, and most of you reading this article--buy music by download in addition to CDs, and it would be wrong to think that my wall of CDs represents my music collection. I have a ton of other music purchased from iTunes, eMusic, and different record label or band Web sites. I still buy CDs, though, but only in limited circumstances: for classical music, box sets are often substantially cheaper on CD than by download. And there are a couple of artists whose music I've been following for a long time, such as The Durutti Column, who I've been a fan of for nearly 30 years. Where CDs cost the equivalent of US$10 a disc on iTunes, many classical box sets can be had for just a couple of bucks a disc. (This is unique in the classical music market, though, where there is a trend toward making money from back catalog items at very low prices.)

So what is the future of CDs? When you have the choice of paying up to $19 (the list price) for the latest Springsteen album, and only $10 for the download, which will you choose? First, will you buy the entire album, rather than just a couple of songs? Next, unless you're a serious Springsteen fan, and have to have the CD to match all the other discs in your collection, you'll probably choose the cheaper method. (Though if you're really a fan, you might want to grab the "deluxe" version with an added DVD of music videos and films of studio sessions.) I asked my 18-year old son when he would like to buy a CD instead of a download. His answer: "Never." I asked if he was sure, and he said, "Well, maybe if there's some bonus stuff, like a DVD or extra tracks." Yet, currently, bonus tracks usually come with downloads, not CDs. In the case of the Springsteen album, the deluxe version has content not available with the download, but the $14 deluxe iTunes version has some of the video content of the extra DVD. The soon-to-be-released U2 album, "No Line on the Horizon," will be available in five different versions in retail and two versions by download, including a bonus track only available from iTunes.

But what if you want to give someone a gift? There's something to be said about a squarish object in wrapping paper with a bow on it, as compared to an e-mail from iTunes with a code that can be redeemed for an album; the latter just doesn't seem very sexy. I'd bet that for Valentine's Day, last weekend, a lot of wrapped CDs were given as gifts, along with flowers and chocolate. And what about browsing in the mall? When you go into a record store, you get a chance to see albums that you might not see on iTunes or Amazon. You may also see a new album by a band whose hit you just heard on the radio, or by an band you haven't heard from for a while. It's hard to stumble upon things on iTunes or Amazon unless you search for them. And it's easy to make an impulse purchase in a store.

Nevertheless, it's clear that the CD is on its last legs. With iTunes the largest music retailer in the U.S., having sold gazillions of songs, and with iPods selling like lattes in a neighborhood coffee house, the music industry is scrambling to regroup. And this industry has been trying to find its way for years; being slow to embrace digital music, only recently have the major labels accepted the premise. But the music industry doesn't want to give up retail sales; it thinks that the broad availability of music in tens of thousands of retail outlets is going to sell more product than millions of computers being able to buy through iTunes or Amazon. So CDs will stay, until the backward-looking record labels find another support for music.

Christopher Breen, in last week's article about DVDs and a DRM-free future mentioned that some DVDs come with digital copies of movies along with the traditional DVD. Maybe music labels could do the same with CDs? Instead of selling just a CD, they could include a disc with the same tracks ripped in a few formats (say, 320-kbps for those who think the bit rate makes a difference and a smaller version for the rest of us), along with a PDF of the liner notes and album art. This would save people the trouble of ripping and tagging music, something that can be daunting for those new to the technology. But would you buy a CD just because you get a pre-ripped version of it in the same package? Or would you buy a CD containing MP3 files; at least one classical label is heading in that direction, released what was a 36-disc box set of Haydn symphonies on eight CDs containing MP3 files.

What about you? Do you still buy CDs? If so, why? If not, what would get you to buy CDs again? Or is the CD dead for you?

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