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In the UK, CDs are down but a long way from out

  • “2021 in Music: vinyl & cassettes continue surge” — that’s the headline from music industry organisation, the BPI, ahead of its 2021 report on the UK’s music consumption habits. Vinyl sales are reportedly up 10%, cassettes 20%. CD sales – which rate no mention in the headline – are down 12%. Clearly, the BPI is growth focussed. Fair enough. It’s their business to be bullish about sales growth. However, many publications picking up this story will do so with a heavy vinyl focus. And yet this is only half the story.

    If we look at the BPI’s figures once more, we see that 200,000 cassettes were sold in the UK in 2021. That’s 1/25th of vinyl’s 5 million units. But despite the CD’s seventeenth annual sales decline, British music fans still bought 14 million silver discs in 2021. That’s almost three times the number of vinyl LPs. The plot thickens further with the news that the decline in UK CD sales is slowing.

    From the BPI: “The drop-off in CD sales has reduced from 27% annually between 2018 – 2020 to just a predicted -12% in 2021, with sales boosted by CD-friendly releases from superstar artists such as Adele, Ed Sheeran and ABBA. This suggests that reducing demand for the format, which is nearing its 40th anniversary, maybe bottoming out thanks to a core group of baby-boomer and newer fans that remain committed to the audio format.”

    The BPI’s data remain preliminary until its full UK music sales report is issued on 4th January 2022.

    A good time then to remind ourselves of the CD’s benefits.

    The artist gets more of our money when we buy a CD than when we stream. Many music fans use streaming services as a tasting plate to help them decide which albums to buy in a physical format.

    Like vinyl, CDs give us a hands-on ‘hit’ – the packaging and liner notes to read whilst listening – but crucially without vinyl’s surface noise and higher storage burden. Analogue-or-die purists turning their nose up at a CD’s digital audio content are reminded that the majority of modern-day vinyl LPs are cut from hi-res digital files.

    Another compelling reason to choose CD over vinyl is price. Even for new releases, CDs are considerably cheaper than their vinyl counterpart; sometimes 50% cheaper. On the used market, CD prices are heading ever southward as Moms and Dads downsize in favour of streaming’s physical oblivion. How long until they miss owning a music collection? Furthermore, a used CD’s purchase doesn’t come with the grading or shipping-damage angst of used vinyl. CDs are physically more resilient than vinyl, both inside and out. They’re cheaper to ship too.

    One oft-overlooked benefit of older CDs is that they give us access to an album’s superior-sounding original master — one that is often displaced by remastered deluxe editions on streaming services. The spruced-up edition might offer b-sides, outtakes, radio sessions or live sets is usually delivered via a louder, more dynamically-compressed sound. Compare the 1983 original of The The’s Soul Mining to the 2002 remaster and listen for yourself. An album’s 10th or 25th anniversary might see the record company digging deep for bonus material but more often than not they drop the ball when communicating with remastering engineers on how loud is simply too loud.

    In an era when privacy is becoming an increasingly valued ‘commodity’, CDs allow us to enjoy digital playback (like that of streaming services) but without our choices being tracked and profiled by a corporation. CD playback is private.

    Whether you agree or not with these reasons to keep buying CDs, we cannot argue with the BPI’s findings that CDs still outsell vinyl 3 to 1 in the UK.

    Further information: BPI

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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