Not even Taylor Swift can bring back CDs

Not even Taylor Swift can bring back CDs

VINYL snobs, unclench: Reports of the compact disc’s resurrection are greatly exaggerated. Contrary to claims that CDs are making a comeback on the back of Gen Z interest, its long fadeout has, at best, been interrupted. Not even the kiss of life from the industry’s reigning princess charming is likely to revive the fortunes of music’s most unloved format.

The figurative smooch from Taylor Swift, who released albums in both formats last year, pushed CD sales up just a scooch from 2022’s 35.87 million to 36.83 million albums, not enough to match 2021’s dead-cat-bounce of 46.7 million albums. On the other hand, sales of long- and extended-play records continued an 18-year growth streak to 49.61 million albums in the US — again, with a solid assist from Swift.

To be clear, all these numbers are dwarfed by streaming. According to Luminate, the music data tracking firm, there were 1.2 trillion (no typo) on-demand audio streams in the US last year, up 12.7%. Morgan Wallen’s One Thing At A Time was the US chart topper of the year, with 6.36 billion audio streams; Swift’s Midnights was a distant second at 2.86 billion.

Still, the contest between physical album formats is significant, vinyl overtook CDs in sales in 2022 for the first time in a quarter of a century; not coincidentally, it was also the year Swift sold more vinyl records than CDs, with her Midnights becoming the first album to accomplish that feat since the 1980s.

And the older format looks likely to widen the gap. Vinyl sales ended 2023 on a high, with over 2 million units sold in the week ending Dec. 21, the third largest since 1991.

This is, on the face of it, somewhat counterintuitive. Vinyl’s steady growth since 2005, and its especially strong performance since streaming platforms became the main mode of music consumption, is usually attributed to fans’ desire for a physical representation — an artifact — of their passion. A record is not only more tangible than a song list, it also conveys a sense of greater commitment: Whereas an average Swiftie might satisfy themselves with a T-shirt or hoodie from the merch table at one of her concerts, a superfan would demonstrate a higher devotion by purchasing an album.

You’d think that CDs would allow more Swifties to aspire to super-Swiftie status. After all, they are much cheaper, running from $12.89 to $18 per album on the singer’s website. Her vinyl offerings start from $29.99. And yet, look at the 2023 annual report from Luminate and you’ll see that five Swift vinyl albums topped 300,000 units in sales, compared to only one of her CDs. All of the top five vinyl records sold in the US were Swift albums, with 1989 (Taylor’s Version) becoming that rarest of things — an album that moved more than a million vinyl units. The CD version sold 800,000.

But then, forking out 30 bucks for something you can have for less than half the price is the whole point of superfandom, and not just in its Swiftie variant. This writer has, over the years, bought half a dozen vinyl variants of AC/DC’s Back in Black — the first album I ever acquired, and still my all-time favorite — including a tribute version in a hideous translucent curacao color that set me back more than $50. (Will the friend who “borrowed” it kindly give it back?)

Alert readers will have noticed that I avoided discussion on the relative sonic merits of vinyl records and CDs. Having been a passionate debater on this topic during my misspent youth, when I was a vinyl snob myself, I have long since concluded that the dichotomy was ever false. For all the scorn heaped on them by purists and vinyl partisans, CDs — which turned 40 last year — became the dominant format of the late 1980s and ’90s because they were cheaper and easier to store.   

Those qualities seem to matter less to those who buy physical albums these days, so the pendulum has swung the other way. There may be room for both formats on merch tables, but there’s no denying which is the fan favorite. — Bloomberg Opinion