Compact discs whither? Not so fast, say Vancouver indie record stores

Rumours of CDs’ death have been greatly exaggerated, says Red Cat Records co-owner Dave Gowans.

Oh, to be a CD in 2018.

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Streaming sites mock your apparent lack of convenience.

Cassettes are somehow nipping at your heels, despite their inferior sound quality.

Vinyl, the very format you were brought in to replace, is outselling you by upwards of 80 per cent.

And to top it all off, the Internet suggests you were on death’s door as of July 1.

Where to begin.

The demise of the disc was widely reported earlier this year, with all signs pointing to Canada Day as the end date for CD sales at Best Buy.

A February report in Billboard Magazine said as much and major outlets across North America ran with the same story.

“Best Buy to Pull CDs” the headline said, along with a report citing “anonymous sources” with ties to what was once the largest music merchandiser in North America.

A little digging reveals a different story.

Best Buy U.S. spokesperson Bianca Jones told the Courier that the July 1 date was arbitrary at best, speculation at worst. The company had never issued a July 1 directive, nor has it pulled out of CD sales.

Instead, a smaller footprint in each store will still carry CDs, along with some vinyl and other music merchandise. Those discs under $5 or $6, referred to as “value CDs,” will live on down south.

Best Buy Canada, meanwhile, pulled out of the CD game in June 2016.

“That July 1 date really wasn’t anything on our radar, it wasn’t a starting point for us, it wasn’t any sort of date that ever mattered to our team,” Jones told the Courier in a phone interview from Minnesota.

That’s about all Jones would confirm. She didn’t say when the decision to scale back was made, how many CDs each store would sell, nor what precipitated the change. The Billboard article suggested CD sales were down 18.5 per cent in the U.S. last year, though Jones wouldn’t comment on the company’s sales trends.

The Courier reached out to a handful of independent music stores in Vancouver to make sense of the CD conundrum, and got input from shop managers from Red Cat, Beat Street, Highlife, Neptoon and Audiopile, along with Ryan Dyck, the label manager behind Vancouver’s Mint Records.

Prevailing trends emerged across the board in each interview. No one who spoke to the Courier was surprised by the Best Buy move. They all agreed that CD sales peaked sometime between 2001 and 2006 and will likely never make a comeback the way tapes currently are. And given their druthers, all of them listen to vinyl almost exclusively.

“Sound quality, artwork, the feeling of holding it and placing it on the turntable is very unique,” Beat Street owner Avi Shack said in an email. “I have worked hard for many years to curate a specific and unique library of music catered to exactly my tastes. I also believe in listening to music the way it originally came out.”

It’s little surprise that each outlet reported vinyl outselling CDs. Some were a 60/40 split, others reported an 80/20 difference. Mint Records releases typically see a 50 per cent run of vinyl, with the remainder split equally between CD and cassette.

Yes, the most outdated, useless and worst sounding playback format imaginable is making a comeback.

Why?

For starters, they’re cheap. Vancouver shops are selling them for as low as $1 each.

But there’s also a demographic that will never know a time when music didn’t come from a computer. To some in that generation, Walkmans and cassettes are ironically cool again.

“It’s a nice artifact, but whether they listen to them or not, I’m not sure,” Dyck said. “It’s definitely a younger crowd. They don’t remember tapes or they didn’t have tapes. It’s a novelty.”

On average, the price breakdowns at each location look something like this: new vinyl goes for anywhere between $20 and $50, used CDs range between $1 and $10 and tapes never go above $5.

In the case of Neptoon Records, Best Buy’s loss is Neptoon’s gain. It’s a continuation of a pattern seen since the mid-2000s when A&B Sound, Sam the Record Man and other large, music-specific chains went under.

As they did, a secondary market for CDs emerged and, at least in Neptoon’s case, that still exists today.

“For shops like us and other indies, it’s actually a good thing when these places stop [selling CDs],” store manager Ben Frith told the Courier. “We actually sell quite a few CDs in here still. The CD business is  A-OK for us. If you want anything other than the top 20, you’ve got to come to places like us to find it.”

That’s one thing CDs have going for them — resale value.

At Audiopile on Commercial Drive, CDs make up only 15 per cent of the store’s merchandise. But as people rid themselves of CDs, others are happy to come in and take them.

Curiously enough, those on the hunt for discs on the Drive are predominantly in their 50s and 60s.

“They’re of a generation where you bought your music and you need to own it. They got rid of their vinyl in the ’80s and ’90s and most of them aren’t going back,” said store manager Mark Richardson.

It’s within that sweet spot of golden oldies that Red Cat co-owner Dave Gowans suggests there is way for CDs to capitalize on a novelty niche.

Carrying an entire catalogue of CDs from seminal, long-standing artists is an enticing carrot to dangle for consumers who want the whole kit and caboodle in their hands.

Not only that, but compilation discs are also decent seller for Gowans. Major labels don’t typically press them anymore, and if you do find them on vinyl, they’re otherworldly expensive.

“It’s been really popular to shit on the CDs, with people saying ‘Oh I don’t listen to CDs.’ But they’re a really convenient format,” Gowans said. “We constantly have tons of people having problems with vinyl records — it skips, it’s noisy, the turntable doesn’t work, or they’re playing a $50 record through a $100 turntable. With a CD, you buy it used for $6, you put it on and it sounds great.”

Decent sound and price points aside, there’s another mitigating factor driving CD sales — cars.

Vehicles built before the early 2000s don’t have the capacity to stream or shuffle. That 15-year period spanning the ’90s through 2004 saw tens of millions of vehicles made with the capacity for CDs only.

While those factors may not point to any sort of renaissance, there are still the odd cases to be made for the survival of the CD.

“It’s anyone’s guess whether the CD makes a comeback,” said Highlife owner Kevin Finseth. “I wouldn’t bet on it, but I think there will continue to be a small market for used CDs.”

Vancouver music community weighs in on the fate of CDs in 2018

The Courier spoke to independent music store managers and owners from across Vancouver to get their insights on the state of CDs in the today’s music marketplace.
Here’s what they said.

When you or your customers rid themselves of old CDs, what are the reasons?

“When people move away from physical product it usually because of space and convenience. Access to digital music is easy and effortless. These people are usually less picky about sound quality, artwork and creating their own unique library of music. True music collectors like to seek out specialty items, many of which are unavailable on streaming services.”
— Avi Shack, owner of Beat Street Records

“We have people bringing in CD collections of varying sizes four or five times a week. Typically they have already moved on to streaming or some other kind of computer music.”
— Kevin Finseth, owner of Highlife Records

“I need the space and I never find myself even putting them on. The ones I’m going to keep are the collectible ones that you can’t find.”
— Mark Richardson, manager of Audiopile

For those who still buy CDs, what are their reasons for that preference or level of attachment?

“Humans still like to touch things, pick up an object and collect them. As long as it’s accessible and easy to find, and the store is properly organized, people will come back and pick stuff up.”
— Dave Gowans, co-owner of Red Cat Records

“CDs are easy, they sound good and they don’t skip all the time. I’d bet 95 per cent of people wouldn’t be able to tell you the difference in sound quality between a record or a CD.”
— Ryan Dyck, label manager with Mint Records

“A lot of people are still attached to CDs. Some people aren’t comfortable with having an imaginary file on their phone that they don’t really own. You’re kind borrowing music that can disappear any time you want and the sound quality isn’t as good.”
— Ben Frith, manager of Neptoon Records

Do you think CDs will make a comeback similar to the way cassettes are now starting to re-emerge?

“All media is cyclical. We have already seen a resurgence. Not everyone wants to stream or download their music. A lot of people like to own a physical copy. It has more meaning having something to hold in your hand, artwork and liner notes are a bonus. If you own it, you have a back-up copy in case you stop your streaming service or lose access to your digital copy.”
— Avi Shack, owner of Beat Street Records

“I don’t think it’s a done deal. I think there will always be a market for it. We sell cassettes here too and people never thought those would come back. Those have come back a little bit because they’re cheap.”
— Mark Richardson, manager of Audiopile

“I can’t see it. But never say never.”
— Ben Frith, manager of Neptoon Records

@JohnKurucz

 

 

 

 

 

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