Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at email@example.com.
I know you are a huge CD collector. You probably already read the news of the first increase in CD sales since 2004. Do you think there is a new resurgence or revival of nostalgia towards this format as we have seen with vinyl in the last 10 years? — Rodolfo from Sonora, Mexico
Good to hear from you, Rodolfo. Of course I am aware of this news! Like you said, I am a CD collector and I have publicly defended the compact disc against legions of naysayers for the better part of a decade. I was in the pre-revival trenches back in 2014 when I wrote this:
Call it loyalty or lunacy, but the CD remains my preferred music delivery device. It’s more convenient than vinyl and more tangible than digital. I like the sense of continuity it gives my music collection, jumbling up records I bought in 1992 with 2003 and 2011 and yesterday. I like picking out discs for car rides and letting them collect over the course of weeks in the backseat. The rest I like looking at on display in my office — it’s part monument, part money pit, part mirror, part climbing hazard for my 2-year-old son.
My son is 9 now, by the way. But I still believe all of this. If you are a music fan who values a physical format, CDs sound great no matter where you play them, they are portable, and they are much cheaper than vinyl. And yet they’re regarded as an antiquated or even dead format. But you and I know better, don’t we, Rodolfo?
When I heard about the sales bump, I imagine my feelings were akin to being a fan of the Detroit Lions and seeing my team finally win a Super Bowl. We’ve taken a lot of L’s here in CD Nation, so a rare W must be savored. Now that people are talking about a CD revival, it appears that more people might be joining our side. Hallelujah!
But alas … something isn’t totally right here. If you look closely at the numbers — as much as it pains me to say this — the “revival” starts to look like a mirage. In 2021, CD sales were up 1.1 percent from the previous year, from 40.2 million in 2020 to 40.6 million. That’s not exactly a huge jump, though given that it was preceded by 16 solid years of decline, any increase seems impressive.
But if you look even closer at the numbers, you’ll see that Adele had the best sales week for CDs when she moved 378,000 copies of 30 immediately upon release. The week before that, Taylor Swift had the second best week for CDs when she sold 146,700 copies of her album, Red (Taylor’s Version). Unfortunately for the burgeoning CD revival, the two biggest pop stars in the world do not put out albums every year. Which suggests that this “surge” might be an aberration. Because guess what happens when you remove 378,000, and then 146,700, from 40.6 million? You get another year of decline for my precious format. [shakes fist at the sky] Going back to my Lions analogy, this isn’t like winning a Super Bowl at all; it’s like beating the Packers when they don’t have Aaron Rodgers. It’s a pity victory! The worst kind!
Having said all that, I still think there is hope for the CD revival. It’s just not with the mainstream. It’s with the underground.
I recently corresponded with another vocal CD supporter, the excellent guitarist and singer/songwriter Ryley Walker, about this very subject. Ryley runs a small record label called Husky Pants, in which he puts out his own albums as well as music by artists he believes in. Like so many indie rockers — as we’ve seen reported by various outlets — it’s become increasingly difficult for him to press his music on vinyl because of the expense and the long waiting periods that are now standard in the industry. We’re at a point now where many artists have to factor in a vinyl manufacturing timeline when it comes to planning when they can release music and tour. This is lunacy.
For Ryley, CDs are a sensible alternative.
“We’ve sort of been propagandized to believe LPs are the only pure form of music,” he told me. “I respect anybody’s choice to listen to music however they want. But LPs are just getting more expensive and pushing out the kids and true heads a.k.a. the people I want to hear the fucking music.”
One of the knocks against CDs is that the format is associated with a bloated era of the music industry in the late ’90s and early ’00s, when record labels made gouging customers a core part of their business plan. For millennials and zoomers old enough to remember a pre-Spotify world, CDs are those over-priced plastic coasters that they stopped buying when cheaper and more convenient technology emerged. There’s nothing cool about them.
Vinyl, meanwhile, is the format that several generations discovered from their parents or the cool music fans in their friend groups. It is linked with romantic notions of an “authentic” past, when you could simply sit back and relax in your living room with an album and absorb music in 20-minute intervals without all of the distractions that make modern life maddening. Vinyl — a format that otherwise is absurdly inconvenient and sounds good only if you have a good (and often expensive) turntable — is all about cool.
A roadblock for a real CD revival is that the media for years has essentially written off the format as a product for Luddites and nostalgists, while consistently providing the vinyl market with boosterish coverage. That was already true when I wrote my CD defense eight years ago, when vinyl sales were a fraction of what they are now. The glorification of vinyl (and the marginalization of CDs) didn’t just begin in the past few years. It’s been an ongoing project, I suspect, that all along has been quietly cheered on by the music industry, given the CDs are relatively inexpensive and have minimal cachet. Meanwhile the prestige of vinyl makes it easier to justify pumping up prices up higher and higher. That includes the resell market — on eBay from 2007 to 2017, the average vinyl price rose a staggering 490 percent. Anyone who buys records knows this trend has continued in the years since then.
And then there’s the cost of manufacturing vinyl. Ryley estimates that, at minimum, the unit cost per vinyl is about $5, which can go up if there are color inserts, a gatefold and other accoutrements. CDs, meanwhile, cost about 90 cents per disc if you order 1,000 units, with the price going down even further as you manufacture more discs, he says.
The math here isn’t complicated. If you want to support indie artists by buying a physical product, CDs are cheaper to produce and ship, and they don’t require the amount of lead time — which now can be many months in advance of a release date — that vinyl requires.
“CDs are not just nostalgic for me or something, it’s literally the thing that could save independent music,” Ryley argues. “I’m all about records and have tons but the bubble is bursting. It’s not niche anymore or sustainable. It’s bloated as fuck. And I mean that with all due respect to the wonderful pressing plants around the world busting their ass to make it work. I wish nothing but success for them.”
Like Ryley, I’m not arguing that people should stop buying vinyl. Fans derive real pleasure from collecting records, and it deepens their relationship with the music they love. I’m only suggesting that you also consider buying CDs if you aren’t already. CDs offer a similar “deep listening” experience that’s a refreshing change of pace from the constant churn of streaming. And buying CDs alleviates the pressure on bands with vinyl-loving constituencies to stock up only on the most cumbersome and impractical format. (Remember: It’s not Adele or Taylor Swift’s fault that there’s a vinyl shortage. It’s the demand from vinyl buyers who will only ever buy vinyl.) If that happens, maybe we can have a real CD revival.
I’ve always liked your Five Great Albums Test from your AV Club days. My question is: Who is currently a contender to pass the test? Who is on the “watch list” of three or more consecutive great albums? — Todd from West Lafayette, Indiana
Hey Todd! I am always down for some Five Albums Test talk. We recently welcomed The War On Drugs into the fold upon the release of their fifth album, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, last October. Looking ahead to 2022, there are two very strong contenders on the near-horizon: Big Thief will release their fifth album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, on Feb. 11; and Father John Misty will drop his fifth joint, Chloë And The Next 20th Century, on April 8. I have promos of both records, and while I am legally prohibited from publicly stating an opinion about them at this juncture — not really, but I’d probably annoy my editor — I will say that I think that Big Thief and FJM are both well-positioned moving forward.
Another band with a new album due out next month is Beach House — the LP is called Once Twice Melody, and it comes out Feb. 18 — who I think might have already passed the test, though I’m not in a position to judge because I’m more of a casual fan. But my sense is that their run began with 2010’s Teen Dream, and continues through 2018’s 7, one of their most acclaimed records. The potential catch here is 2015’s Thank Your Lucky Stars, the quickie followup to Depression Cherry, though again I’ll defer on that to a more informed fan.
As for the “watch list” of prospects, I’m curious if Mitski can continue the three-album winning streak that began with 2014’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek upon the release of Laurel Hell on Feb. 4. Frankly, I haven’t loved the singles, but I am enough of a Mitski fan to hope that the songs shine brighter in the context of the album. I also have to shoutout Wild Pink, whose first three albums have ranked among my favorites of recent years. I have faith they can bring it home with at least two more great records.