In 1987 Big Black released a CD compilation called The Rich Man’s Eight Track Tape with the following admonition printed on the face of the disc: “When, in five years, this remarkable achievement in the advancement of fidelity is obsolete and unplayable on any ‘modern’ equipment, remember, in 1971, the 8-track tape was the state of the art.” Though CDs have hardly gone the way of the eight-track, it’s hard to argue that they’ve earned their longevity—whatever advantages they may have offered in 1983, they’re a crap format now.
Given that my speakers and headphones—like most people’s gear, I bet—sound just as good playing 192 kbps MP3s as they do playing CDs, there’s no good reason for me to have heaps of jewel cases and Digipaks on my shelves, in my cabinets, stacked on top of my cabinets, and spilling across my desk. Even at the same bit rate as CDs, sound files are way handier—easier to store, easier to send, easier to copy. They don’t fill up my personal space with disposable plastic crap, and they’re not made from bisphenol-A.
The only defensible reason to buy CDs these days is an attachment to music-as-artifact—every so often you see one with really beautiful packaging. But on that front they lose out big to vinyl, which offers album artists a much bigger canvas and sidesteps the annoying problem of fragile jewel cases and CD spindles. If you’re going to own music you have to lug around, vinyl is the obvious choice—even if you don’t respond to LPs as totemic objects, like so many record fiends do, you have to admit that their creamy analog sound beats the hell out of digital reproductions. (That’s right, I said it.) CDs don’t do nearly as much to justify the physical space they require.
I’m probably more fed up with CDs than the average person because they’re part of my job. In fact the only people I know who are as tired of CDs as I am are running record labels. Though advances in computer and Internet technology rendered the format obsolete almost a decade ago, only now is its passing really starting to look inevitable—the majors have been complaining about sagging CD sales for years, of course, and when I talked to Drag City, Thrill Jockey, and Flameshovel for this story, they confirmed that they’ve experienced similar drops. But all three labels also report steady increases in sales of digital downloads and vinyl. Those trends seem to suggest a pretty clear business plan, at least for the near-term future, and two local imprints are already on board.
This week Flameshovel is putting out Make Believe’s Going to the Bone Church as a vinyl LP and an unlocked MP3 download—it’s the label’s first release that won’t have a CD version at all. This, according to Flameshovel cohead James Kenler, is the way his label might end up releasing everything. One camp of consumers, he says, “doesn’t see any innate value in consumable music at this point. So these people steal music, rip from their friends’ CDs, or don’t really have any strong feelings about the aesthetics of the CDs they do purchase.” He admits that this is a generalization, but it fits more than a few people I know who own huge hard drives full of music and haven’t bought a CD since Napster happened. “The other extreme,” he says, “is that you have someone who cares to the utmost level about the packaging, and they’re the ones who are going to continue to buy music no matter how they do it, and they’re interested in a more tangible connection.” Kenler’s strategy is to cater more to that second set and worry less about people who wouldn’t be giving him money anyway.
Make Believe fans willing to pay for that tangible connection will get a collectible 180-gram LP and a poster in a sleeve of high-quality stock; the album’s being pressed in an edition of 1,000 (450 copies bone colored), and Kenler says any future pressings will be in different packaging so as not to dilute the collectibility of this edition. Plus every record comes with a download code. “People who don’t have record players or are concerned about the portability of LPs,” he says, “can still download it directly from our site and have it for their iPods and their cars.”
“In a lot of ways this is a test,” Kenler explains. “Some of the other people in the industry we’ve talked about it with are interested to see how it pans out for us.... I don’t know that it means we’ll be doing more releases just vinyl and digitally, or if it means we’re going to try to play up this sort of polarized market we’re looking at. Even with CDs, do we make them more limited in scope, more aesthetically pleasing, spend a little more money on packaging and charge a little more for it for the people who want to buy it, and spend less and concern ourselves less with hitting the broader market?”
Bruce Adams, cofounder of Kranky, seems a little more confident about what direction to take. His new label, Flingco Sound System (he sold his share of Kranky in 2005), won’t be selling CDs at all, just album downloads and vinyl. “Rather than invest money in printing CDs,” he says, “I decided to invest in the capacity to sell downloads myself. The onetime investment in software coding will generate returns for a long time. The profit margin on a download album is healthy, too.”
FSS plans to put out four albums its first year, two of them digitally and two as digital-vinyl combos. Like Bone Church, FSS’s vinyl pressings are aimed at connoisseurs—Adams believes the “buying physical artifacts” market is shifting toward that customer base. “Record stores are dwindling in number,” he says. “Those that are left in five years might be more like Aquarius Records or Dusty Groove than Tower Records. They will want unique products to draw customers through the door.”
It helps that the extremely uncommercial artists on FSS’s release schedule appeal pretty much exclusively to an audience that takes its music seriously—not too many trend hoppers will be checking out the gnarly melted-down black metal of Wrnlrd or the eerie electroacoustic experiments of Haptic. Adams hopes to earn the loyalty of that audience with a subscription service that rewards them with goodies like nonalbum music and posters. “The big advantage in the model that I see,” says Adams, “is the opportunity to have a direct relationship with customers. I can send music directly to them digitally; I can offer special bonus items (both physical and digital) that they can’t get anywhere else.”
Adams doesn’t see how self-financed start-up labels have any incentive to mass-produce CDs anymore—sinking $5,000 into a run, he says, “seems like a losing bet for anyone putting their own money on the line.” But that’s not the only reason he’s ditching the format. “Cutting out CDs,” he says, “means more room in my basement.”v
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