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Don’t Call It a Comeback (Yet): How 2022 Could Determine the CD’s Fate

This year will likely serve as a bellwether for the format's future — and, so far, sales are down 10.5%.

Two years ago, the long-running New England comic book and music retail chain Newbury Comics made an unexpected change: They created more space for CDs.

“It was right before the pandemic started, after the 2019 holidays,” Newbury Comics senior buyer Larry Mansdorf tells Billboard on the decision to increase their in-store square footage dedicated to CD space. At that point, U.S. CD sales were steadily plummeting — as they had been for a decade and a half — but Mansdorf saw clear evidence of growing interest in compact discs.

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“We reacted to the previous 18 months’ worth of sales data to see what people were responding to,” says Mansdorf. Newbury began a process of increasing their CD inventory by 13% across their 30 locations, making sure stores that were primarily selling vinyl records featured more of a mix of physical music products.

Newbury Comics was a couple years ahead of the curve: After CD album sales fell 26% in 2020, they bounced back last year with a 1.1% increase to 40.59 million albums sold — the format’s first gain since 2004, according to MRC Data. While remarkable vinyl sales are driving overall album sales for the first time in a decade, the uptick in CD sales has sparked ideas of a similar compact disc comeback. But was 2021 a fluke, or the beginning of an upward trajectory? For its part, Newbury is doubling down on that CD growth by “reactivating some titles that had fallen out of the system,” says Mansdorf, “and [we] revived a bunch of core catalog, to see what we can do.”

A wait-and-see approach may make the most sense before a full-blown CD revival is declared. After all, CD sales would have continued to fall in 2021 had Adele not returned with a new album. Released Nov. 19, 30 was 2021’s top-selling CD in just a month and a half, with 898,000 copies sold, accounting for 2.15% of all CD sales, and singlehandedly pushing year-over-year CD sales up from 2020.

This year will likely serve as a bellwether for the CD’s future, following two years in which retail conditions were significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of last year’s sales uptick can likely be chalked up to many retail stores shutting down in 2020 — when CD sales were down 26%, its biggest year-to-year decline to date — then re-opening in 2021, helping to produce a slight year-over-year sales increase. So far in 2022, CD album sales stand at 3.65 million through the week of Feb. 10 — down 10.5% compared to the same time frame as last year, although year-to-date vinyl album sales are also down 6.8%, totaling 4.22 million.

For the most part, when fans buy CDs, they’re now buying a lot more than a compact disc. Last year’s other top-selling albums included Taylor Swift’s two re-recorded sets, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and Red (Taylor’s Version); BTS’s 2020 releases, Map of the Soul: 7 and Be; and Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, Sour. All those releases featured versions that included extra collectibles like T-shirts, posters and postcards to help encourage sales. Swift even offered personally autographed editions of her CDs.

So far in 2022, the trend of bundling CDs with other goodies has continued with several major releases: The Weeknd’s Dawn FM included multiple signed collector’s editions available through the superstar’s official webstore, a signed CD sold at independent record stores and a Target-exclusive version with alternate cover art. Meanwhile, the K-pop group ENHYPEN’s Dimension: Answer was issued in three collectible packages, each with randomized keepsakes like photocards and bookmarks. More CD releases with deluxe editions — from artists like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rex Orange County, Lights and Slash — will be available in the coming weeks.

CD believers should, however, be heartened that the uptick has not been limited to new major-label releases with collectible tie-ins. Mansdorf says that sales of catalog albums, particularly rock full-lengths from bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, drove the increase of CDs at Newbury, with classic albums selling “two to three times what they had done” in previous years in the format. Last year, sales of catalog CDs — defined as albums that are 18 months or older and have fallen below No. 100 on the Billboard 200 chart — were up 1.4%, according to MRC Data, with 24.49 million catalog CDs sold last year compared to 16.1 million current CDs sold (up 0.5%) in 2021.

And in the indie sector, “CDs were up for us as well last year,” says Patrick Addison, label manager of Oxford, Miss.-based Fat Possum Records, home to artists like the Weather Station and Spiritualized. While Addison says that the Fat Possum team has had some strategy discussions about deluxe-edition CD packaging, he believes the format is rebounding on its own merits. “I think CDs are just downright reliable and still sound great,” he says. “And of course, vinyl has been so difficult and unreliable lately.”

Addison is referring to the production backlogs that have prevented supply chains from meeting the insatiable demand for vinyl, a format that enjoyed a 51.4% increase in sales last year, up to 41.72 million albums from 27.55 million in 2020. For the first time since MRC Data started tracking music sales in 1991, vinyl albums outsold CD albums for the year — but because it can often take months for vinyl copies of an album to be produced, CDs can serve as a physical alternative that’s cheaper to produce and easier to secure.

This will be especially true as tours and festivals kick into high gear this year and artists focus on the merchandise that they bring along, points out Chris Hassen, production manager at the indie label Polyvinyl Record Co. “Most of the discussions [about CDs with artists] are centered around the touring realm and what kind of products they’re going to have available to sell at shows,” he says. “Vinyl production has become really backlogged … and so a lot of the conversation has been around trying to make bands aware of that situation and saying, ‘Okay, if you go on a tour, we have some records, but if we run out, we have re-presses in, but they’re not going to get done anytime soon, unfortunately. So, you might want to think about bringing more CDs on the road this time.’ ”

And even in situations where artists have vinyl and CD versions of the same album readily available for sale, Hassen adds, the price point for the CD is always going to win over some consumers. “They’ll see a CD on a merch table at a show, and maybe it’s $10, whereas the vinyl could be $20 or $25,” he says. “You’re getting the same music, but you need to pay a lot less for it.”

There’s another way vinyl’s resurgence may be helping CD sales, says Laura Provenzano, senior vp purchasing and marketing at Alliance Entertainment, particularly when streaming remains the dominant form of music consumption. “We have reminded people about the concept of owning things, which older people have discovered they don’t own anything with streaming,” says Provenzano. “Also, that means we are introducing the concept of owning to the younger generation. As a result, there are some artists whose packages that they have and want to own. So, when they buy the package, it dawns on them that they own it.”

But can a CD revival actually materialize in an era when cars and laptops can’t play them and portable CD players are selling as retro novelty items at Urban Outfitters? Most new cars don’t carry CD players — Ford stopped including them in new models in 2017 – and while stationary record players have survived format upheaval, the non-Bluetooth stereo is a relic of a bygone era.

Hassen says that he’s “personally not too optimistic that it’s actually going to come to fruition…. It just kind of seems like all of the places where CDs were useful seem to be dwindling.” Then again, maybe the format can offer the perfect mix of nostalgia and practicality. “Most people don’t have new cars,” says Addison. “There are so many cars with CD players still. When I’m driving around, I’m putting a CD in instead of messing with my phone. I think a lot of people like that, too.”

Additional reporting from Ed Christman.