Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Should We Make CDs?

I want to ask you a question: Should we make Compact Discs?

In the last ten years or so, I've gone from being an avid CD collector, to being a not-so-avid CD avoider. In 2012 I bought maybe five all year, all of them purchased at shows that I attended. I acquired many more as gifts from those who made them. And I am thankful for these artists sharing their work with me via CD.

I gradually stopped shopping for CDs a few years ago as my iTunes collection became a more prominent feature of my life. At first I was concerned about the sound quality of the digital (as in iTunes/iPod etc) version being lower, but I can't honestly say I notice a difference. Perhaps if I did an A/B comparison I would notice something, but I never find myself thinking the quality is lacking when I'm listening digitally. Besides, many of my favorite historic recordings have crappy sound to begin with, and that's never bothered me.

What I do notice a difference in is the packaging. Obviously, we don't get anything but a picture of the cover in the computer version. CD artwork is nothing special when compared to vinyl, but as a jazz collector, the liner notes and credits are nice to have. My students who are checking out jazz records often have no idea who the side players are on the records they're hearing. But there are websites such as allmusic.com that are good for getting this information.

To me the biggest drawback to digital music collecting and Spotify, etc is the rate at which we acquire the stuff. Now if I discover a new musician or band, it's really easy to suddenly hear everything they've released. This can make it really hard to digest. I've made a conscious effort for myself to acquire an artist's work slowly. I even noticed this problem back in my CD buying days, when I'd buy a box set. The larger the amount, the harder to digest it seems.

I actually went through a vinyl phase two or three years ago. This was done in effort to feel the tangible object fully, and to force myself into a more interactive form of listening. Vinyl is not portable, it needs to be flipped over, the artwork is large, it smells great. One Saturday morning I found a great collection of contemporary classical vinyl that a street vendor had tossed in the trash can. It was amazing.

The vinyl period was fun while it lasted, and I still play vinyl at home occasionally, but there is one thing that killed it for me. It's called Spotify. There is plenty debated about Spotify, which you can find all over the Internet, but for me it comes down to two things: convenience, and no risk.

I subscribe to Spotify's premium service which means I pay $10 a month and that allows me to listen commercial free at supposedly a higher quality, and download music to my phone. Needless to say that this is very convenient. No trip to the store, no shopping online, no waiting. Just search and play. I connect to a wireless speaker in the house, so when I want the volume up or down, or I want to change songs, I just reach into my pocket and take action. I feel somewhat guilty that I often listen to records I own streaming on Spotify, while the CD version sits on the shelf. It's also very handy for teaching. If a student needs to hear a recording, I most likely have it with me in my pocket.

Even more influential than conveniences is the no risk factor. I can listen to anything on Spotify without buying it. This means if it sucks, I can simply stop listening to it, and it didn't cost me a thing, and it won't be taking up space on my shelf or on my hard drive. How am I supposed to take the $15 risk of buying a CD that I might end up not liking, when the free version is right there in my pocket already? Mind you that this is written by an independent musician who would benefit from people buying CDs. If I feel like the risk is not worth taking, there's no way the average listener will take it.

I would like to note that I still believe in albums. I listen to albums on Spotify. I enjoy the arc of a good album. I am not suggesting we should stop making albums and put out singles, although occasional singles wouldn't be a bad thing. And other ways of putting material out there are great as well. YouTube, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, etc are fast and efficient ways to share one's work.

Anyway, back to my original question. Should we make CDs?

Right now I see only two arguments for making CDs. 1.) They allow an artist to mail a physical object to a writer or venue. 2.) It might be advisable to be on every possible format, to meet the buyer wherever he or she may be.

I originally had a third argument in mind, which was having CDs to sell to your fans at shows. This is a nice thing to have, but on further thought, I've concluded that I'd prefer to buy vinyl that comes with a download coupon for the digital version. A 10" vinyl with great artwork and a handful of songs from the full record is something I'd much rather go home with than a CD.

I put out a couple of records in 2012, and I was actually surprised that most critics still wanted physical CDs. It seems like a horrible inconvenience to me. All this packaging and junk for something that might get listened to once or twice and then either take up space or have to be thrown away. Plus postage seems to be getting mor expensive - I actually lost money selling a CD to someone in Spain via my website a couple weeks ago! It seems like a digital version via email would be much easier for critics to deal with. But, I suppose we need to offer any format that they want. And perhaps a physical object is more difficult to forget about or ignore, than a digital copy.

The same goes for the listener. As hard as it may be to convince people to listen to our stuff, we should get rid of as many barriers as possible, including not being on the format that a listener prefers. With that in mind we should be on CD, vinyl, and all forms of digital and be selling in every place possible. If CD listeners are two percent or five percent of our audience, it might still be worth it to make CDs. This I think is the strongest argument to continue making them. But I'm not sure it's a winning argument. How important is the CD collecting minority to our cause?

What do you think? Artists and listeners, should we keep making CDs?


  1. For me, the strongest argument is the one involving critics, venue owners, etc. They still prefer to get CDs, because most of them are older, and they're used to that. My hope (for our wallets' sake) is that there will be, in the next 5 years, some sort of standard format that emerges; a PDF or text file one-sheet with attached MP3s that all DJs etc are comfortable using. The economic investment and waste of physical materials involved in sending people your record is getting a bit vulgar, though I suspect it's important as a filter for people who arealready dealing with way too full an inbox.

  2. Hi Jesse!

    What a nice post. I love its melancholy tone.

    I do think it's important to make some CDs of an album we make, mostly because of the reasons you present in your final paragraph: namely, that some people still buy CDs. Also, CDs continue to be the handiest form of physical album, so most people that do want something physical, I think, go for CDs.

    But the digital format is undoubtedly convenient to musicians. The amount of cost that we can save is too great to be ignored, apart from the shipping issues you mention. I made a long run of CD production once (by long run I mean 1000). Approximately 75% of my total cost was the CD manufacturing, and most CDs are sitting in boxes. For my next album, I will make 200 or 300, and the rest will be digital. In fact, I might be able to hold on to little inventory by making CDs as the audience demands them instead of producing them all at once, avoiding more risks and saving more costs.

    Times change, and with it, practices evolve. I think sometimes we might be a little reluctant to change our practices, as we don't want to constantly make an effort to re-adjust to our environment. We see that effort as a waste of time. But for better or worse, this evolution is going to continue to happen, and we might be bound to a constant process of adaptation.

    I totally agree with your observation about digesting music material. Digital production and distribution has made the pace of music production nowadays a bit invasive, as we no longer control the amount and variety of music that reaches us. In a way this process takes away the value of the music we listen to in every moment, since there is something new every second. And yes, tangible production is not a minor issue, because it helps the listener connect to the artist's creativity, as it is one more means of perceiving it and therefore retain it in his or her mind. I think I share the same melancholy that I can perceive in your post about the tangibility of our music. If this feeling is shared by many audience members as well, it might mean that physical production will never cease completely, because it is a somewhat necessary complement to music listening. Since it fulfills another need of listeners, we might be producing at least part of our music in CD format. I hope so!

  3. ooh. Omar, you (maybe accidentally) touched on something I like the idea of. You were talking about keeping low inventory by printing CDs in small batches. Well how about print-on-demand CDs? Like they're doing other merch now...t-shirts and coffee mugs and what not. And how about having printing centers in every country so that I don't have to spend $9 sending a CD to a buyer in Spain. The costumer orders, and then one CD is made at the facility closest to them.

  4. Nice one! Indeed, I hadn't thought of producing overseas directly. If you have a market over there, then why not? On-demand CDs also sounds great. I'd like to keep a little inventory for live shows, though.

  5. I agree that vinyl+download in the most attractive/practical option. The only issue (and a big one) is that most people don't have record players. And most people still want to walk away with a SOMETHING if they are going to plunk money down after their show. (If they are just going to download it, they might as well listen to you on Spotify). So for the time being, the SOMETHING with the broadest appeal and convenience is still a CD.

    The bands I'm in still significantly subsidize their tours with CD sales at shows and at this point I don't think that we could do nearly as well with vinyl or download cards.

  6. Thanks, Dan. I hadn't really thought much about Spotify deterring downloads, but that's certainly an issue. I think everyone's opinion will be heavily influenced by his or her own listening preferences. But maybe we musicians should be the arbiters of change. Just like Apple has stopped putting CD drives in computers and refused to use flash in mobile devices, we can encourage people to move on from CDs if that's our position.

    1. I was thinking more about what you said Dan. I'd venture to say that almost as many people don't have CD players either. See Mike Pride's FB thread from a few days ago. Perhaps the CD purchase at your show is for going home with a souvenir and a feeling of supporting the band, rather than practical listening. They'll probably import the CD into iTunes or listen to you on Spotify. As I said in the original post, I often find myself listening on Spotify while the same CD sits on the shelf. And actually if you think about it, listening on Spotify will continue to make money for the artist, even if it's only a fraction of a cent per play

    2. The stupid thing wouldn't let me finish. The payment artists or labels get on Spotify is lame, and that might be a whole other discussion.

  7. I saw your thread on FB. Read your blog post here. Then saw this interview in my news feed. Thought it was interesting.

    From an interview with Mark Miller (jazz critic from Canada), here is the complete interview: http://www.torontojazzblog.ca/2013/02/mark-miller-.html

    --For Mark’s 14th birthday he received five dollars and decided to purchase his first record
    at Simpson’s on Yonge Street, Toronto (where The Bay now stands). Having narrowed
    down his selection to either The Beach Boys or The Yardbirds, he finally settled on the
    latter: “I think that if I’d bought the Beach Boys, I’d be an accountant today”.

    Mark’s initial observation regarding the album was that the cover featured guitarist Jeff
    Beck, yet Eric Clapton was also playing on some tracks, “I guess even at 14, I had some
    sense of music having a history or a provenance, that these guys just didn’t just invent
    themselves.” His curiosity was sparked and thus his first history project commenced.
    Mark was fortunate to have access to a “very hip” local library in Etobicoke replete with

    B.B. King albums. Here he learned that Clapton had come out of B.B. King and B.B. King had come out of T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. It was all a matter of tracing things back to their origin and whittling them down to their essenc

    1. Thanks for your comment Andrew. I did a whole lot of tracing back coming up, and I still do. Do you think it's more difficult for people to trace back with digital? I would say that on one hand it would be easier to do that because it's so easy to find the stuff now. It's just a google search or Spotify search away. On the other hand, acquiring massive amounts of music at a time as we often do now, might allow things to get lost.

  8. Another development.... I was talking to my sister yesterday and she said that she listens to CDs all the time, but only in the car. Many people with cars more than a few years old have CD players, but no auxiliary port that an iPod or phone can be plugged into. So there is probably a large group of people in that category. CDs may live on in the car...