No, that linkbait headline isn’t talking about the current cachet of vinyl records. It’s comparing compact discs to vinyl in the 1990s, when the former started to edge out the latter in retailer shelf space.
I saw it happen gradually throughout my years in high school, and it’s weird seeing history repeat itself on the very thing that ushered in that change.
Week after week, a row of record bins in my favorite music shops would yield to compact discs. By the time I graduated, CDs had nearly taken over entire stores. Classical sections had surrendered months beforehand. In 1992, all stores reconfigured their bins exclusively for compact discs. Remember the longbox? It was a stop-gap measure to allow CDs to be stocked in bins designed for vinyl records.
That was the day vinyl was supposed to die.
Of course, it didn’t die. Vintage vinyl migrated to thrift shops, second-hand stores and special conventions. Independent bands kept the format alive all throughout the compact disc’s reign. I’m not going to analyze why the format rebounded. I’m just going to be thankful it did.
But turnabout is fair play for the compact disc. When I worked at Waterloo Records in the early 2000s, vinyl records occupied one aisle of bins. By the time I moved from Austin to Seattle 10 years later, vinyl records took up the entire second room of the store.
Stores in Seattle show the same symptoms. I’ve seen rows of CDs turn into rows of vinyl at Everyday Music and Sonic Boom. Spin Cycle Records doesn’t even stock CDs.
So what’s happening to all those aluminum discs? Pretty much, the same thing that happened to vinyl.
First, labels stopped pressing discs. New releases still show up on CD, but catalog titles have either gone out of print or are offered as print-on-demand. As a result, inventory in stores becomes second-hand.
Waterloo used to separate used discs from unopened inventory. That changed in the middle of the aughts. On my last visit to the store, Waterloo reflected the reality of music shops everywhere — used discs outnumbered new ones.
Vinyl went through a similar trough in the ’90s. The glut of unwanted LPs meant bargain hunters and adherents to the format could go hunting. They pillaged the thrift shops and second-hand stores of prime catalog titles, setting up the collector’s market that would eventually inflate the price of vinyl.
I’m starting to see signs that CDs have reached that point where prices on used discs are starting to inflate. Inflation has already hit unopened discs.
Camelcamelcamel.com tracks Amazon pricing on products over time. Some of the titles on my list have hit the $0.01 mark, but that time has long past. One example: a Nonesuch recording of Philip Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts at one time reached a low of $3.61 for a used copy. It’s currently selling for about $60. An unopened copy sells for $360.
What does that mean for the future of the format? Will we see compact discs priced more expensively than they were?
CDs are becoming collectibles now, so yes, some titles will be exorbitantly priced. Most will end up in bargain bins.
The role of hardware manufacturers is seldom discussed in the fate of formats. Vinyl didn’t go away because the players didn’t completely disappear from electronic stores. Cassette tape decks and VHS players didn’t fare as well. As long as there are CD players made, there will be CDs to play them.
I don’t imagine CDs having a resurgence the way vinyl has. The last transition went from one physical format to another physical format. The current transition has gone from physical to ephemeral.
If such a renaissance were to occur, perception would need to put focus back on the benefits of the compact disc. Market forces have moved away from the concept of ownership, but that may change when titles start disappearing from people’s streaming libraries.
I can picture it — a listener falls in love with an artist’s music. She adds that artist to her streaming library. The artist has a squabble, and the rights to that music come into question. It disappears from the library. The listener scrambles to find that artist elsewhere, but all traces have been scrubbed from all digital vendors. Now what?
This scenario is why I have doubled down on physical formats. My collection has actually grown, and bargains are pretty abundant right now.