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How the Decline of the Compact Disc Is Killing Music

The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.

The demise of the compact disc will have consequences in decades to come.

The demise of the compact disc will have consequences in decades to come.

Goodbye CDs

Not long ago, I bought a new Jeep, and I absolutely love it. It looks awesome, and it has knobby tires and four-wheel drive that comes in very handy where I live. It has countless gadgets, mostly controlled by a touch screen on the dash.

It has a computer that monitors everything from oil life to tire pressure, and it has a GPS system to tell me where I am and where I am supposed to be going. It has heated seats, and it has a cool backup camera to prevent me from accidentally running stuff over.

CD Players Not in New Cars

But do you know what it doesn’t have? A compact disc player. It has USB ports and an SD card reader, and it has Bluetooth and an aux-in jack, but not a CD player. While this doesn’t make me love my Jeep any less, and I know it has become the standard on most vehicles, it is a bit frustrating.

I don’t know exactly how many CDs I own. Certainly, there are many hundreds, if not over a thousand. They are all now useless in my new vehicle.

Apparently, CDs just aren’t cool anymore. This move by car companies reflects a trend in society in general. People don’t buy CDs the way they used to, and why should they when there are other, more convenient ways to buy and store music?

It's a Digital World (1s & 0s)

But for me, the decline of the compact disc isn’t just annoying. I think it’s an indicator of a much greater problem that won’t be fully realized for a decade or more. And, when it eventually comes down, it will hit music lovers hard.

In this article, I’ll try to explain why I’m not just frustrated by the move away from compact discs, but downright frightened.

This is how many people listen to their favorite albums. For all of its convenience, though, streaming isn't preserving music.

This is how many people listen to their favorite albums. For all of its convenience, though, streaming isn't preserving music.

Technology Marches On

Before I had a big CD collection, I had a big cassette tape collection. Again, I had hundreds of them. Maybe twenty-five years ago I started trading them in and replacing them with CDs.

Before cassettes, people collected vinyl records. I only had a couple of those, but I do remember when most home stereo systems came with a record player. I also remember the 8-track boom when I was a kid, which was but a flash in the pan.

Technology changes and advances, and generally that’s a good thing. As tough as it is to find a compact disc player in a new car these days, it’s a whole lot tougher to find one that has a cassette player. It’s unrealistic to expect CD technology, or any technology, to exist forever.

Digital Music Is Accessible and Convenient

Today, digital music is the thing. You don’t need to own a physical version of the music. You can download it, store it and play it when you feel like it. You don’t even need to buy the whole album if you’d rather buy just one song, and you can carry many hundreds of songs with you on one small storage device.

Or, you can avoid all of that and sign up for one of the music streaming services.

In a lot of ways that’s pretty cool. Consumers have more choices and can move more quickly when they want to make a purchase. Bands are able to get their music out there to more people. But in other ways, I think, this model will eventually damage music as we know it.

The problem isn’t that compact discs are going away. It is that they aren’t being replaced by another physical, durable medium. Digital music, stored in the cloud or even on your own personal hard drive or storage device, has an inherently short shelf life.

Digital Music Isn't Necessarily Preservation

When technology changes again, when a digital service ceases to exist, when you change computers, or when you delete a user account, you may make an effort to retain some of the music you like, but much of it will be gone forever. There are no physical copies to stand as a record that it ever existed at all.

If music isn’t important to you, you probably don’t care about this. If you are like the typical consumer you buy music on a whim and have no particular allegiance to any band, artist, or genre. Music is just something in the background to distract you when you aren’t thinking about Dancing with the Stars.

But if music means something to you, or if you think art and culture with substance and value should matter, this is really bad news. To me, an album by a band I love is something I want to hold in my hands and cherish. If my hundreds of CDs were stored on my computer instead of sitting on my shelf it wouldn’t be the same.

Music matters, and it should be preserved for the future.

Music matters, and it should be preserved for the future.

Why Physical Music Matters

If you were a Beatles fan back in the ‘60s you probably bought the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band record when it first came out in 1967. I’d bet a lot of Beatles fans still own those same original albums they spent their pennies on way back then. It still exists in physical form, even if it is stored in a box somewhere. And, if you go out and find a turntable, you can still listen to it.

If you are a bit younger and you were a Beatles fan back in 1980 you probably bought Sgt. Pepper’s on cassette. If you are younger still, in 1990 you likely bought the album on CD.

Heck, there are probably a lot of people who own Sgt. Pepper’s on vinyl, cassette, and CD, having upgraded each time technology changed. Many copies of each of those still exist, somewhere. They are physical things you can touch and hold.

Physical Media Is Preservation

But the next generation who buys Sgt. Pepper’s will do so in a digital format. Where will that digital copy be in ten, twenty, or thirty years? Chances are it will not exist, at least not the version that you downloaded.

The Beatles are one thing, but what about a new band that releases their first album today? If most of their music is sold in digital format, where will those albums be in the future? It simply isn’t possible to hold on to a collection of music in digital format for years and decades the way you could with vinyl, cassette, and CDs. If you hope to do so, you are depending on a range of unlikely variables.

"So what if I lose my Sgt. Pepper’s album when my computer explodes or technology changes," you might be thinking. Surely there will be versions of an old album in new formats just like there were in cassette and CD. You can just buy it again.

You’re right. Beatles albums will probably be offered in all modern formats until the end of time, but that’s not true for all bands. It’s nice to think that record companies would continue to offer a band’s music in new formats for anyone who wants it, but if the money isn’t there surely they won’t bother. There will be songs, albums, and entire bands that end up completely lost to time.

That happened with other formats too. But the difference was if a band released a vinyl record album back in 1965 and it was never released on cassette tape or CD, at least copies of the vinyl record are potentially still around. Even though some rare or old albums are no longer printed in any format, if you put your mind to it you could buy an old one on eBay or from a collector if you are lucky.

Obscure Music at Risk in All-Digital Universe

That won’t be true of digital music. Record companies will decide what music lives and dies based on popularity, which is what they’ve always done. But, without physical copies, the fans of future generations will miss out on a lot of great music that didn’t make the cut. It will simply be gone.

This will hit fans of more obscure genres like metal, jazz, and classical especially hard. If you are a casual pop music fan, again, you probably won’t care. However, I like to think maybe you'd care simply because the loss of so much great music will make the world a worse place.

You can't stream CDs, but at least you own the music.

You can't stream CDs, but at least you own the music.

Where Will Your Music Be In 20 Years?

If you buy an album in digital form today, do you expect to still own it in twenty years? If so, you are banking on some pretty unlikely events. You need to hope that in twenty years there is still some program or service that plays whatever format your music is stored in.

You’re going to have to hope whatever technology you are storing it on remains viable, intact, and free of viruses, and that you remember to back everything up correctly and transfer it over each time you change computers or devices.

If you are storing your music online or in the cloud, you need to depend on those services being around in twenty years, and you need to hope they don’t have some kind of problem or disappear overnight. You are going to have to hope that, if something bad does happen, there is still some version of your music out there for you to replace your lost copy.

Digital Music Requires a Backup Plan

To be clear, digital music technology is a good thing. It’s good for new bands, it’s good for established bands and it’s good for the consumer. It makes things easier for everybody, and if you are an unsigned band there has never been a time in history when it is more possible to get your music out to more people.

But it lacks a sturdy vessel, and that’s a big problem. We can’t rely on hard drives and “cloud storage” to protect our music and culture for years or decades to come. Unless this changes, in twenty years there will be a lot of music you remember from years past that you simply will not have access to anymore. It may exist somewhere, in the digital vault of some record company, but as far as the public is concerned it is gone.

Personally, I like the idea that I can remember a band from my high school or college days and still easily find their music. And, for me and I know many others, it’s also about more than just the audio portion of an album. I love the album art, leafing through the liner notes and song lyrics, and all the other great stuff that came with a CD or album. With digital music, all of it is gone and that’s really sad.

Physical albums have value beyond the audio.

Physical albums have value beyond the audio.

What Can We Do?

I was wandering around a thrift store the other day, checking out their shelves of second-hand CDs. Somebody had once thought it was a good idea to purchase each of those albums but has since decided they didn’t want them anymore. So, they sold them to the thrift shop, where another person can pick them up for a dirt-cheap price. The music lives on, for another generation.

If they were digital albums, the original owner would have simply deleted them when they were sick of them. What a crime. Is there any way to change this way of thinking, and would we even want to?

The Hidden Cost of Convenience

In my 30+ years as a musician, I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that trying to create any logical change in mainstream culture is like trying to stop a hurricane with a desk fan. The vast majority of people simply don’t care about what will happen in twenty years.

As consumers, they want what is cheapest and easiest, and in some ways that’s understandable. They will continue to download songs for a few bucks a pop and the music industry will continue to give them what they want. Expecting people to wake up and figure out the damage this could do is unrealistic.

So, if you do happen to care about music, what can you do? For me, the answer is to continue to buy CDs until another form of the physical album comes along. I might not be able to play them in my car, but at least I’ll still own them in 20 years. Like vinyl records today, there will likely still be a way to play them.

Buying CDs Supports Preservation

If you do choose to buy only digital music, you need to come up with a safe way to store it, controlled completely by you. I’d have a system of dedicated drives, and probably backups of those. If the only copy of the music is on your phone, you are asking for trouble.

As for my Jeep, I will probably convert some of my CDs into a digital format so I can listen to them while driving. I’ll have to download them onto my computer and move them over to flash drives or SD cards I guess.

All that seems like a big hassle and something you shouldn’t have to do just to listen to music in your car. There should be an easier way. Like, maybe some kind of disc you could just slide into a player on the dashboard.

Yeah. Somebody ought to work on that idea.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


KCrusty on July 31, 2020:

I have a lot of CD's as well ...maybe only a few hundred or less. But like you mentioned, Once you move to another format, how many times are you going to pay for the licence to listen to what you already own if you copied all your cd's to a PC hardrive And you move to a new PC your media player will require a licences in order to play it. if you don't have a hard copy then your out of luck. But most people won't care about preserving their old collection

Jon Meltzer on February 10, 2020:

As long as I can keep getting CDs for $1 each at library sales because all the hipsters are dumping them for vinyl, I'm going to keep buying them.

Hell, I remember when vinyl was "worthless". Good thing I saved most of mine then so I can resell it now :-)

Soaceman555 on November 30, 2019:

I'd like to hope CDs will live on. Maybe in the way of vinyl has. They still make record players. Hopefully they will still make CD players. Infact Rega mainly a record player maker, has just released an amazing CD player. I think we will see higher end CD player s being made in the future for the true lovers of quality sounding music.

Shaun on October 08, 2019:

Actually, even with CDs going away physical albums are making a come back by way of the vinyl record. Sales are projected to surpass CDs this year for the first time since 1985 with one of the top sellers being the very same Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band you spoke of. Hell, Target just put up a HUGE Abbey Rd digital display advertising the 25 year re-elease if Abbey Rd in their Electronics department. Even Walmart sales vinyl! Most of the Indie Rock, Electrinic Dance, and Synth Pop I listen to offer physical releases on CD, cassette, and vinyl even though they're on small labels. So all hope is not lost friend. Play on!!

Guitar Gopher (author) on August 25, 2019:

Thanks Wesman. I love my Jeep. I just wish it had a CD player! I have some CDs copied on my computer, but it seems silly to have to do that just to download them onto flash drives or SD cards so I can use them in my car. I should be able to just shove the CD into the dashboard, dangit!

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on August 24, 2019:

I agree there is a problem here. But at the same time, I've still got all the music I downloaded from Limewire on my Windows XP computer, which was my first computer.

I'm a big fan of some oddball stuff. A lot of the bluegrass and country rock stuff I love, I've never been able to find torrents for it. Take Gram Parsons, for instance. Everyone knows who Gram Parsons was. He was in The Byrds, then he ditched them to get loaded with Keith Richards, and he OD'd, and his friends stole his corpse, etc, etc.

Yeah. Can't find some of his stuff in digital format. I've still got ALL of my CDs. Half of them are trashed though. Scratches and they'll skip and skip, assuming anyone even wants to listen to them on a CD player.

Last time I was at my younger brother's house, he just starts handing me CDs to take with me. He gives me this big fancy Stevie Ray Vaughan disc set. It's really cool because it comes in a larger package with a bit of a book with it. I figure I can rip it to my computer. I've got one little cheap old CD player, and I only assume it still works.

I've got a terabyte external drive. Oh heck no it isn't even half full, and music isn't the most of it, as music files are generally a whole lot smaller than films. I've already been thinking about getting a backup external drive to backup my backup.

Congrats on the Jeep. I used to know that feeling of getting a brand new fancy vroom vroom toy. Had a decked out Toyota Tacoma 4x4 once.

Guitar Gopher (author) on August 24, 2019:

@Music Owner - I think you might be right.

Music Owner on August 23, 2019:

consumers want CDS this is strictly another big business control mechanism

Dan on August 11, 2019:

I still but CD's, but it is getting more difficult. More and more bands are "going independent" and publishing their own stuff sometimes digitally only, or CD's are only in limited runs, so I have to buy them quick. But I'm in my 40's, I don't think the younger generations care quite as much about music and going to live shows that my generation and my parents generation did. Everything I have digital is highest quality I can get, and I keep multiple backups (backups are important in general after all).

BetaZed on April 27, 2019:

As both a music aficionado and IT professional, I say your fear is misguided. The Internet preserves all. I don't think physical formats will die out completely (though CDs may). Most music will be made available on some kind of physical medium. Even if it isn't, music won't be lost because of (and I hate to say it) file sharing (or piracy if you prefer). File sharing and the stripping of Digital Restrictons Management (to quote the EFF) from digital music will allow it to persist much longer.

Even so, I fear that a great deal of digital only music has already been lost. Many years ago, some artists released free tracks on and later on (and jamendo more recently). Those first two have gone the way of the dodo and, in a freak accident, much of my collection from those sites has been lost. Music by Drakonic, and Enigma, Dingo Love Machine, and some I can no longer name, that I've not been able to find anywhere (including legally questionable sources). So your fear is not wrong outright, but rather it'll be the small independent artists who eschew the record industry, that will fade away first.

Lisa on November 28, 2017:

I really found this an interesting read.

Guitar Gopher (author) on March 25, 2017:

Hi Chris. I don't think I was missing that point. My point is, by depending on digital music, even streaming, you're allowing another entity (like Spotify) to determine what you have access to.

Surely you can listen to albums by bands that remain or have been at least somewhat popular, but is "every" album really available? Even some obscure genre, or a band nobody ever heard of that only released one album?

I have CDs in my collection that simply aren't available anymore, anywhere, except if they come up for sale from collectors on a site like eBay. Can we depend on a streaming service to continue to deliver these titles to us? Or, isn't it better to own the music and have that control ourselves?

I'd be fine if vinyl persisted, as long as record companies release new albums in some physical format. My fear is that, when they stop doing this, a lot of music is going to be lost. And I can't listen to a record in my car, unfortunately.

Thanks for your reply to this discussion! I think you are spot- on with the changeover to streaming from downloads. I really appreciate your thoughts!

Chris on March 24, 2017:

You're missing a key point here. Fact is, increasingly people aren't even buying an digital copy of music. They stream it. They have an account with a streaming service like Spotify, and every album they like is there. All of the time. No matter what device or computer they use to login.

I agree with you to an extent though. CDs are dead. There's no escaping that and it is a shame physical copies of music are dying out. It does make music seem more disposable and the resulting loss of revenue as physical sales have declined has made record companies more conservative and less willing to take a risk. As a result, quality and, in particular, innovation have declined.

However, digital downloads are dying as well. In the not too distant future, the idea of buying a digital copy of music will seem as antiquated as cassettes do now. Streaming will take over, as it's already doing.

There is one notable exception to the decline in the physical format - vinyl, which is bouncing back in a big way.

Before long, everyone will be streaming music, but if you really love an album and want to buy it, you'll get it on vinyl. That will be the only physical format that will survive all of this, because that's the format wanted by keen audiophiles who are prepared to pay over the odds. Vinyl or streaming. That is the future.

Funny how the original physical format is threatening to outlive all the formats that have tried to replace it.

Paul B on February 23, 2017:

Great story. I think the big issue here - and you somewhat alluded to it - is the music itself. Music has become a disposable product. No one will really care about a Britney Spears song in 30-40 years, like with A Day in the Life. So, why would record companies / producers bother with the cost , when pop consumers will drag the mp3 into the trash when they tired of the crappy song. Consumers treat music as a perishable goods that just go bad.

Apple Lover on December 18, 2016:

I'm not sure but all of the Car Stereo in the PH still loaded with CD/DVD player even the well known brand like Sony and etc. Try to buy in Amazon, I think you can see many people still buying music player with CDROM.

Guitar Gopher (author) on December 17, 2016:

@Mike: That's crazy! Based on the poll in this article, it seems 75% of people still buy CDs, so I don't know why car companies are so intent on moving away from them.

Mike on December 16, 2016:

Some one I new ordered a new Aston Martin with every extra when it came to collection he was shocked no CD player fitted he refused to take delivery about 15k later new console specially made and yes that's another extra now costing 170,000 in total he drove it away yes true story

SAS on August 03, 2016:

Great article! I 100% agree with you on your observations. Perhaps there will be some kind of evolution in the format of physical music, but only time will tell. On a different note, I just buy CDs then copy them to my PS3 and that works for me!

Guitar Gopher (author) on May 16, 2016:

Thanks Jeff. I do see value in more recent technology as well.

Jeff Yelton on May 15, 2016:

This is a GREAT article, and I agree with everything you said about the physical nature of cds, cassettes, albums, etc. Hell, I never converted to CDs!!! I still play my music on my cassette player or my turntable. I do have a hard drive with about 3,000 songs on it, so I have a digital version of some of my existing physical collection, and I have other songs on there that I don't own on LP or cassette. And there's always youtube.

Bob (no body) Smith on May 12, 2016:

It was insightful. I was telling Christina (my wife) about the article and she found the points made here very interesting. And since she is the Smart One in our household I have to say that the article has been given very high marks indeed. hahaha

Guitar Gopher (author) on May 12, 2016:

Thanks Stephanie! I think this one of those issues where you either get it or you don't. You obviously get it!

Stephanie Ford on May 11, 2016:

Fantastic article! I whole-heartedly agree! I love my vinyl collection and CD collection and I never intend to get rid of them. It's like a library of physical copies of things that make me happy. Sure it takes up space, but it's my music library complete with its fabulous artwork, lyrics, inserted posters etc. and I love it.

Guitar Gopher (author) on May 11, 2016:

Thanks no body. The car thing was just what got me thinking. I can live without a CD player in my vehicle, but the other issues concern me a great deal.

Robert E Smith from Rochester, New York on May 10, 2016:

I needed a car to replace my 2002 Saturn. I and my wife went shopping and I found a car that I simply love. But alas... there is no CD player. My wife nearly screamed. She had not heard that CD players were being phased out of the new cars. So much of her lifestyle is listening to her Gospel music (Fred Hammond and such) and all the latest fads that she wants to play over and over (like Prince since his death over and over and over). But I digress...To her "re-syncing" her tablet or device takes too much time when she has the songs in order and the same versions by the same artist each and every time she strolls down the one memory lane as she so often does. She is bothered by no CD players much more than I but I love the reality of a memory in hand to visit from time to time. I, myself take my little perfect car out and park in the woods or under some shady tree and make my music on my instrument, communing with nature (or maybe driving nature mad). I loved this article and will refer my wife to it so she can be watching for the trends to possibly swing her way again. Bob.

P.S. I am pinning this article to my Pinterest board, "For Love of Music."