CDs are experiencing a slight increase in sales for the first time since 2004, says data analyst MRC Data. On the one hand, it is inevitable that there is increasing talk of the CD making a comeback. That popular adage that fads repeat themselves every 20 years (although there are theories to suit all tastes, such as the rule that stretches the cycle to twice as many years, up to 40) hits us squarely in 2022, or thereabouts. Of course, the CD was invented long before the early 2000s. It began to be marketed in 1984, and there were also milestones in its history such as the invention of the recordable CD in 1990.
But it was in the year 2000 – roughly those twenty years ago of popular belief in fad cycles – that CD sales figures peaked in sales (over 13 billion euros in the United States, according to the RIAA) and completely replaced the cassette as the standard for music storage and playback. From there, a slow decline began that has led to revenues of about $483 million in 2020, the latest year for which records are available.
The trend is also repeated if we look at the number of copies sold. That same year, in 2000, sales reached an all-time high of 942.5 million units. Since then, we can also see a decline in very similar proportions, down to just 40.6 million sold in 2021, 33% more than in the previous year. That is not to say that the industry has no revenue. In fact, the €12 billion in total industry revenue in 2020 starts to approach the glory days (total peak: 1999, with over €14 billion). But of course, in 2020 most of that revenue, around 70%, came from streaming, both from advertising and through subscriptions. In other words, if we stick to those twenty cyclical years, it makes sense: that’s how long it’s been since the peak of CD popularity, so it’s about time.
And if we go to its direct competitors in terms of format, the CD is still a runner-up. Vinyl has been growing consistently for the past 15 years, and industry revenues on vinyl are double those of CD. Technically, digitally recorded music may be superior to vinyl, but it is clear where music lovers’ sympathies lie, and they also attach a strong nostalgic component to vinyl.
And that nostalgic collector criterion can be seen, for example, in Tik Tok streams such as those grouped under the hashtag #CDcollection, which demonstrate a very similar approach to those of vinyl collectors, more abundant, distinguished and with better press. It is proof that we are not so much facing a revitalization of the format (whose virtues are matched without problems by streaming services with better sound), but rather an aesthetic vindication and an exercise in nostalgia.
It makes perfect sense: those who were teenagers at the turn of the century are now in their thirties and early forties, the perfect age to start missing the good old days and the discovery of a new audio reproduction technology. And then there’s an extra detail that makes CDs a perfect target for a new wave of nostalgia.
At the beginning of the century, CDs brought about the last great moment of glory for record companies and were part of a real perfect storm: those were the years before the Internet, that is, when we had not yet lost our innocence as consumers, and CDs as a medium were selling more than ever, so we all had CDs and players. The “good old days”: perfect fertilizer for an explosion of nostalgia twenty years later.