Opinion| CDs cannot recover like vinyl

It is nothing new when talking about the decline of record stores especially after Hong Kong Records and HMV, two major record chains in Hong Kong, announced their closure at the end of 2018.

However, an article published on 9to5mac.com, a technology website within Apple community, on February 28 saying that “CDs and vinyl records are making a small comeback” according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)’s annual industry report, has stirred up a little in the industry.

The article states that “physical mediums” now more popular than download music since the report reveals that digitally downloaded music accounted for 11% of revenue when CDs and vinyl have a slight edge at 12%.

Vinyl has indeed recovered in both the global and American markets. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) Global Music Report 2019 says revenues from vinyl in 2018 posted growth for the 13th consecutive year, growing 6.0% when the overall physical revenue dropped 10.1%. The RIAA’s report also says the revenue was at the highest level since 1988.

Despite, the article is a bit misleading because its “physical mediums” wording will make readers who have not read the original report think CDs sales are also on the rise when the truth is that CDs are dying. In the RIAA’s report, CDs’ estimated retail value fell 34% to $698 million, the first time less than one billion dollars since 1986.

CDs and vinyl have differences whether in their auditory feelings or commercial natures so CDs cannot recover like vinyl.

For a long time before the 1980s, music production was done by simulation, which is to simulate the vibration of sound to air into current and then record the deflecting magnetic field on the tape through the magnetic head. Vinyl is a kind of carrier in the era of analog recording.

The vibration recorded by the vinyl somehow restores the scene of music performance, while the CD restores digital signals.

Vinyl enthusiasts like to listen to the so-called warm and soft sounds from vinyl are, in the final analysis, the real music, comparing to digital signal restored by CDs. Also, vinyl changes by time, temperature, and humidity making the music present differently every time as if it is a live show. The unique music presented by vinyl is incomparable to digital signals carried by CD, which is all in the same key.

The essence people choose between vinyl and CDs is to choose different music texture and auditory experience, which is not like the choice between CDs and streaming music apps on smartphones, which is just about whether it is convenient to carry or not.

The revival of vinyl is not simply a retro trend, but a reflection of consumers’ habits of music- they pay more attention to the quality.

In recent years, people even do not pay for downloading digital music but pay the monthly subscription to the streaming music platforms to listen to music. In the IFPI’s report, download revenue has a decline of 21.2% when there is a 32.9% growth in paid streaming revenue.

However, record companies seem happy to continue to release CDs when the market weakens because CDs show the presence of singers so that they can earn money from performances and endorsements. The commercial nature of CDs has changed.

Releasing CDs is also a way for singers to develop the fans economy since they know the current market situation is that only fans will be willing and have the purchasing power to buy physical records to support their idols- they buy CDs not for listening to music.

In 2017, Kwon Ji-yong, also known by his stage name G-Dragon, released his flash-disk-format album at 30,000 Korean Won (HK$207), which only provides music download website and password and aroused wide discussion in the market due to the high price and format. Moreover, more and more singers have chosen to release only digital albums instead of physical ones.

In other words, no matter as a music carrier or an advertisement of singer, due to the nature of CD storing digital signals, CDs will eventually be replaced by other media by the development of technology.

Nevertheless, recording technology separates vinyl from the whole digital industry. No matter how technology develops, others cannot easily replace vinyl and the music it presents.


Chen Yuyang, Apr. 20,  2019


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