CD sales are up for the first time in over a decade, and we take a dive into the DIY market to explore the details of what’s being hailed as a CD revival.
In recent weeks, there have been a number of breathless articles and reports about the “CD revival” that started in 2021.
In “Is the CD Revival an Actual Thing?” Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan reports:
Although millennials may have soured on CDs during the 2000s, the format has devotees among Gen Z. Andrea Cacho, a 20-year-old sophomore at New York University, tells me that she and her friends are “on the CD wave.” Cacho, a WNYU DJ from Puerto Rico, says she bought her first CD … a year ago, after arriving at school. She now has 62 CDs spanning punk, metal, screamo, pop, and Christian music. … “I was tired of discovering music through YouTube or Spotify,” Cacho tells me. “I wanted to be surprised.”
In “Jewel-Box Heroes: Why the CD Revival Is Finally Here,” Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield muses that “…CDs work. They just do. You pop in the disc, press play, music booms out. They delivered the grooves so efficiently, they became the most popular format ever. If you’re looking to focus on something cool for an hour, without getting up to flip sides every 20 minutes, the compact disc has what you want, bigger and louder. It gives you room to get lost inside the music.”
And indeed, it looks like industry unit sales of CDs were up a modest two percent in 2021. The first time in 17 years that there was any growth in CDs. Great, right?
Does one artist make a trend?
Then, there’s a post on the blog Dada Drummer Almanach that says, no, there’s no CD revival. It’s mostly just Adele’s album — which sold over 900,000 units, by the way — and that album pushed CD sales up for the year. And so, they’re somewhat-dubious, reasoning that if Adele’s CD sales were excluded from market data, CD units continue to be down about two percent in 2021.
Up, down, which is it? And does it actually matter to anyone other me, because I happen to run a CD manufacturing company? Well, I’ve done some digging, and I’ll tell you what I found when I focus specifically on the independent artist; the unsigned artist, like you, who is releasing their own CDs, which is a category no one has reported on, mostly because there’s no data available.
The conclusions I’ve come to are pretty interesting.
1. The vast majority of self-released CDs are not tracked by Nielsen Soundscan or anyone else.
2. Unsigned artists represent 22 percent of all CDs sold in the US!
3. For emerging artists, CD sales have declined much less over the past decade than for major artists.
4. CD sales among DIY artists are up slightly in 2021.
Let’s dig into each of these points
Most self-released CDs are not tracked by Nielsen Soundscan
DIY artists have always had a hard time getting their physical music products — i.e., CDs and vinyl — stocked in stores and at distributors. And that’s because retailers just don’t have confidence that your CDs will actually sell through.
And of course, over the past 20 years, the number of retail stores selling CDs has decreased drastically. So, independent artists sell the majority of their CDs at shows to make a few extra bucks when they perform. Plus, of course, some artists sell their CDs on Bandcamp and their own websites.
But it seems pretty clear to me that, with most self-released CDs being sold at concerts, there is no sales tracking for the vast majority of discs sold. They’re mostly at small venues that don’t report to Nielsen Soundscan and most indie artists just don’t bother to report their live music CD sales to anybody.
Unsigned artists represent 22 percent of all CDs sold in the US
This claim comes from our own data. Let’s check out this graph representing the US sales of albums by format as reported by Nielsen Soundscan.
Here we see that the CD unit sales, in green, did indeed go up industry-wide in 2021 after a pretty long slide over the past decade. It’s actually more than a decade, but the chart gives us data from 2011 to 2021. We also see that vinyl, in black, has grown significantly — from almost nothing a decade ago — and that downloads (purple) are continuing to decline.
Now, here’s what’s interesting. According to Nielsen Soundscan, there were 40.6 million CDs sold in the US in 2021. In 2021, Disc Makers, alone, sold almost 12 million CDs to unsigned, independent artists. And if you agree with my first point, that most of those indie CD sales are not represented in the 40.6 million that are tracked by Nielsen, that means that the total CD market in the US last year is closer to 52 million units, and our 12 million make up a bit over 22 percent of that 52 million.
And while Disc Makers is by far the biggest manufacturer for independent artists, we’re not the only one out there, so the actual number of CDs made for DIY artists is even larger than that. That means one in five CDs sold last year in the US was self-released. That’s a pretty impressive stat and it shows the loyalty that fans have towards emerging artists and how eagerly they will support them by buying their discs and their merch at concerts.
But, is the CD market actually seeing a revival?
Let’s look at my final points, that CD sales for emerging artists declined less than they did for major artists over the past decade and that CD orders for unsigned artists were up in 2021. For starters, take another look at the sales chart above. You can see the downward arc of the curve for CD sales is flattening industry-wide. In fact, you can see that unit sales declined from around 230 million CD units in 2011 to 40.6 million in 2021. That’s an 82 percent decline in CD sales for the US music industry over 10 years.
But what about the indie artist? First, I’m going to make two assumptions.
Number one: Disc Makers is the only factory that works directly with emerging artists and is by far the largest CD manufacturer for indie artists in the US. And while we have nowhere near 100 percent of that market, I’m going to assume the trends we are experiencing are a reasonable representation of the trends that the overall industry is experiencing for DIY artists.
My second assumption is that looking at units manufactured for unsigned artists may not be the right metric. At least not the optimal metric. After all, we don’t know how many of those discs that we’ve made for emerging artists are actually sold to fans at concerts versus still sitting in a carton in a basement versus having been handed out as promos, etc.
What I think might be a better indicator of how the CD market is trending for DIY artists is to look at CD order trends — that is, the number of new orders and reorders combined for disc manufacturing that we receive at Disc Makers. This way, we’re looking at both new CDs being manufactured and the number of times an existing CD title sold enough units to be reordered.
The DIY market tells a different story
Check out this chart of Disc Makers CD orders for the past 11 years, from 2011 to 2021.
You can see the number of CD orders manufactured by Disc Makers each year in blue bars and then, in orange, you can see some distinct trend lines. So let me make a few obvious observations.
Yes, over the past 11 years, there have been some notable declines, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, right? Over this time period, Disc Makers CD orders have declined by about 44 percent, as compared to the industry declines of 82 percent. That means that CD sales in the “mainstream” music industry declined about twice as fast as CD sales for unsigned artists.
In my opinion, this is a clear result of the fact that streaming pays so little — indie artists still have to rely on the revenue stream from physical media. It’s interesting how CD orders held relatively flat from 2011 to 2016, despite the industry shift to download sales and streams during that time period, which points to the strength of the CD format as a revenue generator at concerts. After all, you can’t sell a download or a stream at your concerts.
Now, you can see that after 2016, when streaming had become the dominant revenue model industry-wide, we did see some notable declines in CD orders. However, orders started to stabilize in 2019. And then in 2020, the pandemic and venue shutdown created the biggest percentage drop in orders the format had ever seen, which supports my position that most unsigned artists’ CDs are sold at concerts.
Finally, there was indeed a modest two and a half percent CD order growth from DIY artists in 2021, which mirrors the two percent or so CD unit growth for the broader music industry. Although, in all fairness, we are comparing that growth to the worst year in CD sales history.
I think the revival is just around the corner
So, is there a CD revival? Well, one swallow does not make a spring. It feels a bit too early to call it a revival, but the format declines have certainly slowed way down and they seem to want to start slowly rising, as implausible as that might have seemed just a couple years ago.
There is also some anecdotal evidence that the decline of the CD format is coming to an end. My friend Sean Rutkowski, who for many years ran a vinyl pressing plant called Independent Record Pressing about half-an-hour up the road from Disc Makers, mentioned that the recent trends he has noticed for CDs at retail — at mom and pop record stores, used record stores, etc. — are starting to look like the trends he was seeing for vinyl way back in 2008, just as that format started slowly growing again.
Prices for used CDs in stores are rising. The selection is getting poorer because more people are picking through the racks, and used CD players are harder to find at thrift stores. This sentiment is actually echoed by the Pitchfork article mentioned at the top of this post. In fact, in addition to the vinyl TikTok that’s become a phenomenon, there is also now CD TikTok.
So my conclusion is the CD revival may not be quite here yet, but it’s right around the corner. And you, dear artist, can say you were right there when it started. So don’t wait too long to place that order before our presses fill all up again!
If you have an opinion on this topic, please leave a comment below. I’ll be sure to respond.
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Tony van Veen is the CEO of DIY Media Group, the parent company of Disc Makers and BookBaby. As a college student, he played in indie bands, created his own LPs, cassettes, and t-shirts, and sold them at shows. Today, he collects CDs, vinyl LPs, and concert t-shirts to support the artists he loves.