Which is Bigger: Digital Music Sales or CDs?

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220px-Compact_disc.svg.pngI often get comments and emails from people who don’t buy CDs any more; they are strictly digital music consumers. But at the same time, I get plenty of emails from more vehement music listeners who refuse to buy digital, with the exception of lossless or high-resolution files.

So which is bigger? Digital or CDs? As Billboard reports, they’re still neck and neck. Digital album sales have overtaken CD sales by a smidgen, as of February 2. There were 11.18 million albums sold by download versus 11.1 million sold on CD. (Naturally, these figures are US only.)

As the article says, “digital albums have yet to consistently surpass physical album sales.” Digital sales of total tracks do exceed those of CDs, because people are more likely to buy individual songs digitally. (Do they even still sell those over-priced “CD singles?”) But downloads have yet to overtake the CD market, and it’s possible that it will be a long time since that occurs.

Shifting demographics may lead to a long-term dominance of digital over physical, as older people, who are more likely to buy CDs, die off, leaving just the young who are used to buying digital. But lots of young people by CDs too. Plenty of people do like owning a physical product; and a CD is much better as a gift than a digital download. Add to that the aggressiveness of record labels to exploit back catalogue through box sets, remasters, etc. For example, The Beatles’ recent US Albums release (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is currently selling very well, and this for a set that currently sells for around $170.

While everyone looks at digital music sales and thinks that the end is nigh for CDs, it’s good to get a reality check. Sure, CD sales have dropped, but the format still has a long life ahead of it.

5 replies
  1. Doug Adams says:

    Another metric to consider: access to machines that can play CDs. They’re disappearing from cars, computers, and being replaced by digital players and streaming apps. And when was the last time you used a _portable_ CD player with any regularity? I buy CDs, rip ‘em, and put in the closet. I don’t think I’ve “played” a CD in years.

      • Doug Adams says:

        Yes, old fogies like us will still buy them. But we won’t buy enough to offset the loss of sales to people who no longer own (or will never own) CD players. My 19 year old daughter has given up on them (her tiny collection from her childhood is in my closet, see above) and she recently returned to me a hard drive she was using for media file storage; she has a Spotify account which she accesses on an iPad and iPhone. No OS X devices. Kids today!

  2. bj4wp says:

    Not to be forgotten are those of us who buy ‘used’ CDs, at half the price of original – and then, of course, we rip them and listen to them digitally. But I still think the future (not the one I would like) will be filled with a signifcant increase in ‘streaming’ services.

    I say this because ‘convenience’ is almost always where the market goes – and most often at the expense of quality. Thus the mp3 – sad, but true …


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