CDs navigate digital storm after 30 years on market
Tony Ploughman is the floor manager at Fred's Records in St. John's. He can recall the days when CDs represented a very small portion of the store's inventory. Photo by Andrew Robinson/The Telegram
Fred's Records floor manager Tony Ploughman recalls taking a phone call from a customer in Corner Brook in the fall of 1984 who wanted to find out what CDs the store was carrying.
"In about an hour and a half, I wrote up the entire inventory and popped it in the mailbox to him," said Ploughman, now in his 29th year working at the downtown St. John's music store.
Back then, the store devoted the vast majority of its retail space to vinyl records and cassettes, but for the last 20 years it's CDs that have been Fred's bread and butter.
The shiny discs have now been on the market for 30 years, starting with the CD-release of Billy Joel's album "52nd Street" and continuing on from there.
Though many of the music retailers it once competed with have either closed their doors (Sam The Record Man, A&A Records, CD Plus) or shifted focus to items other than music (HMV), Fred's Records has managed to find its niche in the market.
"CDs definitely got off to a tentative start," recalls Ploughman, noting the format initially catered to audiophiles through classical, jazz, new age and densely produced modern rock recordings.
"When it first started, CDs were double the price of an LP or a cassette, so that was hardly a way to persuade the consumer to jump on board right away," he said.
CD players, too, were expensive. Sony's CDP-101, the first CD player, cost $1,000 when it was introduced to North America in 1983 following its launch the previous year in Japan.
As is the case with most new home entertainment items, those prices eventually began to fall as the medium's popularity grew.
One strategy Fred's Records employed in the mid-1980s was to offer CD players and CDs as rental items to help familiarize customers with the technology.
"They could get to experience the impeccable sound quality in their homes at a very low cost," said Ploughman, "and what we would do is then take about 25 per cent of our CD inventory and rent them out, and then each time a CD came back, we'd chop the price and put it in the second-hand bin."
CD sales picked up around that time. Ploughman said Dire Straits' 1985 album "Brothers In Arms" was "a game-changer" in terms of its production, which translated well to the digital format. He said it proved to be a particularly popular CD release.
"People by that point were convinced, 'Wow, this is superior quality. No pops, no crackles.'"
Ploughman's first CD purchase came in the early 1990s when he bought a copy of Van Morrison's 1991 album "Hymms To The Silence."
Newfoundland musician Kelly Russell was an early adopter of the CD format. Set to release a new compilation in 1988 through his Pigeon Inlet Productions label, Russell decided to release "All The Best: Folk Music Of St. John's, Newfoundland" on all three available formats.
"When I was doing the project, CDs were becoming popular," said Russell, reflecting on the album's initial release.
It was the first locally produced CD in the province (Russell said the traditional group Figgy Duff was the first Newfoundland act to release a CD, though it was accomplished through a mainland record label).
"It was quite obvious at that point CDs were going to overtake and replace records," said Russell.
Getting a CD made at the time was no easy task, but Russell said he received a boost from the provincial government, which committed to purchasing 500 copies to give away as gifts.
"Without that support, I may not have done it, because I had limited resources at the time, and trying to cover all three formats was a (challenge)."
Russell sold the remaining 500 copies on the market, and has since continued to keep the CD version in print - it sells approximately 200 copies each summer, according to Russell.
Jim Payne was one of the artists who appeared on the album, performing the traditional tune "The Star Of Logy Bay."
A label operator for more than 20 years who often packaged cassette releases himself back in the 1980s, Payne released his first CD on the SingSong Inc. label in 1991 with the Rufus Guinchard album "Humouring The Tunes."
"I started the label really as a chance to record some of the older people I was collecting music from, as well as an outlet for my own stuff," said Payne.
He started with cassettes due to their inexpensive nature - he could purchase them 50 at a time and use multiple cassette decks for dubbing purposes.
"I even sometimes went so far as to wrap them in cellophane with a gluestick," he laughed.
Payne had travelled with Guinchard and knew the fiddling legend had at least one more album left in him (Guinchard died in 1990, the year before "Humouring The Tunes" was released).
"I was really anxious to get it done, because it's always a race against time, of course, dealing with the older traditional performers. When that recording was completed, I didn't think about putting it on LP. It was CD."
He also released the album on cassette, as the format was still selling locally.
"It was clear that LPs were on the way out, so I didn't have to put a lot of thought into deciding whether I was going to go with LPs or CD players. ... Just from a producing point of view, going to digital sound made a lot more sense. The sound quality was better."
On a local level, Ploughman would rank "All The Best" as one of Fred's bestselling CDs alongside various titles by Ron Hynes, Great Big Sea, The Once and Amelia Curran.
Ploughman said it was obvious for those within the store that CDs would overtake the vinyl record and cassette markets, though he cautions that records are still in the process of making a comeback.
"It's more vital now than it was 15-20 years ago," he said of vinyl albums.
According to Nielsen SoundScan, vinyl record sales for 2011 in North America increased by 36.3 per cent over the previous year - from 2.8 million to 3.9 million. Of those vinyl records sold, 67 per cent were purchased in independent stores. It was the fourth consecutive year in which vinyl sales experienced an increase over the previous year.
Fred's position as an independent retailer has been a key factor to the store's continued success, along with other attributes, according to Ploughman.
"There's nobody sitting in a corporate tower out of touch making decisions," he said. "We make our own calls. The dedication of the local music buyer. We have a knowledgeable staff. The diversity and variety of our stock. There's a good vibe here in our store. We cater to our customers' whims. ... If the musical landscape were a desert, the independent record store is the oasis. It's where the people go to quench their musical thirst, express their opinions, exchange their ideas, and that's the kind of environment we have here."
For local CDs today, Payne said, local music stores are a great resource within St. John's, but getting sales in other parts of the province has proven more difficult with time, particularly in light of the fact many distributors have come and gone.
"Outside of the local stores, say in town or a couple of the larger centres, the process had to be that you had to go to every little craft store or drugstore or little outlet or whatever. I mean, that's a huge undertaking," he said. "For me, nothing sells records like live shows."
Russell believes the future of recorded music lies in digital downloads.
"In my view now, CDs are on the way out. I think that they've pretty much run their course. A CD now for a musician is more of a calling card (or) a business card."
SingSong Inc. is among those record labels now offering digital downloads through its website.
That said, Payne believes a market still remains for CDs.
"You can see where the trends are going in that regard as well, but in the interim, I think a lot of people will still be using their CD players," he said.
CD sales in North America declined from 236.9 million in 2010 to 223.5 million last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, representing a 5.7 per cent drop. Overall album sales increased in 2011 for the first time since 2004.
2011 represented the first year ever in which digital music sales exceeded physical sales, accounting for 50.3 per cent of all music purchases.
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