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Not dead yet: Record executives making sure the compact disc still has a future


TORONTO — Adrian Doran knows he's clinging onto what many consider an obsolete music format, but for him there's still plenty to love about compact discs.

Not long ago he made browsing the CD aisles of HMV Canada part of his shopping routine, but when the retailer went bust last spring he was confronted with the possibility of migrating to a streaming music service. He chose to start picking up CDs at his local independent record store instead.

"I just bought into them big time," the 52-year-old Toronto resident said of his appreciation for CDs.

Whether it's the inferior sound quality or the inaccessibility of rarities, Doran finds streaming music services don't stand up to his extensive CD collection. He tried Spotify but couldn't see past its shortcomings, particularly the missing albums in artists' back catalogues that were substituted by "greatest hits" packages.

"There's huge holes," he said of the selection. "It really surprised me."

Despite becoming what some dubbed "the year of streaming," 2017 proved those shiny little discs still have some life left in them. But it isn't necessarily because of strong consumer demand from holdouts like Doran. It's because the music industry is trying to stave off the demise of its golden goose any way it can.

CD sales were boosted this year by a trend that saw some concert tickets for big arena shows — including tours by Arcade Fire, Shania Twain and Pink — bundled with a copy of the band or artist's latest album.

Many concertgoers were offered the choice between a digital download or a CD sent through the mail. Whether those CDs were ever unwrapped is anybody's guess, but each ticket sale helped rocket those performers to the top of the album charts in their first week of sales.

Compact discs were also a huge part of Taylor Swift's launch of "Reputation," her latest album which came packaged at Walmart Canada stores with an exclusive magazine about the singer. Streaming platforms didn't get the year's top-selling album until three weeks after its release, which meant many Swifties were dusting off their parents' boomboxes to get a first listen.

Other albums like Gord Downie's posthumous "Introduce Yerself" also saw sales heavily weighted in the CD format. About 9,700 copies were sold on CD, thousands more than its digital and vinyl sales combined.

Preliminary numbers from Nielsen Music Canada show that while CD sales fell 18 per cent over the past year, still selling roughly 10 million units, they were relatively strong compared to the more dramatic erosion of digital album sales through stores like iTunes.

Digital album sales tumbled nearly 25 per cent for the year to 6.2 million units, extending what is expected to be a steep downturn as more listeners embrace streaming services.

David Bakula, who oversees Nielsen's industry insights operations, said the changes in digital habits mean the CD is representing a larger share of the declining album sales market. He believes that writing the obituary for the CD is premature as labels look to bolster album sales however they can, while older listeners stick to their usual buying habits.

"We're not seeing this flight from the format," he added.

But it's impossible to deny that CDs took an irreparable punch to the gut in Canada when HMV's 102 store closures left many communities without a music store for months. Sunrise Records eventually picked up the slack by reopening many of those locations with a stronger focus on vinyl albums.

Walmart also dramatically scaled back its CD selection while fellow retail giant Best Buy recently scrubbed music from its stores entirely.

All of this certainly hasn't boded well for boosting sales figures, but music historian Alan Cross is confident record labels will follow the dollar.

"If they can't get people into the store to buy a CD, well then (they'll) just send the CDs directly to them, whether they want it or not," he said, pointing to expectations that the success of ticket bundles will only lead to other artists experimenting with the strategy.

"By nature a lot of music fans are collectors and that means they need a physical thing to collect."

It's possible an established act like Bruce Springsteen or the Rolling Stones could try to up the ante by pairing scarce concert seats with an exclusive CD box set.

Proposals like those seem catered to loyal listeners like Doran, who picked up Serena Ryder's latest disc from the merchandise table at a Toronto concert a couple of weeks ago. He hopes shelling out the money in person gave Ryder a little more of the profits.

But even in his household, the CD isn't as prominent as it once was. Usually after buying a disc he rips the tracks onto his computer before tossing the physical copy into a box he's marked with an ominous label: "Dead CDs."

"That was kind of bleak humour," he added.

 

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David Friend, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly stated the number of HMV store closures.

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