Things change; it’s one of the few things you can truly count on. Change is often good, sometimes bad, but it’s as inevitable as the tides. Naturally, the medium of music and the way we as consumers receive it, is always undergoing some type of change. As a youngster, I bought my music on tape and vinyl. I acquired hundreds of tapes and had them organized in lovely, decorative tape cases. For really special albums, I bought the vinyl and displayed it in my room like a Picasso. When CDs started gaining traction, I grudgingly made the switch and started the arduous and expensive process of repurchasing many of my beloved albums on the shiny new format. What choice did I have? Tapes die, records scratch, but CDs are forever.

Through the years, I amassed thousands of the little deadly discs, while always looking fearfully over my shoulder for the next recording innovation that would nullify the CD and send me into yet another angry buying spiral on some futuristic sound platform. There were always nagging rumors of some type of mini-disc or high-capacity super tape that would supplant the dominance of the CD and render it the next Betamax. When the iPod burst on the scene, along with the concept of the MP3, I didn’t at first take it for the threat to CD supremacy that it truly was. It seems a cooperative medium that would never trump the tried and true hardcopy item. I embraced it, loaded all my favorite CDs onto iTunes and was happy to have the iPod’s mighty music warehouse at my disposal.

Over time though, almost imperceptibly, I stopped buying CDs. With albums available at the mere click of a button, the hassle of hunting down obscure music via eBay, Amazon, import companies or through trips to dusty and mysterious record shops became more and more pointless. Sure, I missed having the actual album in my hand and the joy of leafing through a well done booklet and gazing at the art, but the button click delivery became as addictive as a mega opiate.

Upon even the slightest reflection, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Mp3 has dealt a death-blow to the already struggling record company business model, and CD sales numbers have been in steady decline since the early days of the new millennium. Some recent articles have quoted industry insiders on the impending demise of the CD. Various sources suggest labels will begin slowing the CD pressing process by the end of this year, while others put it out as far as 2014. Whatever the actual date, it seems clear the CD is soon to join the scrap heap of musical technology, right alongside the 8-Track and cassette tape. As the sun sets on another era in musical delivery, I find myself reflecting on what I’ll miss and what we will lose on the altar of modernity.

Assuming we find ourselves in a truly digital only world, with MP3s as the only real game in town (aside from the occasional vinyl for purists), we will have entered a stage where purchased music is something entirely insubstantial. There will be nothing to hold, nothing to skim through and nothing to display. Think about that for a moment. For generations, part of the enjoyment of purchasing music was to hold something concrete in your hand as you listen  to that first playback. You could marvel at the art, the lyrics, the vibe the entire package was designed to impart. You could prop it up proudly in your bookshelf, show your buddies; hell, it was even fun for me to scour the copious liner notes! All that will be gone for all intents and purposes. We will have song files and possibly, digital representations of the cover art and booklets, but unless we print it out, it just won’t be the same.

This leads me to wonder how long record labels and artists will even bother with cover art. In a totally digital world, why hire an artist to generate a badass cover if it will only be seen as a tiny image on somebody’s MP3 player? Clearly the days of the gate-fold special edition vinyl are long gone, but to have NO artwork whatsoever would be a major bummer. The art was always such a defining part of the music for me, I doubt I’ll ever adjust to seeing it fade away into the past.

Sure, I’m an old-timer and I remember the good old days of bigger-than-life art which helped bring the music to the next level of mood and imagination, but not-so-distant generations of music fans may grow up with that as a completely unknown, dead tradition. That will be a real shame for them, and us. Just a little something to think about as time grinds us all to dust along with the technology and traditions of our youth. At least my CDs will make cool decorations….

  • I certainly wouldn’t call myself an oldtimer at 26, but I still buy cds, all the time. I HATE buying digital music. Infact, I don’t do it. I buy cds, or listen to things on lastfm etc. To me, digital will never superceed having a physical copy of an album, not until it’s the only option. I think this is the case with a lot of peripheral genres of music and their fans.

    I can see quite rightly those “demise of the cd” predictions being true by 2014 for pop/chart music, as plenty is released on nothing except digital currently, let alone in a few years.

    But the fact that, for lots of releases on metal labels, they still produce vinyl speaks volumes to me about how we as fans want to listen to/acquire our music. Art and presentation is important to us, we love our double gatefolds and our boxsets, and that’s recognised by most people involved (labels, artists, musicians).

    Sure, one day to come, I won’t be able to continue my Iron Maiden cd album collection, or my Muse vinyl collection, but for now, I think peripheral genres have a little bit more juice to squeeze from the physical format than the mainstream (and for that, I’m glad).

    • ZacP

      I came to the comments section with something to say, and this was it.

      A lot of my disposable income goes towards music, and in response people often say “God I can’t remember the last time I bought a CD.” I can easily foresee a not to distant future where most mainstream (I don’t use this word derogatorily) releases are digital. But for people who truly love music, you have just got to have a physical representation of your passion. The album, the artwork, is a symbol for what that music means to you.

      Every time I buy a CD though, I’m a little paranoid that its entirely meaningless, that CDs will be unheard of in 20 years. But I remember my uncle, that fucking philatelist, with his massive stamp collection, who died. Nobody knew what to do with all those binders; I imagine they probably just all were sold. Then it seemed like all the time and money he put into those stamps was a complete waste. But it mattered to him, and he got immense pleasure from that hobby. So I guess when it comes to music I’ll live in the present and stop worrying about the future.

  • Eddie

    Another old timer seconding all that. Powerslave and it’s fantastic art cover folded to fit the tape… That drew me to metal in 84. Now, AMG’s avatar drew me to this blog. Can’t say I regret any of this.

    • I still have that tape banging around. It was as close to a gate-fold as you could get on tape and I loved it!

      • Eddie

        I believe I even pinned it to the wall… to be joined a few years later by Somewhere in time and, ho yes, Seventh son of…
        Maiden is way past it’s prime, but still, good old days and stuff.
        Anyway, I HAVE to find that tape now, thanks a lot Steel Druhm. Ho, and a
        tape player. (bis repetita. Well, everything is in that article of yours
        good sir)

  • i dont think its ever going to completely go away… retail space has been and at some point might completely go away (definitely in big box stores) apart from independent record/music stores that are able to be successful — but I think that there will be some manufacturers around that will still press compact discs and keep the medium going for the people who want to utilize them. Computers still come with disc drives after all.

    I think about what Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree does with his PT and solo/side project releases and that is to release them directly over mail order through his websites as special editions with expanded packaging and artwork as the new way for artists to go. Artists need to start developing their own business foundations in direct selling to their fans as opposed to relying on record companies and distribution companies to get their music available and “out there” to their fanbases.

  • Zadion

    I, too, disagree that cover art will become totally outdated. It’s STILL something I enjoy in an album.

    And, to be honest, I always buy a physical copy if I at all can. I really just hate putting a fair sum of money into something and knowing I’m only purchasing data. It’s different when I’m purchasing something that is released exclusively as data (such as cursed DLC), but I will never purchase my music in data-only forms.

    I think one enormous reason the MP3 is beginning to trump the CD is due to the age of pirating. Most people I know agree that, if they’re going to spend money on something, they’d rather have a physical copy that can be converted to data as well; however, pirating is free, so there’s no real waste (on the pirater’s end) in just downloading a chunk of data, is there?

    Ultimately, I highly doubt music will stop being released in a physical form at all. Hell, I’d say we’re more at risk of it being released in flash drive form ahead of CDs, but even those will need their own form of cover, I think. And even that’s a bit of a stretch.

    • Hurenhugo

      i don’t think pirating is the only reason the MP3 is trumping the CD. i purchase most of my music in digital format nowadays and that’s mostly because of practical reasons.

      the first reason is variety: there’s just some stuff i won’t ever find in my local record stores (and i dislike mail order due to the waiting time and a few bad experiences i’ve made with some postal services). then the price… digital download is always cheaper than physical copies.

      about collecting: i’ve begun to think of my itunes library as my main music collection, not just the digital version of my physical collection. and i shift through the digital cover art like i used to shift through my CD collection (you know… to get that satisfying “this is all mine” feeling).

      i do have the need to own the files, though… only streaming would not be an option for me (i’ve heard people say that the MP3 is dead and streaming is the new way… now THAT made me feel old :D).

      • Zadion

        Only reason? Definitely not. There’s no denying it’s more convenient being able to purchase one’s music instantly online. However – for me, at least – there’s just less appeal to purchasing data. That said, I would never spend a price multifold just to import a CD I could get significantly cheaper otherwise. That would be silly. Importing is a ripoff.

        There’s no way streaming will replace the MP3. People purchase digital albums ahead of physical CDs for convenience; why would they opt for streaming instead? Only being able to listen to music when connected to the internet, or on specific websites? Hell no.

  • When I started buying music in the early 80s, LPs were too
    expensive and tapes were relatively fragile, so I had very few albums.
    When CDs became the main format in the late 80s, I found an
    ideal format that assured both sound quality and durability: the first CDs I
    bought with my own money in 1990 still sound great. That, and the fact I started having a steady income at about the same time marked the beginning of my metal collecting hobby, which I still pursue.
    So, I really hope physical formats, especially CDs, never disappear
    I have a 1,200+ metal album collection, painstakingly assembled
    over 23 years and still growing. Nowadays, I listen music mostly on an Ipod (through earphones or connected to a sound system) for practical reasons, but I still hope physical formats, especially CDs, never disappear completely.
    Besides the fact that I’m an old timer and I need to have a
    physical copy to feel ownership of the music I purchase, I don’t feel that
    secure of having my entire musical collection floating on a digital cloud that
    can disappear if something happens to the service provider.
    I can easily replace a broken hard drive or a dead Ipod, because
    I have all my albums safely (and proudly displayed) at home… and I can still enjoy the artworks special editions and the whole shebang, even if I rarely spin the CDs.

  • flaming_froghurt

    I don’t buy MP3s. I don’t feel like I actually own something that’s nothing more than an electric charge. If your hard drive crashes, all of your music will be gone. While using MP3s, I still buy CDs for archiving purposes. Plus, I can rip them into any digital format I want to, instead of buying an already heavily compressed MP3.

  • Madam__X

    The thought of album art dissappearing into the sunset saddens me. I pick up a lot of great music just by picking out cover art that intrigues me – In Mourning’s The Weight of Oceans being one such find that’s blown me away.
    Not to mention – what will I display on my PC Displays… no I categorically and outright refuse to entertain such disturbing thoughts. Long live album art!

  • Piet

    I dont see the music industry going anywhere without CD’s. Then there will be 0 difference between legal and illegal versions of an album and so piracy will only go up. I know I will only illegally download if the CD’s go away. (Sorry to say) :(

  • Patrick

    In general this is correct, but too black and white. There has and will continue to be a resurgence in vinyl purchases. Vinyl is not dead. The tangible nature of music is important to music lovers. Collecting as well….I suspect some medium will still exist as a luxury item. Minimal CD pressings, collector item vinyl and mostly Mp3 will be it. Tangible goods like vinyl fall into the now ‘ancillary merchandising’ product. Especially in Metal, this will continue. Radio and top 40, yes all digital, totally agree there.

  • Patrick

    In general this is correct, but too black and white. There has and will continue to be a resurgence in vinyl purchases. Vinyl is not dead. The tangible nature of music is important to music lovers. Collecting as well….I suspect some medium will still exist as a luxury item. Minimal CD pressings, collector item vinyl and mostly Mp3 will be it. Tangible goods like vinyl fall into the now ‘ancillary merchandising’ product. Especially in Metal, this will continue. Radio and top 40, yes all digital, totally agree there.

  • Hurenhugo

    i don’t think coverart will disappear… sure it’s becoming kinda pointless, but since cover art and booklets in digital format have already caught on, i don’t think bands will stop providing those. on itunes, if i have the choice between a standart edition and a deluxe edition with digital booklet and whatnot, i’ll always choose the deluxe one.

    and about CDs… i still buy them from time to time, usually when it’s one of my favorite bands or i know (via internet stream or leak or something) that i really like the album.

    the only real problem i see with the physical copies, is that record store owners are getting lazy… i want interaction and expertise when i go to a music store. i want to talk to someone who knows what he’s talking about, who can pull some awesome recommendation out of his sleeve… or who’ll just chat with you about music for a while.
    most music stores in my city don’t have that, not even the specialized ones. just today i went to a store to see if they already had the new cryptopsy album and the guy wasn’t even aware of the fact that it’s getting released tomorrow (and apparently, neither was his computer… and this was a metal only store, mind you).
    in my opinion, if the whole interaction part isn’t working, it’s pointless to go to a record store and buy physical copies. in terms of price and variety the internet is unbeatable… they have to offer something the internet can’t.

  • Al Tatts

    Steel, a subject close to my heart.

    I’ve embraced the mp3 revolution for the simple fact that paying up to $60NZ to get an import copy of some obscure album from somewhere, six weeks later and cracked and rooted was just getting depressing. I got the new Grave and Testament albums the day they came out rather than whenever the fuck some record company idiot decided that he might stock them here, because “well, they’re just metal. Who buys that?”
    On may of your AMG review recommendations I’ve been able to go out, have a listen on iTunes and be listening to the same album in full 10 minutes later. That’s fucking gold to me. I’ve also been able to save myself heaps of cash by NOT buying things I don’t like too.
    Not everything is available and that’s where the old CD order backup comes in handy.
    The cover art is getting less of a problem now that you can play and display a lot of the artwork and liner notes through smart TVs and home theatre systems. I think this will soon be a medium that record companies will pick up on and animated web-style covers and liner notes will become the norm. It’s easily do-able now. It’s just will.

    A lot of my friends are still clinging to having the CDs just because it is something to hold, something physical. Something they paid for. But all up a blank CD, cover and a bit of printing is actually worth fuck all.

    And then they still want a copy of my album that I downloaded to play until their one arrives, cracked, scratched and rooted in the mail six weeks later. Assholes.

  • I think you’re wrong. Online downloading and purchasing is not going to be the death of the CD anytime soon; especially not as soon as 2014. Surely, a lot of people have altered their musical purchasing behavior from buying singles/CDs into (illegal) downloading music. But people who still buy music legally are usually those who have a stronger connection to music than just top 40, and many of those still buy CD’s. Certainly there is a steady decline, but in my country (Netherlands) the majority of music (like 60-70 %) is still being sold as CD albums.
    I think for the foreseeable future there will be a market for CD’s. There are still too many people who just like to have ‘actual’ CD’s, with coverart and booklets and all, than just the digital audio file. That’s because the message of the artist is usually only complete if you have the complete package. And I believe there are always people like me who recognize this.

  • As a digital native, I never fell in love with the CD. For me it’s mostly just the medium to get the content from the publishing company to my digital archive. The idea of skipping all the waiting and ripping and just downloading it right away sounds awesome, but there is still no big shop that offers music in a lossless format. I want the freedom to compress the music with the encoder of my choice to a bitrate that is transparent to me (which is around half of the current industry standard, so I can fit TWICE as much music on my portable devices). That’s why I’ll continue buying CDs as long as they are being made or a real digital alternative shows up. Oh and CDs are usually cheaper around here than iTunes wants for their crappy files.

  • Robert Turnbull

    I certainly don’t want the CD to disappear. I happily rip all my CDs to my computer (lossless FLACs) but will never download an album from a mainstream digital retailer (particularly iTunes, a program so badly designed I’m sure it is of the devil). Bandcamp is worthy as they offer lossless files and name your price for fledgling artists, but if they offer a CD then I’d rather have that.

    Regarding digital downloading, while plenty of people do buy legally, you only have to look on friends’ or colleagues’ Ipods to see how prevalent illegal downloading is. Most people aren’t as passionate about their music as metalheads are, yet they often have thousands of albums at their fingertips (and often haven’t even listened to half the stuff on there).

  • One thing I am going to miss (already do miss) about the physical format is the actual record stores. Ya, you had to deal with the elitist clerk and had to bother with overpriced and long waits for them to order a hard to get record for you, but in those stores there was a sense of community. You could bump into someone who dug the same music as you and go on for hours just about metal or if the owner of the store was a cool dude he would put aside stuff that would interest you and give great recommendations. Of course you could have metal conversations and get recommendations online just as easy and at a grander scale, but the actual part of meeting new physical friends is something priceless. I can’t go to a pub or a show with my online buddy in Norway as easily as the cool dude (or chick) I met in the record store in the States. Humans need physicality, digital is taking that away. And while the internet has led to some great things in metal, some of the more human and personal aspects are starting to feel lost.

    There’s also the fact that local metal bands can peddle their wares at the local record shop instead of spamming the fuck out of the Facebook(where in reality they’re just preaching to the choir). I’d be more prone to buy a local acts record if a member actually walked up to me and told me why I should check out his record over said person doing so through email.

    While there is the occasional metal show for us to get physical with the music, I liked it better when the other options were more accessible. Metal (and all music) fans should be able to get as physical with the music as much as the artist that made it.

    I do purchase digital music occasionally from Bandcamp but I will never stop buying CDs and going to the record shop (when possible, Amazon has some great deals that I can’t turn down sometimes). And if anyone ever tries to take the artwork away from my beloved albums, I swear I will literally start the biggest and bloodiest war the Earth has ever known.

    • You know, I almost went off on this exact tangent as I was writing this post. I completely agree with the points you make here. I grew up loving going to the metal specialty stores around Long Island (most notably, the world famous Slipped Disc). There was something magical and intoxicating about those places and now, they are all gone. I miss the sense of community the stores fostered and I miss hunting through the stacks for imports and rare treasures.

  • I still buy CD’s. I reserve mp3 purchases for things that don’t get a U.S. release, or ones that are bloody expensive on CD.
    Last year’s Moonsorrow was a good example. It was around $40 to buy the CD here, but I got the mp3 for $5 during an amazon sale. I could have gotten it on CD when I saw them recently, but that was almost 8 months later. These folks could easily get more money out of me just by doing a US release…

  • I do buy more music via download than physical copies these days, more because these are often impulse buys. The problem with downloads though is that we’re not replacing like for like. In most cases one cannot buy lossless files. While I don’t carry lossless files on a portable device I want my music future proof and the best quality possible for transcoding to other formats.

    I wish more bands used Bandcamp as one can usually download FLAC files from there. Just picked up the new The Gathering (brilliant by the way) from their Bandcamp page today, they were asking a mere minimum of €7 (I gave €10).

    I still like to buy physical copies when I can, especially from my favourite bands. But this isn’t possible locally as I live in a rural area and even the major stores in the UK carry a pretty poor selection. What I really want are online stores that will send me a CD and let me have download files in the meantime.

  • Album art died with *albums*. Buying the Powerslave record was like a two-for-one: beautiful larger-than-life picture you could stare at the whole hour you listened to the record.

    The CD size is shit as far as artwork goes.

  • Yes, it’s sad not having the physical package/artwork/lyrics in your hands to view when listening to a new album, but I honestly haven’t bought a CD in years. It’s just not convenient, and after freeing up the space my old CD collection used to take up by converting everything to digital, I would never want to go back to those stacks of plastic cases.

    And now with streaming services such as Spotify I can listen to many artists immediately after hearing about them (currently listening to Bedemon. Thanks for the review!) I just can’t understand choosing to purchase and wait for a CD then having to actually load it into some sort of player rather than making a few clicks to listen almost anything I want to.

  • Awesome article. I always buy a CD first, and get a digital copy when the CD is not available. I have adopted every format since vinyl from tape, CD, DCC, and the digital downloads. I wish the CD had a successor like it was to the cassette tape. I thought the super audio cd or the DVD audio would, but that flopped. Will there be any physical media in the future? I guess as long as we can listen to our favorite music without too much loss of quality then it would be alright. As a consumer I don’t think we have much choice.

  • MikkoKukkonen

    Little on the side of the subject but I have been happily surprised by the resurgence of the vinyl format. I started shifting my habits of buying music on CD’s to buying it on vinyl, a few years ago. I’m glad though, that today we have an option to preview most of the music in digital format before buying it.

    Recently, I was intrigued by Steel Druhm’s review of Seremonia’s debut album. I listened it through a couple of times, by streaming it and then ordered it through Svart Records among few other vinyl releases.

    I’d hate to loose all of the options of buying music in physical form, especially the vinyl one. It’s convenient to sometimes listen to mp3’s and get the quick music fix, but I do spin my vinyls actively too and enjoy the whole package.

  • Martin L

    I applaud the change in part. Ten years ago, in 2002, I passed the 2000 CD mark. The storage is a concern. I like space, order, tidiness. That’s when we bought a home. All of a sudden I had space but displaying the CDs was still hurting my eyes. It wasn’t elegant. My home office was on the second floor upstairs. Most of my collection was in the basement with only a fraction (the ones dearest to me) on the first floor. Less than a year later, I had to admit it was quicker and more practical for me to download songs from my office than go down two floors, find CDs and climb back to listen to them.

    Seriously, this way of distributing and discovering music is archaic and needs to burn in a fire. Most people don’t buy movies before they’ve seen it once. They buy their favorites. I feel the same about physical copies of music. There will always be CDs collecting dust in a collection and a music fan will always feel like one-shot listening to something he would otherwise not buy.

    Physical copies should be reserved for works dearest to you. Classics you will enjoy over and over again and you feel strongly about. What is the future like? The future is for high-end, luxury physical copies of classics, while average works will be distributed entirely electronically. That is, I could see a future where physical copies will be produced much later than the original date of release of the music.

  • Don’t even get me started on this. I AM relatively new to seriously collecting CD’s, I’m almost up to 300 or so, and some albums I can’t even get because I made the mistake of missing them and now they only have limited pressings and such. I am trying, thus, to get as much as I can (as well as getting some damaged CD’s all over again) before something happens to this format.

    I even have a ritual I’ve appopriated to the mp3 player: I buy a CD, I just shut myself off, lie down, have the inlay card with the lyrics, and listen to it, start to finish, and without that, I struggle to properly listen to the album for a long time.

    CD’s aren’t just relics, they are something to hold onto. They’re a whole package – album art, lyrics, liner notes with humorous jokes or deadly-serious gimmicks, it’s the music, it’s physical representation/manifestation, AND the culmination of all the efforts that go into making an album.

    So yeah. I dread the day the CD becomes a historical artefact.

  • tool

    Yeah it’s a tricky one. I can’t decide which format to stick to, and usually get bandamp (if they have it) because it’s instant and i don’t wait 3 weeks for delivery, though I love the physical side and I’ve started collections of CDs and vinyl. CDs have small art and crack easily, but vinyls are expensive and don’t always exist.

    Maybe they can print off posters or decorative art cards and send them out with a free download. A vinyl gatefold without the vinyl. That’d suit me.