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The CD is Dead...Long Live the New CD?

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I've got a conundrum, folks. You might, too: In a study entitled "The End of the Music Industry As We Know It" (suggested subhead: "And consumers feel fine"), Forrester Research, Inc., is reporting that half of music sales will be digital by 2011, and digital sales will surpass CDs entirely by 2012.

It should be pretty clear to everyone that the CD is beginning to go the way of the VHS tape - even if sales weren't racing downhill faster than an Olympic skier, the technology has simply outdistanced the medium. I use my iPod in the car and my computer has long replaced my poor stereo. But up till now, I've still been buying CDs -- even if I've already gotten a promo in the mail via my music-related day jobs, I'll pick up a retail copy at a show or Amoeba to try to support my favorite bands and releases. But these days, that seems like a waste of money.

At this point, the CD is neither a useful product nor a collectible worth showing off: I'm just going to put it on my computer, leaf through the lyrics and never look at it again, and that's assuming I haven't already downloaded it (ha!). As a display item, somehow I don't think a rack of CDs will impress the ladies much in the years to come -- I might as well bust out my eight-track.

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That said, an external hard drive full of album folders isn't exactly the coolest thing to show off either, much less enjoy as a physical collection, which is partially why I'm hesitant to go all-digital. Then there's the issue of quality - as a bit of an audiophile (and in fairness, a professional music writer for whom these things matter), no MP3 sounds better to my ears than one ripped in LAME V0, which also saves space over hefty 320 or 224 kpbs files. I can't download V0 rips from Amazon, but even if I could, paying $9 and having no physical product to show for it (or to have as a lossless archive in the very real event that my hard drive goes kablooie or my computer corrupts the files) doesn't seem like a good deal. In that case, I might as well buy the CD for $12 and rip it myself, but then I'm still left with a useless piece of plastic.

This is one of many dilemmas facing the music industry. There's no standout product for the serious, tech-savvy music fan. CDs are an obsolete medium but MP3 stores are unsatisfying selection-wise (in both the variety of MP3 files themselves and the albums available) and probably overpriced. (There's a column to be written here about how much money the industry would rake in if it made its entire back catalog 4.99 a pop on Amazon, but I'll save that for next time.) I guess the third option is vinyl: an LP looks much better on my wall than a CD and the liner notes are in a font big enough for glasses-clad indie kids to read. They sound better, too. It's not like I take CDs with me anywhere anyway, so vinyl's lack of portability (a traditional CD advantage) has become moot. And it'd be fun to go back to crate-digging and looking for great finds in the used bin. In my limited experience, you're much more likely to find interesting stuff among the $1 LPs than the $1 CDs. On that note, if I ever see another copy of R.E.M.'s Monster again, it'll be too soon.

Ironically, I'm having the opposite problem with DVDs now that the new hi-def formats are starting to take over -- I'll be scooping up DVDs a-plenty as soon as $5-10 sale prices start kicking in across the board. In another argument for lower music prices, I just bought the Ghostbusters 1 & 2 box at Target for $10 and couldn't be happier about it - and I'm sure I'm not the only one. Problem is, the quality of audio products is regressing, not improving: if CD prices fall, there's no premium-price Blu-Ray disc to replace it with. Well, there was -- people are just willing to spend more for a superior product when it comes to visual entertainment. Similar efforts at one for audiophiles failed miserably a few years back (remember the Super Audio CD? Me neither), and the inferior-by-nature MP3 and the endless loudness war are only making things worse. If the labels were smart, they would've established MP3s as the convenient bargain product at $4.99 (maybe $6.99 for new releases) and CDs as the quality standard at $10-12 during in the Napster era. Buuuut they didn't.

So what should I do, folks? Should I go all vinyl and just pirate the MP3s? And as the CD continues to go the way of the Dodo, is the record industry ever going to figure out how to replace it, digitally or otherwise?

Photo by Brian Teutsch via Flickr