Is it time to reconsider buying CDs?

February 22, 2022

With Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and spates of other artists suddenly pulling their music from Spotify’s servers, it’s a good time to consider buying physical copies of your favorite music.

Spotify and competing services all serve the same purpose: They let you rent music and listen to as much as you want for a fixed fee. It’s a beguiling premise. For a fixed, tepid price, you have instant access to nearly all the music recorded in the past hundred years. There has never been an easier time in human history to immerse yourself in music.

More than 80% of music is now consumed via streaming. We’ve largely forgotten about buying music and curating a personal library. Relying on such rental services for all our music, we are at the mercy of the artists and the record labels. As in the recent case of Neil Young, artists can pull their records or even change them on a whim. Kanye West has already edited his latest album, Donda,over a dozen times since releasing it to streaming services. Unless you bought a physical copy on day one, you have no say over which version of the album you can listen to. And the upcoming sequel, Donda 2,Kanye announced won’t be released to stream at all.

Prior to streaming taking over the market, Apple, in the early 2000s, popularized buying music online, offering single songs for just 99 cents. But in retrospect, this was the worst of both worlds. You were still dependent on internet access for your music’s availability, you had no control over how the source files are modified on the servers, you were stuck with compressed files, and you could only listen to the songs you had purchased.

The only way to safeguard your favorite and most cherished recordings is by owning the hard copies. Despite streaming’s far-reaching presence, physical media have been steadily regaining steam. Fueled by nostalgic longing for a bygone era, the vinyl renaissance has been booming since the 2010s. In 2021, the medium nearly doubled in sales from 21.5 million units to 41.7 million.

But vinyl’s cultural reemergence has inevitably ballooned prices of new and used records. A stroll to your nearest hipster music store and you’ll find such absurd propositions as a generic reissue of a Beatles LP retailing for over $25 — they sold over 600 million records; most of them aren’t exactly rare.

Listening to records is even more expensive. Music lovers endlessly debate whether vinyl offers any sonic benefits over digital formats like CDs. If you care about how your music sounds, putting together an analog stereo that can contend with the average CD player will cost you thousands more dollars. You’ll need to consider the cost of the turntable, the cartridge, the phono stage — the audiophile world is a bottomless rabbit hole of spending. Just gaze at this $1,100 power cable.

Speaking of CDs, if you’re looking to build a music library or simply own physical copies of your favorite albums without taking a second mortgage on your home, the good news is the shiny futuristic coasters aren’t dead yet, either; in fact, they’re cheaper than ever. According to a new report from Billboard,CD sales in 2021 increased for the first time in 17 years.

Whereas a vinyl pressing of such ubiquitous albums as Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon will cost you at least $25, their CD counterparts can be found for a few bucks. You can buy Sonny Rollins’s complete Blue Note riverside recordings, all eight albums, for just $13. Similarly, Glenn Gould’s entire catalog of Bach recordings, 30 CDs, costs just $90. And if you decide to venture into the audiophile realm, you can buy a high-end CD player from the 90s secondhand for just a few hundred dollars.

For the music you love and want to bequeath to your children someday, there is no substitute for owning physical copies. CDs can never assuage the romantic appeal of vinyl. But for many people looking to start buying albums again, they’re a far cheaper way to start.

Originally Published at The Washington Examiner