Wednesday, August 31, 2005

CD's slowing down but not dead

Don't blame Warner Brothers for touting its own horn about how they're revolutionizing the music game by having one of their acts put out their material in just about every format except compact discs. I blame publications for accepting the story on face value: see Web, DVDs Could Mark CDs' Slow Death for one example. Ask yourself this for starters: if WB was so gung-ho about this concept, why wouldn't they do with say Green Day or Eric Clapton (who just put out a new record)? The obvious answer is that they're not too sure about this idea so they're using a smaller act as a guinea pig to see if it'll fly.

As another reality check, let's remember that downloads (legal downloads to be exact) don't come anywhere near to matching CD sales. The fact that CD's are falling is enough for majors to lose faith in them evidently. That wasn't their plan. What the majors had hoped is that they could push through yet another format like SACD or DVD-A so that we'd replace all of our music just as many were forced to do when vinyl was killed off and the labels made the transition to CD's. But vinyl didn't actually die, despite their best efforts (even though it's far from being a popular format as it once was). Also, while the companies were prepared to line-up and back one of these new formats (similar to what's happening now with the video/DVD battles in Hollywood), they saw the writing on the wall: more and more people wanted their music in a virtual realm. It took them a while to really understand this, hence the popularity of Napster and other P2P sites which they went after with lawsuits.

You can't blame the labels for being in panic mode since you can only blame P2P services for so long. Whether this tact that WB is adapting will work is debatable. The Sun isn't a household name and unless WB puts more marketing muscle behind them, they're probably not going to become stars (even then, it'll be a long shot for the band).

Obviously, one incentive for the labels is that virtual music is easier and cheaper to manufacture than a CD. But there's kind of an inconsistency here (surprise, surprise). Last time I checked, DVD's are still little discs like CD's so it's not like WB is going totally virtual here. Also, they're offering the songs themselves as downloadable MP3 files which you can... burn to a CD if you want! So it's potentially a wash in the end and most likely a gimmick, right?

When WB says that the CD is dead or dying, it's partly wishful thinking. Besides the continuing sales for the format, they're obviously not quite ready to give up on discs. Even Sony, who's about to offer their catalog online through a UK service, isn't saying that they're done with CD's (though that might be an implication behind their move). Previously, the incentive was to wean consumers off one format to get them to invest in a new one but since everyone with a fairly new computer has a system that can play MP3's and DVD's, it's going to be hard to entice people to reinvest in the music they already have. Extras can be offered but if you're not doing it through a disc format (say the Dual Disc), buyers aren't likely to re-purchase old songs though some of them who are real fans might spring for nifty extras (out-takes, videos, etc) that weren't available before.

Regardless of the non-death of the CD, the idea of the album is still alive and well but that's another entry...


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