Proper's Drew Hill on why physical albums remain vital for the health of the music biz

Proper's Drew Hill on why physical albums remain vital for the health of the music biz

At the turn of the millennium, the IFPI reported that CDs accounted for 76% of albums sold globally. Since then, the adoption of digital technology relating to both streaming and digital downloads has led to this share decreasing, but talk of a complete digital dominance is misplaced.

Indeed, with 47.3 million CDs sold to UK audiences in 2016, the figures are clear - the format is proving resilient in an era of rapid change. So why do we often talk the CD down?

Of course, we all recognise that the recordings business has been disrupted - the seismic way in which patterns of access and ownership are changing is vitally important when seeking to understand how we engage with music in 2017.

However, I believe it would be wrong to view digital or physical methods of accessing music as a binary concept.

In fact, research conducted for ERA’s 2016 Yearbook noted that 31% of consumers using paid-for streaming platforms reported that their spending on CDs was the same, and 13% reported that their spending on CDs had actually increased. And that’s outside of vinyl purchases.  

For this significant group of people, there certainly exists a ‘try before you buy’ mentality that allows music lovers to immerse themselves in a diverse repertoire before deciding which albums they’d like to add to their permanent, physical collection.

Physical and digital methods of consuming music are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they’re often consumed hand-in-hand as part of the diverse, innovative and ever shifting way in which we access the work of our favourite artists.

We also know that CDs are an accessible format that fits seamlessly into our everyday music consumption. A 2015 study by the auto industry consultancy SBD, commissioned by ERA and the BPI, noted that CDs were showing a ‘remarkable resilience’ and, with ‘CD players set to be in more than half of new cars… likely to remain part of our in-car listening experience for many years to come’.  

It’s also important to recognise that some of the biggest success stories of 2016 were fuelled by strong physical sales alone.

Indeed, albums from artists such as Michael Ball & Alfie Boe (Together), The Rolling Stones (Blue & Lonesome) and Michael Bublé (Nobody But Me) all sold heavily with relatively little contribution from streaming.

With all this in mind, I firmly believe that CDs will continue to be a resilient fixture in our musical landscape for a good few years to come, as time and time again music lovers vote with their hard earned cash and choose to invest in physical.

While the format is of course in decline - the instantaneous nature of digital consumption makes it easier for us to immerse ourselves within the works of a vibrant, diverse selection of sounds - none of this is remotely comparable to owning a physical entity, to hold, to explore and to enjoy.

And it’s not just standard everyday purchases that are proving resilient, but also those high-end, premium purchases, such as expansive CD box sets, coloured vinyl records and limited edition bundles.

Furthermore, it is also important to recognise the value in gifting physical music - you cannot unwrap a playlist or a download.

Taking all that into account, the conclusion that physical formats will live on for quite some time to come is, in my opinion, unavoidable.

It’s easy to draw conclusions about the role that physical will play in the months and years ahead to bolster a digital narrative. However, the reality is far more nuanced and complex.

It’s important that we rightfully recognise that all formats are integral in ensuring that music prospers. And whilst we regularly hear of the vinyl resurgence story, it’s also important to recognise and celebrate the significance of the 47 million CDs sold to music fans across Britain in 2016.

Far from being a format to ignore, CDs are an integral part of the British music industry success story that ought to be celebrated.

Story By: Drew Hill, MD, Proper Music Distribution

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