A run of big releases from superstar artists is driving a surprise revival in the CD as the format approaches its 40th anniversary, Music Week can reveal.
Based on our exclusive analysis of Official Charts Company data, Q4 sales of CDs have seen a year-on-year increase of almost 15%. Music Week’s research compares total sales of the format from chart week 40 (October 8) to chart week 48 (December 3) between 2020 and 2021.
The turnaround in the performance of CDs has been driven by three acts - Adele, ABBA and Ed Sheeran - as part of an impressive schedule of releases in the quarter. Of course, it also helps that stores are fully open for business and not subject to Covid restrictions like last year.
“This year’s Q4 line-up is the strongest it’s been in recent memory,” said HMV & Fopp MD Phill Halliday. “There really is a huge new release that caters to everyone, with Adele, Ed Sheeran, Little Mix, Taylor Swift, Coldplay and ABBA all bringing out records that their respective fanbases are very excited for. We’re expecting a huge improvement on last Christmas in both footfall and sales.”
The CD revival comes as the format is set for its 40th anniversary for music releases in 2022. ABBA, whose comeback record Voyage is one of the year’s biggest sellers, were one of the first acts to embrace CD with the release of The Visitors in 1982. It was also one of the first records to be recorded and mixed digitally.
Some big albums made an impact in the first half of Q4, including No.1s for Sam Fender, Coldplay and Elton John. Meanwhile, releases from The Beatles, The Specials, Lana Del Rey and Duran Duran posted the kind of first week numbers that would have been enough for No.1 at any other time of year.
Music Week research shows that for the first four weeks of Q4 (chart weeks 40-43), sales of CDs were tracking a year-on-year decline of 5.2% - still a respectable result for a declining format.
But from week 44, there were year-on-year increases in CD volumes in every one of the following five chart weeks. As a result, CD sales for the five-week period (chart weeks 44-48) increased by 25.6% year-on-year.
Our Q4 snapshot reveals that over the nine chart weeks so far in the quarter (weeks 40-48), CD sales are up 14.7% to 2,940, 466.
The first game-changing release was Ed Sheeran’s =, which hit No.1 with sales of 139,107 (including 78,263 compact discs).
CD sales then powered ahead with the release of ABBA’s Voyage in week 45. The Swedish stars’ comeback opened with staggering overall sales of 203,909, which helped lift physical albums to a 27.6% share of the overall market that week.
Voyage broke a 21st century record for weekly vinyl units (29,891 copies), but its sales of CDs across multiple editions were almost five times greater - 148,471. The release of Voyage helped overall CD sales increase that week by 29.9% year-on-year to 395,360. And the Top 5 albums’ combined CD sales of 188,006 were 277.2% higher than Top 5’s volumes on CD in week 45 for 2020. Crucially, Ed Sheeran and ABBA then continued to shift significant amounts of physical units.
In week 46, Taylor Swift’s Red (Taylor’s Version) moved 45,338 copies on CD as it debuted at the summit. Each of that week’s other Top 5 albums also posted substantial CD sales: ABBA’s Voyage (37,147), Ed Sheeran’s = (17,913), Little Mix’s Between Us (15,699) and Rod Stewart’s The Tears Of Hercules (18,009).
Chart week 47 of 2021 was the big one for CDs, as physical’s market share of the album market soared to 32.8%. Adele’s 30 opened with massive consumption of 261,856. Once again, there was an impressive vinyl tally (16,700), but CD was by far the biggest format for the much-anticipated release by Adele with 158,772 compact discs sold in seven days.
As a result, Adele helped to lift the overall CD market that week to 520,380, a year-on-year increase of 41.3%.
The rest of the Top 5 included strong showings for the format. Sheeran’s = moved another 19,105 copies on CD, ABBA sold a further 26,470, Oasis moved 8,196 compact disc editions of their Knebworth live album and there were 17,536 sales on the format for the Alison Krauss and Robert Plant collaboration, Raise The Roof.
Combined CD sales of 230,079 for that Top 5 in week 47 were 158.7% higher than the volumes for the Top 5 album in 2020.
Bringing our analysis bang up to date, Adele continued to do some heavy lifting for the format’s Q4 momentum last week. In chart week 48, her 30 album posted another 102,261 sales, including 71,318 CDs. At 500,005 units, the weekly market figure for compact discs was not much down on the previous week when 30 was first released - and physical music’s market share of albums was actually higher at 34.1%.
As well as Adele, those half a million CDs sold last week included almost a further combined 50,000 for the new albums from Ed Sheeran (24,556) and ABBA (24,758), as well as 33,206 copies of Westlife’s Wild Dreams and 15,652 for Gary Barlow’s The Dream Of Christmas.
The positive results come at a time when the long-term future of the CD has been under scrutiny, particularly with some retailers ceasing to stock them. Up to the end of Q3, there was a 10.8% decline in year-to-date sales of CDs to 8,878,111. The Q3 year-on-year decrease for the three-month period was a steeper 15.5%.
It’s a bit too early to write the CD off
“It’s difficult to say definitively,” said Derek Allen, SVP, commercial at Warner Music. “However, I’ve rarely seen a better schedule, across all the majors. One thing’s for certain, we’ll have a clear picture of CD’s future coming out of Christmas.”
CD sales were down 35.1% in 2021, but there are clear signs that the decline is bottoming out.
"We do expect the decline in CD volume to be far lower this year – single digits - than we have seen in previous years and Q4 has a strong slate of releases that will do well on the format,” said Charles Wood, VP of market planning & media at Sony Music UK. “You could not really think of a stronger line-up.”
With vinyl prices on the increase for multiple reasons, the other advantage for CD is price. Adele’s official store sells the double-vinyl edition of 30 for, appropriately, £30, compared to just £11 for the CD edition.
“I really like CD,” Rough Trade director Nigel House told Music Week. “And especially with the price of vinyl at the moment, it’s a bit too early to write the CD off.”
Read our review of Adele’s 30 here.