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Why Are CDs Still a Thing?

CDs are still sold by the tens of millions.

I still remember the first CD I ever bought. It was the soundtrack for the brilliant animated feature, The Prince of Egypt (I was a Christian nerd, cut me some slack). However, I can't remember the last CD I bought, because it's been so long. I'll admit to being a late adopter when it comes to new technology, but even I haven't purchased a CD since at least 2006. For about 10 solid years I've used either an iPod or smartphone for all my music needs, but I still see CDs everywhere.

Against all the odds, a huge number of people are still buying CDs. Like, a really huge number.

Digital sales only eclipsed CDs for the first time in 2014, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI). That year, global sales of physical music (most of which are CDs) totaled $6.82 billion, which was down about 8 percent from the year before. Billboard reported in July of 2015 that in the first half of the year, CD sales were in fact down from the last half of 2014, but still totaled 56.6 million units.

In spite of the fact that digital options are widely available for music procurement, CDs are still being sold by the tens of millions. In fact, according to a February 2016 report provided by media and technology analysis company Media Insights & Decision In Action (MIDiA), "CD buyers are the largest single group of recorded music consumers with 32 percent penetration compared to 28 percent for concert goers, 25 percent for music downloaders and 10 percent for subscribers." So how did these shiny discs become such a tenacious facet of our culture?

The result of combined research and development from the tech companies Philips and Sony, Compact Disc technology was created to produce both better-sounding audio, and a more portable audio device and player. While the public wouldn't get their paws on the jewel-cased mini-records for several more years, the first CDs ever pressed were debuted to the media on March 8, 1979.

CDs were eventually made available for commercial purchase in 1982, when Billy Joel's album 52nd Street went on sale as a CD in Japan. The first CD ever released in the US was, of course, Born In The USA from Bruce Springsteen. CD sales peaked in 1999 and 2000 (makes perfect sense when you consider TLC came out with "No Scrubs" in 1999 and Destiny's Child dropped "Say My Name" in 2000). In 2000, 730 million CDs were sold in the U.S. alone. But in 2001, CD sales took a hit, dropping to 712 million, and then down to 649.5 million in 2002. Not coincidentally, the first iPod was released in 2001. CD sales have been declining in the US ever since, but they're still selling well over a hundred million per year.

Clearly record companies continue to make CDs because there's one heck of a consumer demand. But why on earth do people still want to buy CDs, rather than seamlessly buy and play digital music, or collect vinyl records that have that special hipster nostalgic element? It turns out people just like CDs, despite the ready availability of digital music.

"CDs are far from dead, and I don't believe they will be any time soon," said Zack Zarrillo of Synergy Artist MGMT and Bad Timing Records.

Zarrillo said that, from a musician's perspective, CDs make a lot of sense.

"The important thing to know about CDs is that they're very cost effective," he told me. "Buying 1,000 CDs through a plant like DiscMakers may cost just over $1,000—meaning the price per unit for each CD is likely under $1.50 in value. That's an affordable purchase for growing bands and small labels, and one with decent margin for a $5 or $10 sale."

So for a band, a CD is a cheap way to get your music out there to fans who come to shows and want to buy band merchandise, and who are happy to cough up the dough. For fans, Zarillo said CDs still have appeal to older folks who may not want to use iTunes, and to people who still like to listen to music in the car. The appeal of CDs as being easily played in the car seems to be a popular response as to why people are still buying them.

I reached out to a handful of my friends to ask about why they still buy what to me seems like veritable Luddite technology, and many of them told me that they have a CD player in their car, and thus they buy CDs to rock out while driving around, even though the radio or a USB hookup for a smartphone or mp3 player is an option.

One of my friends, Sarah, said "I buy [CDs] still because driving in the car (with the CD player) is the only time I really get to listen to music. I always scour the clearance shelves at Half Price Books and get stuff like "1997 Grammy Nominees." My stepmom told me "I'm old school, what else would I do? It reminds me of my youth, collecting albums and such." So perhaps the nostalgia factor of having music in physical form still matters to music consumers.

While some car newer manufacturers such as Tesla are making cars without CD players, many car-makers such as Volkswagen, Ford, Lexus, and Mitsubishi have 2016 models with a CD player still in the dashboard stereo. In 2013, Ford told Cars.com that the extinction of CD players in cars "is for our customers to decide," adding that they "monitor usage and will react accordingly." For now, that means continuing to make at least some models with an in-dash CD player.

For those who might not have a CD player in their car but want one, or who want to replace their existing car CD player, it turns out the aftermarket (used sale) for car CD players is still very strong. In 2015, over 5.5 million aftermarket car CD players were sold in the United States, that's a 7 percent growth from 2014. The desire to play CDs in the car is strong, and apparently getting stronger.

But beyond the desire to listen to CDs in the car and nostalgic appeal, research suggests that the sound quality of CDs themselves could be a significant reason why audiophiles are clinging to physicals discs. In 2014, Cambridge Silicon Radio Limited (CSR), a U.K.-based audio and communications technology developer, released a survey of 2,000 people who listen to music at home in 2014, which found that 77 percent of at-home-listeners wanted better sound quality from their music. With CD sales still relatively high, it could be that Philips' and Sony's endeavor to create higher quality audio with the CD was so successful that it still hasn't been topped, and people want CDs sheerly for the quality of the sound.

This same study found that 76 percent of those who listen to music at home feel that ease of use is "highly critical" when they're choosing a new audio system. Frankly, for less digitally-savvy music lovers, there are fewer contemporary technologies more straight-forward than popping in a CD and hitting play.

What all this boils down to, is the sheer habit. That's what Mark Mulligan, media analyst at MIDiA Research told me. I asked Mulligan what is driving the consumption of CDs today and he told me it is "simply habit." He added that there is a "split music buying base, polarized between tech sophisticates that stream and less tech savvy mainstream CD buyers who like the familiarity of the CD. They see little in the way of benefits from streaming and value physical ownership." As it turns out, that force of habit may be strong enough to keep the CD industry alive—for a little while longer, at least.

On a road trip last month, my boyfriend picked up a few new CDs from a thrift store. I didn't really understand why he wanted to buy more CDs when we both have iTunes at our fingertips, but I have to admit I was excited to listen to Brian McKnight for an hour straight. Something about the memory of belting out Backstreet Boys or Destiny's Child with my friends in high school while cruising around provides a special nostalgia that feels great to indulge, and evidently, I'm just in the habit. Given that the CDs we picked up were only 50 cents, why not?

Why Is This Still a Thing is a column exploring the anachronistic, seemingly-outdated technology that surrounds us. New columns appear every Friday.