La Scena Musicale: CD Blues: Tale of a death foretold?

Originally published at scena.org | 01 Nov

It’s not a secret anymore: the recording industry is really singing the blues these days. In the 1980s, the majors were predicting that the compact disc would wipe the good old vinyl record off the map.

Thirty years later, the CD is now under siege, taken over by digital downloads, even by its once-condemned predecessor, vinyl! The current digital onslaught has turned everything upside down, but vinyl never disappeared completely like its predecessors, the phonograph cylinder and the 78-rpm record. But if it hadn’t been for DJs, even that peculiar brand of music-lover known as the audiophile, it may well have fallen by the wayside.

The first ones hit by the current crisis are the majors. In the 1990s, they had all converted to the compact disc, sometimes investing huge sums in their productions, but dragged their feet when the trend towards  digital downloads took off.

Smaller recording companies and independent labels would also feel the pinch and they too have since been caught in the crunch. With regards to jazz, a market mainly dominated by small labels, times have been tough; several have given up, but the survivors were forced to cut back on their production schedules to remain above water.

To shed some light on the situation, La Scena Musicale polled the directors of six recording companies by submitting the following three questions to them:

I- Is the CD bound to disappear completely or does it still have a place in the market?

II- Have they noticed an increase in online sales of their products and a decrease in disc sales?

III- Since vinyl seems to be making a comeback, are they ready to go back to that format?

The following producers were surveyed:

1- Jim West, Justin Time Records (Montreal)

2- Alain Bédard, les disques Effendi (Montreal)

3- Russ Summers, Nuscope Records (Dallas, Texas)

4- Patrik Landolt, Intakt Records (Zurich, Switzerland)

5- Eric Fillion, Disques Tenzier (Montreal) – produces only vinyl records in limited edition runs.

6- Joe Torchinsky, Bronze Age Records (Montreal) – produces vinyl as well as CDs, the latter for promotional purposes alone.

I – As for the heralded death of the CD, some responders were less pessimistic than others. Jim West, Patrik Landolt and Russ Summers feel that it will not be banished immediately – the latter giving it another ten years. Neither do they foresee its complete disappearance, as long as music lovers still want a hand-held object. Jim West noted that jazz fans are still record collectors at heart. Alain Bédard and the two vinyl producers were more definite. The former confirmed a steady decrease in store sales and a clearly inferior sound quality (16 bit) – as compared to high-resolution sound files. Fillion and Torchinsky are among those who had never been blinded by the silver disc. A one-time punk musician, Fillion was always part of a musical milieu that preferred vinyl, which explains his bias. He quickly rejected CDs in creating his own label in 2011, just as digitalized music was taking root. Torchinsky admits, however, that a CD can sound as good as vinyl, but only with a high-end audio system, which is reserved for those with the means to pay for it and who just won’t settle for less. As for West and Bédard, the CD still has a place, particularly at concerts. Bédard remarked that he had sold four times the number of CDs at performance venues than in music stores (which are becoming scarcer).

II – The first four producers have noted an increase in online sales of their labels, although the growth has been gradual. Patrik Landolt mentions 8% of his sales, a modest figure indeed. However, since he sells through online stores and not on his own site, he bemoans the low return in terms of royalties, a feeling shared by Alain Bédard. The latter also frowns on the practice of streaming, which is not regulated and commands ridiculous returns on sales. What’s more, online stores rake in the whole amount and never invest in the production of albums. But when taking into account the international market, Jim West ads a little perspective to the issue. With no exact figures at the ready, he feels that in Europe, and even more so in Asia, CDs are still very much in demand, with a market share of 70%; in America, that figure is about 40%. Our two vinyl producers decided not to take that path; Fillion tried it out, with no real success.

III – So what about that highly touted return of the vinyl? Although aware of the phenomenon, our interviewees don’t agree on its extent. Producers who are specialists in vinyl embrace it for its sound qualities as well as for its aesthetic value (sleeve and graphics, larger format of liner notes). Torchinsky even believes that this growth will continue until vinyl makes its comeback as the musical material of choice. Fillion, for his part, has adopted it because it lends itself to his editorial line – issuing unpublished experimental music tapes from the 1960s and 1970s. Both West and Landolt aren’t ruling out reverting to producing vinyls in the future; the former has already issued one LP in the previous year and is thinking of reissuing one out of his existing catalogue in the next year. That said, he believes that vinyl will be nothing more than a drop in the bucket. More cautiously, Patrik Landolt will only do so if his customers want it. Bédard and Summers, finally, have no intention of taking this route; both prefer to sell high-resolution downloadable files (for ex. WAV1:1 format). For Summers,  just the cost of shipping a single vinyl is exorbitant and an disincentive in itself, a fact admitted to by a die-hard fan such as Fillion. Shipping a single unit to Europe costs him $18, higher than the price of producing it.