Are CDs losing money?

Compact discs, more commonly known as CDs, were once a staple in the music industry. Introduced in 1982, CDs quickly became the dominant format for music distribution, overtaking cassettes and vinyl records. However, with the rise of digital music downloads and streaming in the early 2000s, there has been much speculation about whether CD sales are in terminal decline.

What was the peak of CD sales?

CD sales hit their peak in 2000. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), nearly 943 million CD albums were sold in the United States that year. The growth in CD sales during the 1990s was astonishing. In 1990, only about 450 million CDs were sold. So in just a decade, sales more than doubled as CDs became the dominant music format.

Several factors drove the rapid adoption of CDs in the 1990s:

  • Improved sound quality over cassettes and vinyl
  • Introduction of the CD-ROM drive to personal computers
  • Aggressive marketing by record labels
  • Falling prices of CD players and discs

The 2000s, however, marked the beginning of the CD’s decline. Annual sales in the U.S. fell by over 100 million between 2000 and 2008. By 2018, CD sales had plummeted to only 60 million per year in the U.S. Other major markets like Japan and Germany saw similar declines over the same period.

What led to the decline of CDs?

There are several interrelated factors behind the decline in CD sales since 2000:

1. Online piracy

The rise of peer-to-peer file sharing networks in the late 1990s, especially Napster, made it easy for people to obtain free, unauthorized digital copies of music. This fostered a culture of not paying for recorded music that still persists today despite the shutdown of Napster.

2. Digital downloads

Legal music downloading services like iTunes emerged in the early 2000s as an alternative to piracy. While downloads generated new digital revenue, it often came at the expense of physical CD sales. The convenience of legal downloads outweighed buying a CD for many consumers.

3. Music streaming

The launch of on-demand music streaming platforms like Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube in the late 2000s has further accelerated the decline of CDs. With streaming, consumers no longer need to buy individual songs or albums in order to listen to music online. While streaming services generated over $11 billion in revenues in 2019, they have eaten further into CD sales.

4. Unbundling of albums

In the CD era, record labels relied on albums as the primary unit of music consumption. Fans often purchased a 12-14 track CD just to obtain a few hit singles. Digital formats disrupted this by allowing singles to be purchased individually. Streaming has further unbundled the album format. This has slashed the number of full album sales.

5. Changes in listening habits

The proliferation of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets enabled digital music listening on the go. Consumers began expecting constant access to music rather than purchasing and collecting physical albums. Younger demographics in particular have adopted streaming as their primary listening habit and seldom buy physical CDs.

How much have CD sales declined?

Global recorded music revenues totaled $19.1 billion in 2018, according to industry group IFPI. Physical formats such as CDs, vinyl, and DVD audio accounted for $4.7 billion. This represents a 64% decline from 1999, when physical formats generated $13.2 billion (adjusted for inflation).

CDs have borne the brunt of this decline. At their peak in 1999, CDs made up a stunning 93% share of all global music revenues. By 2018, the CD share plunged to just 12% despite a minor resurgence in vinyl. The RIAA estimates that between 2000 and 2018, unit CD sales dropped by a staggering 96% in the U.S. from nearly a billion to only 60 million. Similar plunges occurred in most other developed music markets.

Year Global Recorded Music Revenues Physical Share Digital Share
1999 $25.2 billion 94% 2%
2018 $19.1 billion 25% 46%

This table illustrates the flip: physical music sales once dominated nearly all revenues, but have steeply declined as digital formats rose to claim the majority share starting in the 2010s.

Has the decline in CD sales hurt revenues?

Surprisingly, the music industry has adapted better to technological changes than feared when CD sales first began shrinking. Total global music revenues declined through the 2000s, hitting a trough of $14.2 billion in 2014. But revenues have rebounded significantly since then thanks to growth in paid streaming subscriptions.

The IFPI reported that streaming music revenues surged 32% in 2018 alone to reach $8.9 billion globally. This helped lift overall industry revenues by 9.7% that year, the fourth consecutive year of growth. While paid subscriptions made up 37% of revenues, ad-supported streaming services like YouTube also contributed 4%. Download sales still languished, however, with a 21% decline as consumers shifted from owning digital files to streaming access.

The resilience of overall recorded music revenues despite the CD decline demonstrates the industry’s ability to adapt to the digital era. Streaming in particular has emerged as a sustainable business model, driven by young demographics willing to pay monthly fees for unlimited on-demand music. While the CD era and its exorbitant sales volumes will likely never return, new formats have arisen to stabilize music revenues.

Are CDs still viable as a format?

While clearly in decline, CDs remain a significant segment of music industry revenues. CD sales still generated $1.5 billion globally in 2018, comprising nearly 8% of total music revenues. Major artists like Adele, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Justin Bieber continue releasing their new albums on CD even as they distribute digitally.

Part of the enduring appeal of CDs lies in the value some fans still place on physical media. Having a tangible album with artwork and liner notes retains an appeal over a digital file for music collectors. Bundling CDs with merchandise and concert tickets also helps drive sales. The desire for higher fidelity audio compared to compressed streaming is another advantage cited by some CD loyalists.

An older demographic that grew up buying albums still accounts for a reasonable share of CD demand. Physical music retailers like Best Buy and Target rely on back catalog CD sales to avid music fans unwilling to abandon the format. However, appealing to younger generations who have switched entirely to streaming is more of a challenge.

In a sign of the shifting landscape, Best Buy announced in 2018 that it would pull CDs from its stores because of declining sales and space constraints. While the retailer ultimately reversed this decision, it illustrates the pressure that physical music sellers face. Big box stores derive most of their music revenues from vinyl rather than CDs. Maintaining expansive CD sections appeals more to niche collectors than the mainstream.

Is the future bright for CDs?

The outlook for CDs continuing as a high-volume product is dim. Sales erosion will likely continue as older generations that grew up with CDs decline as a share of the market. A 2019 Ipsos survey found that only 11% of U.S. millennials had purchased a CD in the past 3 months versus 36% of Baby Boomers. And only 22% of Gen Z consumers ever bought CDs.

Unless younger music fans rediscover an affinity for physical media, CD sales will likely keep plummeting. Streaming platforms like Spotify are now the primary way young people consume albums. Subscription streaming revenues overtook total downloads and physical media combined back in 2017. This marked a major shift in music industry economics.

However, CDs will probably never disappear entirely. Their sales to diehard collectors and older fans should stabilize at a low base level in coming years. Vinyl LP sales have bounced back amid renewed interest in analog formats, providing hope that CDs could experience a smaller revival. But regaining any material share of the market seems unlikely given the dominance of streaming.

Artists catering to older audiences will have the most incentive to continue releasing on CD. Major labels will still issue popular new releases on CD even if in smaller quantities. However, pricing pressures may arise if CDs become more of a niche format. Manufacturing costs are unlikely to decline in line with lower demand.

Could CDs be headed for a revival?

Despite their accelerating sales decline, some see potential for at least a stabilized CD market going forward. One positive sign is that studios keep releasing new albums on CD, implying continued profitability. The format may be far from its peak, but still generates significant profits through catalog sales and market share among older music buyers.

Vinyl’s surprising resurgence offers hope that physical media can regain some footing. While vinyl makes up only 4% of music sales, its growth shows that many fans still value tactile, high-fidelity formats. CDs boast their own advantages over streaming like better sound quality and collectability.

If younger generations grow tired of streaming’s low fidelity and lack of exclusivity, CDs may attract renewed interest. The environmental impact of streaming could also help. Manufacturing and shipping physical CDs generates significantly less carbon than powering thousands of servers to stream music over the internet.

For any comeback to occur, however, the CD format needs to feel more culturally relevant to today’s music fans. Limited edition CD releases and innovative packaging would help, as would bundling with apparel and posters. Record Store Day exclusives and artist meet-and-greets could also incentivize purchasing CDs. Ultimately the music itself remains the driver – great new albums from leading artists could spark at least a modest revival.

Can CD prices come down?

Lower prices may also entice those who grew up digital back to CDs. The typical $10-15 price of new releases feels unreasonable to younger fans accustomed to $10 unlimited monthly streaming. If labels cut prices to $5-8 per disc, impulse buys from curious streamers could occur more frequently.

However, the higher production costs of small-batch physical goods makes serious price reductions unlikely absent a large resurgence in volume. Labels and artists need a reasonable cut to make manufacturing worthwhile. But staged sales and special offers like buy-one-get-one-free or bundled concert tickets could make CDs feel more affordable to otherwise streaming-only fans.

Will CDs gain appeal as collectibles?

Rarity and exclusivity is another potential draw. Fans increasingly want unique collections, and limited edition CD runs could gain appeal as sought-after memorabilia versus readily available streams. Added value like signed booklets and photo inserts would further the collectible angle.

Special album covers, colors, and packaging help make CD releases stand out on crowded merch tables. Boutique labels like Numero Group and Light in the Attic cater to music buffs with beautifully crafted archival CD (and vinyl) releases. Their success shows demand for lovingly produced physical media beyond basic black CDs.


The age of the CD as the music industry’s cash cow has ended. The format will likely never again approach the nearly billion-dollar sales levels it once commanded. But with careful cultivation by labels and artists, CDs can perhaps avoid fading away into complete obscurity.

There are enough older fans and collectors still willing to purchase discs to sustain a baseline market. And potentially bring younger generations into the fold by making CDs cheaper and playing up their appeal as collectibles. While streaming and downloads meet most everyday listening needs, CDs can survive as a higher quality physical format for true music enthusiasts.

Adapting to consumers’ shifting media habits will require the music business to once again pivot. But if any industry has shown the ability to successfully reinvent itself in the digital age, it is the recording industry. After weathering piracy and the initial decline of CDs, the business has bounced back with a new orientation around streaming. This gives hope that CDs can find a profitable niche in the years ahead.

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