They seem so last century, physical media like Compact Discs. Everyone now listens to their music via online streaming, and as a result, CD sales have plunged. Manufacturing and distributing CDs is expensive, so why would anyone bother with them?
But I believe that CDs, and maybe even vinyl, are still valuable marketing tools for classical musicians, and still worthwhile and valuable. But before discussing the reasons, I need to acknowledge that the role of CDs has changed over the years.
Evolution of music delivery
In the past, say over 20 years ago, CDs (along with vinyl and cassettes) and radio were how people listened to music, and discovered it. In order to get access to music, record labels needed to physically produce it. Even radio stations relied on having physical media delivered to them in order to play it on the air. Music fans would need to purchase the CD in order to hear their favorite music. While radio stations might play one or two top songs from the album – the singles – fans would still need to purchase the physical CD to be able to hear the whole album.
From the perspective of the artist, putting out an album was the only way to deliver music to fans. It was also just about the only way to make money from their music-making, aside from live concerts.
Because manufacturing, distributing, and marketing physical media is expensive, and since it was the gateway to public access to music, record labels were the key players. Everyone needed to go to a label to get their music out to the world, or else they’d be relegated to toiling in local obscurity. (The recording process itself also used to be much more expensive than it is today, making artists even more reliant on record labels.)
How the Internet Changed Everything
Then along came the internet, and the labels didn’t know what to do with it, other than view it as a threat and try to shut it down.
First it was file sharing. It’s pretty obvious that delivering music as data over a wire is far, far cheaper than manufacturing a physical product – imprinting that same data into physical media, and packaging it up in a case with printed materials – and shipping it.
Since electronic delivery is so much cheaper (practically free) and more convenient, of course millions of people would want to get their music that way. But labels initially didn’t provide any legitimate way to get music over the network as data, so people bypassed the labels and started uploading their music to the internet, and downloading music that other people had uploaded. In the process, the downloaders also became the suppliers. Copyright violations abounded, along with onerous fines when the industry’s attorneys could catch up with the blatant violators – or the grandmothers of twelve-year-old kids.
But it didn’t stop anyone, and mostly just generated bad press for the labels, indeed for the entire industry. “RIAA” became a dirty word. It didn’t help that studies showed that people who downloaded and shared music also tended to buy more music, not less. All the labels saw was the precipitous decline in their revenues, along with the slipping of their control, their privileged position at the center of the music industry.
Because not only did labels no longer control distribution, it also became possible for artists to deliver their own music directly to their fans, bypassing the labels completely, so long as they weren’t too concerned with making money off of it. Even giving the music away free may have been good for most artists: without a monopoly on distribution and the marketing heft of a label (and some luck to become among the most popular artists), it would be difficult to make much money off of recordings anyway. Many of those artists had not been picked up by labels, and the ones who had were often getting a raw deal due to the exploitative contracts record labels are notorious for. So the way these artists were making their money was live concerts, and maybe merchandise. Getting their music to fans, online or otherwise, was just a way to increase awareness and build their fanbase so there would be more interest in their live concerts and merchandise. (This remains true today.)
Eventually labels got wise, or rather Apple threw them a lifeline and a wake-up call all in one, in the form of iTunes. Now fans could easily buy whatever music they wanted, and listen to it instantly, for the very reasonable price of $0.99 per track. Suddenly there was a way to make music, and the appeal of file-sharing applications waned. The pundits saying all along that people were willing to pay for music, if the price was reasonable and the delivery was convenient, turned out to have been correct.
Nowadays even downloads are going by the wayside. Typical internet access bandwidth has increased so much that downloading each song all over again every time you want to listen to it has become practical. More importantly, being able to monitor each and every time a track is played allows distributors to monetize each play as well. This opened up the possibility of monthly payments to get all the music you wanted. It was no longer necessary to spend thousands of dollars to build an iTunes library, or to go to the trouble of actually purchasing each track or album before listening to it. Now you just listen, sometimes like a radio station, sometimes like a jukebox, but you never need to worry about how much it’s costing beyond the monthly membership fee for the service.
In the case of YouTube videos, which are entirely ad-supported, end listeners don’t even pay a subscription fee, which explains why it’s the biggest source of online music streaming.
So now most everyone finds their music online, on streaming services such as YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon Music, SoundCloud, or Google Play Music. They don’t need CDs to hear the music, and they don’t even need radio stations to help them discover it – that’s what curated playlists and related content suggestions are for.
So why would any artist still need to create a CD? Isn’t that wasteful and obsolete?
I would argue that on the contrary, there are still very good reasons to release a CD, even if it’s music you’ve already released on YouTube or other streaming services. There are several reasons why I think CDs are still a good idea.
First, there’s the symbolism: even now, all serious artists have CDs, which are sold online and distributed in physical stores. Many less-significant artists do not. Merely having a CD is no indication of the stature of an artist – they’re too easy to make for anyone to assume that merely having one is a sign of success – but a lack of a CD may be. It’s a prerequisite to being taken seriously, by audiences and by others in the industry. Think of it like a high school diploma. It may not get you very far on its own, but not having one will hold you back.
Tangible Marketing Tokens
I like to think of CDs and LPs as being “durable marketing tokens.” They’re things your fans can buy, and possess, in order to support you and to display their fandom, just like any other kind of merchandise. That they also happen to contain listenable music (which they could just as easily listen to online) is just a bonus.
(Since most classical musicians don’t emphasize regular merchandise like t-shirts and posters, CDs are often one of the only ways to provide such merch.)
It’s natural for fans at your concerts to want to buy something more than just the concert experience itself. This is the time they’re most excited about you, and experiencing their closest personal connection to you and your music. If you have no CDs to sell, you’re missing out on a great opportunity to capitalize on this excitement. Being willing to meet your fans as you sign CDs is also a great way to connect with them, and sell more CDs. In fact, a line for CD signing can be a great way to encourage fans to approach you even if they’re shy, but also naturally limits the time each person can spend monopolizing your attention.
Even outside of the concert setting, many people will want to support you in some way, and to possess something to show off their admiration for you and love for your music, so don’t pass up the chance to let them express that by buying your CDs. It’s really just an excuse for them to give you money – so don’t be afraid to charge a premium price for them (you’re worth it, aren’t you?). This also gives them a tangible reminder of you to focus their attention on, and an object that may end up laying around the house, to discover at unplanned moments.
These felicitous encounters can extend to other people as well. A fan wanting to showcase their favorite artists can use a CD as a tangible example of your work to show to others, rather than just describing you. Or people may stumble across the CD when visiting a friend’s home. (Even better is a 12″ vinyl record, which provides a much bigger, more impressive and more interesting object to discover. Sort of like coming across a coffee-table book instead of a paperback.)
Even further down the road, the disc could end up being sold or given away used. Someone else could discover it, borrow it, buy it, or just see it on a shelf or in a bin. It can be discovered in a library or a music store. A teacher could play it in a class. Everywhere a CD or vinyl record goes, it’s an advertisement for you, even if nobody plays the music on it. You’d pay good money to get your print ads in front of people, so why not view CDs and vinyl the same way? Especially when someone else paid for it?
Point of Focus
It’s easy to throw whatever performances you have available online. Especially on YouTube (or social media like Facebook or Instagram), it’s easy to toss up videos of you rehearsing or cell-phone videos from performances. But these often don’t provide the acoustic quality for people to want to listen to with audio alone. The visual cues – that it’s a live performance, or that you’re just practicing or messing around – are missing, and people expect a higher standard of performance and sound quality.
While it’s not necessary to put out a CD to make, and select, appropriate high-quality recordings for a streaming service, and not even necessary to send physical CDs to these services, it’s still a useful exercise to go through. There is a certain finality to making a CD, compared to just doing something online. Once you send it off for manufacturing, you know that hundreds of copies, or more, are gong to be made exactly the way you gave it to the manufacturer, and if anything is wrong you won’t be able to fix it. You’ll need high-quality audio tracks of your best performances, carefully arranged in order. You’ll want to master them, making sure they’re well equalized, the levels balanced and appropriate, and that they’re free of noise (or de-noised). You’ll need to include high-quality artwork or photography, and proper liner notes. All of this takes substantial thought and attention, which most people are more likely to do carefully when planning to manufacture a physical product. Thus it’s likely that the level of quality will be higher if you’re shooting for a CD than just shooting to upload a track.
While pop musicians may often prefer to dribble out their songs a few at a time as they write and record them, in classical music often the pieces are longer, and most recorded repertory doesn’t need to be freshly composed, so it’s fairly easy for most serious artists to come up with a CD or two worth of releasable material, particularly if they already record their live performances.
While streaming services don’t usually need a physical CD, you generally do need to go through an aggregator to gain access to them. Some of those, such as CDBaby, can also put out your album as a CD, as can traditional record labels. So making a CD (at least in small quantities) can be a convenient part of the process of sending your music to streaming services.
Similarly, radio stations may still want you to send them a CD in order to consider playing your music on the air.
Online stores are another place where having a CD helps. While many of them can sell your digital tracks, in some cases you might still need to send them a CD. And of course a CD is a convenient packaging that people might want to buy when they see it online. They can’t buy your CD online if you don’t have one. Even though people could find your music online elsewhere, you also want to be discoverable to people who are shopping, not just on a streaming service.
Of course it goes without saying that if you don’t have a physical album, it’s never going to show up in a physical record store. Or a used record store. Or a library. Or a yard sale.
Excuse for PR
Another benefit of releasing a discrete product is the PR opportunity – public relations, or opportunities to be featured in the press. When you are recording an album, you can inform the press. When you are anticipating its release, you can inform the press. When the album is released, you can inform the press. When the album is reviewed, you can inform the press. (See next point.) If the album wins any awards, you can inform the press. (See next point, again.) If the album sells well, you can inform the press. Albums give you lots of excuses to inform the press, and hence to remind them, and their readership, that you exist. Repetition is a key to familiarity, and familiarity is a key to liking; use it to your advantage.
And not just PR – having an album to promote is a good excuse for paid advertising in general. Would you find the expense of an ad in a print magazine worthwhile if you were just promoting your latest YouTube video?
Reviews and awards
I don’t know if or when this will change, but Gramophone magazine is still in the business of reviewing CDs, not YouTube videos. The same goes for all the major awards, as well as the other music review magazines. You can be “internet famous” without a CD, but you’ll never be Gramophone famous. And being Gramophone famous is a lot more effective at attracting attention from the music industry, including record labels, concert promoters, agents, and managers, than having a modestly big fanbase on social media.
Too, having a review printed is a great excuse to also buy an ad in the magazine. The complementary exposure has a synergistic effect to increase awareness of your brand as a musician .
Have people really given up CDs and vinyl?
Strangely, the perpetual rise of streaming and the obsolescence of physical media is not a given. People miss the tactile experience of interacting with physical products. There is an esthetic pleasure in being able to handle a disc (particularly vinyl) and scrutinize the accompanying printed materials. It should perhaps not be so surprising that both vinyl and CDs are making somewhat of a comeback. I have even heard that cassette tapes are becoming trendy! And I think the reasons are the same as I’ve outlined above – people appreciate tangible marketing tokens from their favorite artists. There is something more satisfying about owning a physical artifact by that artist than merely having access to a track of music online, in a way similar to owning an actual painting or sculpture by a visual artist as opposed to knowing where to find a picture of it on the internet.
Should you make CDs and vinyl?
The conclusion from all my arguments above is yes, at least if you are an outstanding artist with ambitions of a solo career. But remember what you are trying to accomplish: you are not creating the necessary means for people to access your music. That already exists in the form of online streaming sites. You are instead creating marketing tokens, additional opportunities for discoverability and additional ways to build connection with your existing audience. Like any marketing expense, you shouldn’t expect to make much or any money directly from your CD or vinyl sales (and if you do, count yourself lucky). And like any marketing expense, you should expect to spend a lot of money on it, since marketing expenses do usually pay off in more sales (album sales, streams, ticket sales, etc.) But unlike most other marketing expenses, your customers will actually pay you to acquire these marketing tokens!
(How to go about releasing an album today – whether to take a do-it-yourself approach or try to work with a record label – is a topic for another day.)