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CDs continue to outsell vinyl in the UK

By Paul Sinclair

The BPI (British Phonographic Industry) has published its annual report on UK music consumption and, as usual, it makes for interesting reading.

As has been reported on SDE before – and occasionally elsewhere– the BPI do have a propensity to talk up the ‘vinyl revival’ and marginalise the ongoing success of CDs and this year isn’t much different.

For those who are not aware, the BPI is not an independent organisation, it’s a trade body made up of “music companies” – primarily record labels – including all three major record companies in the UK (Warner Records, Sony Music

and Universal Music). So inevitably, the strategies and goals of the record industry at large are reflected in the reporting.

The headline for physical music this year is,

“Double-digit percentage rise of vinyl sales as CD decline signficantly slowed“. The statistics that support this are that vinyl sales grew 11.8 percent to 6.1m units in 2023 and CD sales dropped 6.9% to 10.8m units (the lowest annual rate of decline since 2015).

So for all those who love to goad with the question:

“Who buys CDs anymore?”, the fact remains that CDs are the most popular physical format in the UK and continue to outsell vinyl significantly, something they have done for more than 30 consecutive years. How about we celebrate that?

Also, perhaps CDs wouldn’t be declining at all if there was more of a level playing field. The amount of marketing value that the largely vinyl-only Record Store Day benefits from is enormous. Indulge CDs with a similar initiative and I’m sure sales would rise. National Album Day is the same: purportedly a day to celebrate “the album”, it’s actually designed specifically to sell vinyl. It’s so transparent - and I don’t mean the coloured vinyl.

And there’s still plenty of reissues where the labels concerned don’t bother to issue a CD version. Recent examples include Steely Dan albums, Depeche Mode’s ongoing 12-inch box sets, the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense reissue, the Beastie Boys Hello Nasty 4LP set, and the Bonnie Tyler Faster Than The Speed of Night 40th anniversary.

Not wanting to state the obvious, but a CD sale can only be registered if a CD edition is actually released and that is controlled by the record labels who benefit from everyone buying into the idea that no one buys CDs anymore and it’s all about vinyl. Earnings and profit will be higher with the vinyl variants (just look at the differential with the recent ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ Beatles reissues which were priced at around £70 on vinyl and £20 on CD).

Of course, the other rapidly developing concept is one of offering multiple vinyl versions of a product to increase sales. There was only one CD single of The Beatles ‘Now and Then’ but four different seven-inch vinyl editions.

Not only that, Apple and Universal Music held back the announcement of the CD until the last minute, to maximise vinyl sales.

It’s almost routine now for run-of-the-mill album releases to have a standard black vinyl, an artist store coloured vinyl exclusive, maybe an Amazon coloured vinyl exclusive and perhaps a deal with Blood Records to come up with a ‘zoetrope’ picture disc later in the campaign. Oh, and you can also buy a CD in a plastic jewel case that that has been mastered to within an inch of its life. The superfan buys FOUR vinyl editions and just one CD. Of course, that’s marketing; that’s how organisations make money. They influence and direct consumers to the products they want them to buy – I get it.

But the BPI report these figures as if we are seeing a natural shift in consumer behaviour and act as if they are impartial observers when its members are responsible for stacking the cards in favour of vinyl.

Box sets to one side, the humble CD is arguably being subjected to death by neglect, both in presentation and the quality of the audio. Still it endures! This is the unwritten story.

Here’s an example. Even though streaming dominates “music consumption” in the UK, with a massive 87.7 percent of the market, the BPI point out that “physical continued to dominate the top of the Official Albums Chart”.

A key statistic is that out of the 44 albums that debuted at number one in 2023, 86 percent of them had “more than half their chart-eligible sales made up of physical sales”. And in 35 weeks physical was behind more than 70 percent of chart eligible sales. Blur’s The Ballad of Darren (89.6 %) and The Rolling Stones’ Hackney Diamonds (89.5%) being great examples.

Since CDs outsell vinyl by almost 2:1 in the UK, CDs are a big part of the physical sales that help albums to the higher reaches of the chart.

I’d like to see the UK music industry do more to promote and protect sales of what is still its biggest selling physical format. Apart from a few exceptions, labels show no interest in coming up with special CD products for Record Store Day, or National Album Day, for that matter. There is no ‘CD Day’ and there are no cross-label ventures specifically designed to slow the decline of their biggest selling physical product.

With the media annually picking up on the so-called “vinyl boom” it negatively influences stakeholders. Supermarket buyers decide to stop selling CDs, car manufacturers stop supporting the format and the sales decline becomes a self- fulfilling prophecy.

The CD is still an excellent and robust format and can still look good and sound good when it’s given some love by audio engineers, product managers and marketeers within record labels.

It’s surely time for the industry to stop being a curious spectator and actively support and celebrate the format that poured so many millions into the coffers in the late 80s and 1990s. With some effort, I’m convinced the “slow decline” of CDs could be turned around by the BPI’s members and within the next fews years CD sales could start to grow again.


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