JULY 2008 IN

The End of the CD Era

It used to be that an album implied a CD. If you had a download of an album, or if you had it on your music player, that was a secondary version of the album. But that’s about to flip. By the end of this year, we will see the digital files of the album tracks as the primary version of an album and the CD, if there is one, as a secondary version. We’ll go from saying the CD is the album to saying the CD is a copy of the album.

It’s the end of the CD era. Here are some signs that this is happening:

Record Companies Lose Control of Promotional Copies

I don’t know what they were thinking, but Universal Music actually took a man to court for buying and reselling promo CDs.

Not surprisingly, the court ruled that the gold-ink “promotional copy – not for sale” stamp on the CD booklet is not a contract and that the first sale doctrine in U.S. copyright law (if you buy or are given a legitimate copy of a copyrighted work, you may give to someone else or sell it) is still in effect.

This legal precedent will make music promotion a little trickier for record companies.

In recent years, record companies have promoted new releases by giving promo CD copies to reviewers and radio stations, often months before the release date. If the recipients of promo CDs know they are free to resell them, this threatens to render release dates meaningless.

Record companies will have to rein in promo CDs, sending them out just in the final days before the release.

For people like reviewers who need to hear the album sooner, they can still make the music available in download form. But this means even album reviewers will be forced to see the CD as a secondary form of the album.

The Collapse of CD Mastering

Some CD tracks, especially from albums released in the 1990s, sound just horrible when you load them into a digital music collection.

It’s not a sneaky form of CD copy protection coming from the record companies, but it’s sort of like that. It has to do with CD mastering, and some of the extreme things that engineers have done to make the music on CDs sound important, or “hot.”

Mastering engineers could push the limits of audio processing when they knew they were making a CD for people to listen to on a CD player. Over the years, they figured out how to do some truly bizarre things to the music that would make a CD sound louder and more insistent on a CD player, and they learned how to hide these effects so they wouldn’t sound too terribly bizarre.

A problem they ran into, though, was that these CDs tended to sound trashy on the radio. That’s because radio stations have some control over the way they listen to music. They have to, to present a consistent experience to their listeners. And so the more extreme CDs had to be redone in special, less extreme versions for radio.

By 2008, music collection programs have started to get a little more like radio stations. Most of them automatically adjust the sound of songs so that any two songs at random (or what you get in shuffle mode) will sound like they go together. In the process, they smooth out some of the extremes in the music.

And that also means that some of the more extreme CDs sound like garbage now.

Now that music listeners have a little more control over the way they listen to music, there is a lot less that you can do in music mastering to try to make one record sound better than all the others. It doesn’t pay to do anything extreme anymore. And this basically means that there is no longer a reason to master an album specifically for CD. For the CD version you might as well use the same master you made for every other digital version of the album. It is essentially the end of CD mastering.

And it is more than that. There is no longer much need for mastering engineers. If you don’t know what platform your listeners are using, a skilled mastering engineer can’t do much more than a well-written mastering program now. A program designed to maximize the balance and clarity of a musical podcast might do the same thing for a music album, or at least close enough for rock ’n roll. Sure, an album that may sell a million copies should still be mastered by a good mastering engineer, but most are meant to sell fewer than 50,000, and at that level, professional mastering is hard to fit in the budget anyway.

Postage Costs Kill CD Mail Order

Lala had a good idea with its prepaid mailers that members could use to trade CDs. But postage rates went up because of energy costs, and trading individual CDs by mail isn’t cost-effective any more. For that matter, postage costs are killing the one remaining record club. It used to be that the $3.99 shipping and handling charge of a record club was a great exaggeration. Now it can really cost that much to put a CD in a box and mail it to you, so you don’t ask why BMG Music Service has such a small selection. The question instead is, how can it stay in business?

The price of blank CDs continues to fall, and that takes away whatever urgency is left in having a CD copy of an album. With blanks readily available for 40 cents, and drives that can burn them in 2 minutes, you don’t really need to make the CD copy until you’re ready to play the album on the old car stereo.

No promo CDs, no CD mastering, no record stores, no CDs in the mail — for music, it’s the end of the CD era.

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