Tracking Down Music CDs

Music CDs can be hard to find, even for important new albums. The CD format might have dominated the music business for 25 years, but that does not mean it is easy to buy music on CD in 2018.

My recent CD purchase represents what the market has turned into. There are still local stores where a music fan can buy CDs, but selection is hit-or-miss. A singer with a new major-label rock or country album will have the new product and usually at least one old album in the store, but even that is not something you can count on. The store might sell all four of its copies on any given day in the first week of release, then wait as long as a week to restock. It is worrisome too that the best store for music CDs locally is a bookstore that gives every indication of going out of business as soon as next year.

If you insist on having music on a CD, then before long, you are forced to place an order for delivery. Two years ago, this was a cinch. There were five major online retailers for music CDs, and each one would have most of the important titles in stock. But two of those have dropped music CDs almost entirely and the remainder have cut back sharply on titles and number of copies. You can click back and forth between web stores, hoping at least one has the CD you want in stock.

I found five of the CDs on my list in stock at Barnes & Noble, so I placed my order there, saving the rest of the list for later. Curiously, having CDs shipped to the store for pickup is no longer an option for most CDs in the Barnes & Noble catalog. This did not matter to me; I would have all five CDs shipped to my home.

Selling CDs online is a low-margin business, and the only real profit for the retailer comes when it can ship multiple CDs in a single package. I could tell something was wrong, then, when each CD came in a separate package, shipped from a separate location. It was easy to see how this could be. Barnes & Noble would send me only one shipment from their warehouses, so most or all of the CDs must have been sent from stores. Either the title was out of stock in the warehouse, so it had to be shipped from a store, or more likely, the company took the opportunity to reduce its in-store inventory by shipping these specific items to me directly from the CD bins of its stores.

It is not just retailers that are trying to keep a small inventory of music CDs. One of the CDs I ordered was a debut album that I had been waiting five months to buy. On my earlier searches, the CD was not in stock anywhere in the Unites States. My guess is that the record company had manufactured too few copies initially. It was a limited release with perhaps only 1,000 copies made for the entire world. The allotment set aside for the United States and Canada sold out on advance orders alone, but it took the record company months to be sufficiently convinced of the early sales to order a second manufacturing run. A record released on this basis could never hit the charts; charting depends on selling a large number of copies in a single week, and artificially restricting inventory prevents that. But no record hits the charts based on sales of physical copies anymore anyway. Downloads and streaming so dominate sales numbers that, in some ways, the physical CD edition is just for show.

In another year or two I might bow to the inevitable and burn my own CD of music purchases when I feel I need a CD copy. By then CDs will no longer be sold in large numbers in stores or on web stores. Fans may have to buy directly from the recording artist. But when we reach that point, what is the purpose of a record company? If selling CDs no longer depends on a record company, selling downloads depends even less on the traditional organizational infrastructure that a record company provides. Someday soon a recording artist will find success without even the pretense of a record label, and once one artist does it, others will follow.

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