It’s the End of the CD as We Know It, and I Feel Fine
As I was driving home to Portland on my first month-long tour in 2005, I had a moment of absolute joy that I was doing the thing in life I wanted to be doing. I was driving north on I-5, from Eugene to Portland, in tears and laughter with this overflowing joy. I was saying to myself, “Doubt is fatal!”
I had driven round trip from Portland, down through LA, over to Texas, and back up through Salt Lake City and Boise. I had managed to come home financially ahead of where I started.
Back in those days my expenses were few. I didn’t go to college so I had no student loan debt dragging me underwater. I had worked as a nanny for a few years and saved up a tiny chunk of cash. I worked with Jim Brunberg at Mississippi Studios in trade for producing my first album, Despite the Crushing Weight of Gravity. I expected the world of $15 CD sales would last forever. That’s how much an album costs, right?
Well, not anymore. Thanks to iTunes, YouTube, and streaming services, the value of a recorded album has been falling. Most musicians I know now think of their records as an expensively produced business card. It feels a little sad, but it’s reality. Simply put, it’s supply and demand economics.
The beautiful thing about this, in my humble opinion, is that your audience is now free to put their own value on the recorded work. I have been giving away my albums for free at shows and I am making more money in merchandise sales than I ever did before.
Yep, I tell my audiences that if they want one of my albums, they should just take it. They are pay-as-you-are-able. Some people take a CD for free and play it until it is worn out. Some people pay $40 for one disc and might listen once. I think that allowing the purchaser to ascribe their own monetary number to the art makes them value it more. They have to think about its place in their lives. For some folks, $15 equals an entire hour or more of their hard work. To others, it’s spare change.
What sells the most for me are my download cards. I have all five of my albums plus a recording of a radio show on my merch table for $30. Sometimes I sell them for $20. I can sell them over the internet and send the code out via email. I don’t even have to pay shipping. The best part is, a piece of plastic doesn’t have to go inside an envelope made of trees and use fossil fuels to get somewhere. It’s instant gratification.
For artists, recording an album is our life’s work, and putting a price on that is very difficult. Producing plastic CDs in plastic packaging is costly for both artists and the environment. A lot of people have no way of playing discs anymore, but they do have a phone in their pocket – their main listening device. An MP3 is a fine way to go, but streaming takes up zero space on a listener’s phone.
The Cloud is the future. As artists, we cannot stop making art. Music still has an incredibly important place in the hearts of human beings, but the vehicle for experiencing it is changing. The trick will be, and always has been, answering the question: How can I make art and feed my family at the same time? I prefer to leave that in the hands of my audiences, and it’s working out pretty well.