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What Really Killed the CD?

23 Jan, 2011 By: Thomas K. Arnold

A good friend of mine emailed me an interesting article the other day he had come across on CNET, the popular destination site for all things high-tech. The article detailed the imminent closing of one of Sony's two remaining U.S.-based CD manufacturing plants, in South Jersey, a move that will put 300 workers out of a job. A Sony spokesman said the plant, which was built more than 50 years ago to produce vinyl LPs, is being shuttered because of the still-troubled economy and ever-waning consumer interest in the CD.

The zinger: The article maintains the CD is dying not just because of the iPod and the digital distribution model it represents, but, rather, illegal file-sharing, a practice born more than a decade ago when the record companies, in a series of stupid moves, opened the doors to piracy by first killing off the single, since the birth of recorded music the only available sampling mechanism other than the radio, and then jacking up the list price of the CD to as much as $21.98. When consumers rebelled and began using the Internet to share music, the record companies didn't capitalize on the potential new business model of digitally distributed music, but, rather, took to the courts to fight their own customers. Ultimately they realized their folly and took a seat at the table--but by then, a transformative mindset change had already taken place. And it is this mindset change, that music is not something that must be paid for, continues to dog the music business to this day. As the CNET story says, "innovation isn't the only reason CDs look long in the tooth. After a decade of rampant illegal file sharing, they'd argue, the plant closure is a sign that the CD just couldn't compete with free."

The home entertainment industry has handled the digital migration in a much smarter fashion--aided and abetted by the fact that consumers will be a lot slower in giving up their DVDs and Blu-ray Discs than their CDs. The reason, of course, is that consumers have always bought music by the song, not by the album, and an individual song can be downloaded in a matter of seconds. It's cheap, a lot cheaper than buying a CD (remember, no more singles!), and it's easy. Our business doesn't work that way--no one buys a movie by the scene. Downloading a two-hour movie can take a lot of time, particularly if it's in high definition--and at $12 to $20 a pop, it can be as pricey a proposition as buying a DVD or Blu-ray Disc. No wonder electronic sellthrough, as this end of the business is known, isn't exactly taking off like wildfire--there's no compelling advantage over buying a physical disc.

Streaming, of course, is another story. The segment of the population that wants to own and collect movies, I believe, was artificially inflated by the novelty of the DVD. And now that things are settling back down to normal, consumers--at least a healthy percentage of them--are going back to rental, and more and more, they're doing it digitally, either through VOD or iVOD.

This brings us back to the original premise of the CNET story: That the CD was done in by file-sharing, not digital distribution. That danger lurks in our industry, as well. Granted, the same obstacle to EST exists in the shady underground as well: it's a hassle to download and share an entire movie. But the rash of mobile and portable devices that employ much-smaller file sizes--who needs high-definition on a three-inch screen?--is something we all need to be aware of. And as download speeds become faster and faster, ultimately there will come a day when a full movie, even in glorious high-definition, can be downloaded in a matter of seconds.

We need to be ready for that day. As the CNET story says, it's hard to compete with free.


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