People famously rode into – and drove out of – the Great Depression. Economic uncertainty brings with it a great deal of woes, but it can also be the engine of social, political and, most significantly, technological change. If you struggle to remember what life was like when the economy was booming, it might be because you
weren't tweeting your every move using your iPad back then.
This 'engine of change' means we must face some difficult facts about our little world. I have come to the conclusion that CD will be all but consigned to history by the middle of the decade. The talk is of
'inflection points' now; the moment when an act's sales move from predominantly
'CD-based' to 'download-based'. Each one is different and many acts have already crossed that threshold, while some still have years before they change, and some new acts began life firmly on the download side. The interesting part of this is how rapidly CD sales drop away for an act following its inflection point. The concern for CD-loving audiophiles is whether there is a kind of Grand Inflection Moment, when the majority of acts sell more downloads than physical formats.
Although some have said CD will be 'all over' by the end of this year, I think
it's more likely that some time in the next eighteen months, the majority of bands will have passed that tipping point, which will ultimately cut CD sales dramatically and probably irrevocably.
I wish I could see a long-term future for optical drive, but I really
don't think there is one. Car manufacturers are already considering life after the CD. Unlike a turntable, CD players rely on key components (such as the laser eye) that cannot easily be fabricated in a machine shop by a competent engineer. Unlike vinyl, CDs need to be produced in an expensive-to-run clean-room environment. We could point to CD ubiquity as a guarantee of its future support, but that same ubiquity
didn't stave off the end for compact cassette, the VHS tape or even the incandescent light bulb. So, although I sincerely hope there will continue to be disc-based products made and supported for the longest time, once that mainstream market begins to tail off fast, I fear things will begin to become pretty scarce, both in terms of discs and players.
This invites two big questions. What do I do now, and what do I do then? For now,
I'd suggest if you were putting off that ultimate CD player purchase, don't, and if you have gaps in your collection, think about filling them relatively quickly. Or maybe now is the time to start investigating computer audio if you
haven't already done so. Or even do what the Hipster kids do and buy a turntable. Because the future may not come with an optional CD player.
Alan Sircom, Editor Hi-Fi+