CD Or Not CD: They’re clunky, expensive and obsolete. But yes, you still need to deal with them

As we’ve all heard a million times by now, the CD is dead. If you want to sell music, all you’ve got to do is let your fans pay the price of their choice for a download. Then put the deluxe edition of your album out, and let them pay extra for that. It’s a strategy that works like a charm—if you happen to be Radiohead.

Unfortunately—and trust me on this, I’ve probably seen your band—you’re not Radiohead. And you probably can’t be as confident with sales as those guys are. So do you even want to bother selling CDs anymore, especially if you’re a young band on your first tour? CDs aren’t cheap to make—If you press up a thousand and don’t go overboard with the packaging, you can expect to spend about a buck per disc. Then there’s the big-enough hassle of lugging a few boxes of discs on your tour bus. Still, imagine if you play the set of your life somewhere in Nowheresville, and all 50 people in the house love it. If they all buy discs at $10 a piece, you’re already halfway home. And you don’t want to gamble that they’ll all remember to spring for a paid download when they get home, do you?

It’s true that the CD may be limping to the finish line: Even your mom has learned how to download by now, and if you’re halfway popular, there are probably a dozen shady torrent sites distributing your music. Overall music sales are hitting the skids—they dropped 14 percent between 2007 and 2008—and peoples’ buying habits are shifting away from the physical CD. But even when you consider the numbers, the CD is still the biggest game in town. Two years ago, when people started talking in earnest about the rise of downloading, physical CDs still accounted for 85 percent of sales. By Rolling Stone magazine’s estimate, download sales rose 34% last summer, while CD sales shrank by 16 percent. That still meant, however, that people bought 172.2 million CDs vs. 31.6 million digital albums. While those numbers are making the industry nervous, they don’t mean you can forget about making CDs just yet—much as some bands would like to.

Rock Band favorites Bang Camaro were one of many bands who didn’t want to bother with CDs until their fans elbowed them into it. “I haven’t bought a CD myself for years,” notes guitarist Bryn Bennett, who buys all his music from various download sites. “My iPod is what I listen to and while it’s nice in theory to have the CD, how many times do you really look at the artwork anyway? So I was fine not doing one, but people at shows started begging us for a CD. It’s seems that’s still what a lot of the people are buying.” Bang Camaro put its second CD out this January, and while downloads are up, more than half the sales are still for the physical disc.

Another Rock Band favorite, Malika Sundaramurthy, sings in Abnormality—That’s her doing the fearsome voice in “Visions.” And she notes that fans of underground metal are especially good for supporting bands. “The fans are really good about buying CDs, shirts and other merch—It’s not like you make a ton of money, but at least enough to make up for printing costs and probably some extra. Plus, a lot of metal bands will trade stacks of CDs with similar bands to make themselves a distro to tour around worth…Thus selling more CDs that way.”

The bad news, however, is that you can’t expect CDs to turn as big a profit as they used so—and sometimes you have to write that off to getting the band’s name around. Consider the indie pop band Superdrag, which had some '90s success on a major label, reunited last year after a long layoff, and played to big crowds recently at Bonnaroo and Red Rocks. Their new reunion album had to go on CD, but manager Michael Creamer says they’re making less than half the copies they would’ve done a decade ago. “We’re starting with five thousand. If you’re not Bruce Springsteen or Radiohead, it’s pretty hard to get wider distribution these days.” The band already gave a couple tracks from the album away on its website, just as younger bands do on their homepages. “It brings more people out to shows, which is the whole point nowadays—Touring and T-shirts are where you make the money. But you’d be surprised at the number of people who still want to own the physical object, whether that’s a CD or vinyl.” In fact, some bands are skipping the CD altogether and doing limited-edition vinyl pressings with a download code—so fans get the physical object to fetishize and a digital version to actually play.

Some veteran bands out there are just as confused as you are. Joyce Linehan, a longtime mover-and-shaker on the Boston scene, manages indie-pop favorites the Pernice Brothers; whose are about to release their first CD in three years. “If it were up to me, I’d rather skip the physical CD so you wouldn’t have to worry about putting them on planes and using the gas,” she notes. But because the Pernice Brothers have a ten-year recording history, she’ll be sending out a few hundred promotional copies: While you can’t keep that music from leaking onto the ‘net, she’s found that people are much lazier about ripping a physical disc than they’d be about sharing a digital copy. For the commercial copy, she’ll be going in with lower expectations. “We printed 20,000 of our last album; and it will probably be about four thousand for this one—Better to be reactive and print more later than to be left with boxes that nobody wants.”

What’s changed, she said, is that you can’t count on distributors to get your CD into every city and town—People who buy the disc are just as likely to get it at shows or from online sellers. “It seems that sales are more socially driven now, and it’s gotten very DIY [do it yourself]—and if I knew the best way to tap into that, I’d be doing really well.” She admits to being surprised at how few of the Pernice Brothers’ fans have switched over to downloading. “Hey, I’m a middle-aged woman and even I’ve stopped buying CDs,” she laughs. (Okay, she’s not quite middle-aged, but she’s been around long enough to have produced a legendary, small-club Nirvana show in 1991). “I’m just waiting for the day when we start getting an AARP discount on downloads.”