This week, 2 separate events opened my eyes a little, both of which made me think about the humble CD and its immediate future. Pundits, myself included, have proclaimed that media is dead. I mean, who the hell would want to lug around crates and cases of vinyl and CD, plus the associated pile of expensive and heavy gear needed to play it, when you can just bung the lot on a USB and chuck it out of a small controller? Well more than you might expect. Allow me to explain.
Event 1 — fresh-faced DJ progeny Hatty brings a friend of hers to the studio who wants to be a DJ. I took him through options — turntables, small and large controllers, but he’s very fixed on using CDs. This is partly because he’s already got a lot of them, but also because he really likes the idea of using physical media. To him, he says it feels like he’s doing something and not just pointing and clicking. If I dare use the term in this context, he wants to feel like a real DJ stood behind recognisable DJ gear, rather than just loading music from a computer with a small controller. And the very idea of having to organise a digital library on his old laptop just doesn’t compute for him either.
Event 2 — Pioneer announce the XDJ-R1, essentially a XDJ-AERO with CDs. Wait… a unit designed to work wirelessly with iPads with rekordbox created USB libraries still has CDs inside? Apparently so. And when we factor in the not entirely dissimilar Gemini GMX Drive that showed its face at Musikmesse, it’s becoming clear that just like vinyl, CD as a format isn’t quite ready to kick the can just yet.
Some thoughts about this come to mind:
Established — over a decade ago, having already been adopted by Mr and Mrs Public as the medium of choice, CDs were embraced by DJs as their chosen format after Pioneer put out the CDJ-1000 and changed the entire DJ game forever. Yes, there were units before, but the CDJ really shifted the culture. So there are A LOT of CDs out there, still in use and is a readily available and recordable format. When you look at the way some DJs have
anally meticulously organised their extensive collection of CD wallets, it’s very easy to see why some are not in a hurry to jump to USB just yet.
Performance — there’s no way getting round this, but leaning across to a laptop to change a track is a much derided and terrible look, and hardly compares with the performance elements that switching media bring to stage presence. Whether it’s holding up a 12″ that you know the crowd will go ape-shit for, or liberally scattering mix CDs into the audience like confetti, media absolutely had digital hunched in the corner whimpering like a frightened puppy.
Tangible — while it’s big and bulky, media is real. You have to pick it up, touch it, load it, unload it… there is a process — a beginning and end to playing a track. It is absolute, and something that makes you feel like (here it comes again) a real DJ. I lean across to my laptop to check mail, to shut down Facebook chat that has once again come on for no reason, and to endlessly check site optimisation. So leaning across feels just like another computer based process, rather than doing what a DJ does.
To clarify this — I’m not in any way whatsoever saying that digital DJs aren’t real. My opinion is well known and is this — if you stand in front of a crowd, play other people’s music one after another and fill the floor, regardless of the technology, then you’re a real DJ. But for many, that’s not enough — they want to be stood behind substantial lumps of gear with actual lumps of music, and pump it into their DJ gear of choice. There is a process with real things going on that digital just doesn’t have. And for this reason alone, and despite the endless benefits of digital, I feel that CD (and vinyl for that matter) isn’t quite ready to retire to that dead medium pile in the sky.
The Industry’s viewpoint
It’s all well and good me tossing around my own opinion for your perusal, delectation, and dissection. But it seems that the best people ask are the very people who put this gear out into the market. While I suspect that some “game changing” products hit the market after a serious tradeshow bender, the continued supply of CD units into the market is probably more planned, with like a strategy and everything.
So I asked key industry people this question:
“Why do you feel the need to continue to support CDs?”
And back came a variety of responses. While there’s no growth, there’s certainly a lot of legacy with CDs. “From contact with retailers and spending a lot of time with end users in their showrooms as well as attending shows like BPM and the pro mobile conference the anecdotal evidence is clear that some DJ’s still use disc media, if not exclusively at least partially” commented Pioneer’s Martin Dockree. Given the dominance of CD for so long, a large and established user base still thrives and needs CD units for the short term at least.
Surprisingly, CD continues to be the dominant format in some regions. David Morbey from Denon said “to this day, the Denon twin unit, rack-mount CD player continues its global, best seller status, largely due to popularity in Asian markets where Karaoke remains ‘King’. In this up and coming continent, likewise in the South Americas and India, CD remains the market’s primary media format – being cheap, reliable and easy to use.”
But the format claims to have some real technological benefits. David Morbey states that “recent observations in developed markets indicate that today’s national and international touring DJ’s still regard CD media as the best resource to easily burn and playback full resolution (WAV/AIF) audio files”. I’m not so sure myself, and would personally prefer to bung a bunch of music onto a USB device than burn a load of media, and I’m sure I’d still be happy with the quality. But that’s just me.
That said, Martin Dockree does give a compelling use case for CD. “I have spoken to some younger DJ’s simply can’t afford a decent enough laptop to run DJ performance software reliably, so for them a safer option is to download their music and burn it on to disc”, which from my own experience of my daughter’s friend’s need for CD and not having the cash to upgrade his somewhat creaky HP laptop makes perfect sense. You don’t need grunt to burn media, and in the long run can save yourself a heap of cash but not having to get in debt to afford a shiny new laptop.
Need evidence that CD can hold its own in the market? A clear example comes from Gemini and their recently announced GMX and GMX Drive units. “They are nearly identical products, the only difference being the GMX DRIVE has CD drives adding a level of flexibility that Mobile DJ’s need” says Dave Cabasso, VP of Product Development. He goes on: “As much as we would like to declare the CD dead, the GMX DRIVE has over 60% more page views than the GMX on our website. The proof is in the numbers”. This is also being backed up in sales figures from other manufacturers who despite shifting a large number of controllers are still seeing CD units make up a hefty percentage of their revenue.
But what of the future? For me, Pioneer are still invested in supporting the hordes of CDJ owners with a view to slowly weaning them off the CD habit. Denon are rather more definite about their intentions. “For now and the foreseeable future then, Denon maintains an ongoing commitment to offer CD users built-in redundancy/backup in its media players” says David Morbey. Dave Cabasso however has a more pragmatic approach and states that “unlike vinyl which continues to stick around, we believe that CD’s as a medium will eventually die. Though we can’t predict how soon it will happen, we do believe users will move on from CD’s”.
The computer industry will play a large part in this as well. Dave Cabasso goes on to say that “more and more computer makers are making new machines that completely lack drives and I believe we will see the same thing happen in our industry”. As a MacBook Air owner, I can’t argue with this. DJs are travelling lighter these days, and with ultrabooks really picking up steam, and the Cloud moving from buzzword to actual thing that people use, the days of CD are numbered for all but a few people.
It’s clear that there’s no growth in CD use as such, nor is there ever likely to be a vinyl-style retro renaissance where the next generation of hipsters keep it real with the old school medium of compact discs. What is clear however is that as a format, it’s a long way from dead. Yes, manufacturers could ditch the drives, save some money and shave some bulk from the units, but then they’d alienate a massive user base who are perfectly happy with CDs and for all manner of reasons have no plans to change.
So dear reader — the next time a manufacturer brings out a unit that still has a CD drive in it, you will at least have a little more context as to why.
What do you think?
DJs — do you still use CDs? Do you see them in the DJ’s future? Have you moved from CDs but hanker for them all over again? While there are obvious benefits to digital, do you hate the whole process of maintaining a digital library and doing the laptop lean when you could have real media?
Retailers — are you still seeing demand for CD units? Are your customers reluctant to move to full-on digital? Go.
Manufacturers — does CD figure in your future or past? Is it still enough of an earner to consider new product development or just factory reorders to satisfy current demand?