Just when you thought it was safe to reorder CDs

I’ve discussed the issue of CD sales here in the past. Disregard whatever I may have said before because there have been some important new developments on that front. Well, one, mainly: people really aren’t buying those things. 

I’m exaggerating a little: a few people are buying them, which is why we’re still selling them, but at the very least I think we need to come up with a different approach to pitching them from the stage to adjust to current realities. First we may need a better understanding of what those realities are.

The most obvious problem right now is not just that downloads, or streaming, or YouTube are replacing those sales, but that the CD players themselves are disappearing, and the cars that once contained CD players are rusting and in need of valve jobs. Obviously, the digital delivery of music has led to this disappearance, but we’re left with a purely practical problem: Fewer and fewer people have any use for those little disks that were all the rage in the mid-1980s (cue the Bon Jovi soundtrack). The fact that there are people who are still buying CDs while unable to actually play them says a lot, and we should feel good about that. We might as well be selling them 8-tracks (and don’t think I haven’t considered that).

I also blame the computer designers and manufacturers, who, in their quest to eliminate everything on a laptop but the screen (they’re working on that, too), made downloading CDs to your computer—so the music could then be added to your MP3 player’s library—obsolete. 

Meanwhile, on stage we tend to pitch them the same way we always have, but we’re getting a small fraction of the results we used to: “Folks, we’ve got some CDs for sale. It’s not too early to start your Christmas shopping, ha ha ha!” (somebody has to laugh at this; it might as well be you). 

I’m always tempted to find a way to inform people about the importance of the live CD sale to artists trying to make a living at this, but that tends to get into an overly complex discussion, or worse, something that smacks of a bigger guilt trip than Bury Me Beneath the Willow. It might go something like this:

“We have some CDs for sale. You may listen to your music other ways, but CDs still offer information about the songs, have pictures, and long ‘thank you’ lists. Plus we’d love to sign them for you. Many people don’t realize that CDs purchased from other sources usually put zero dollars in the artist’s pocket, unless it’s released on their own label, in which case they do make some money after manufacturing cost and commission charged by the seller. We’re fine with you streaming our music, though we really encourage you to use one of the premium paid subscriptions, because they pay royalties at a much higher rate, but it still helps us a lot if you would purchase a physical CD in addition to streaming. Not that we want to pressure you at all, but we’ll be by the table up on the hill about a mile from the stage for the next hour or so. We do take credit cards in addition to cash because we have one of those Square things that actually is square, now that I think about it, and . . .”

They started to glaze over right after “You may listen to your music other ways . . .”

Should we start trying to pitch merchandise—CDs or other items—like they’re a tip for the band? Why not? We do rely on it for a portion of our income, and, unlike with a tip jar, we’re offering something of value in return. But would this then lead to musicians chasing down members of the audience who hadn’t purchased anything and saying to them, “Was there something wrong with the service you received? Did we do some songs that offended you?”

The merchandise sale is still an impulse buy. If people really liked the show, they want to take some little bit of it home (sometimes that’s the bass player, but that’s often impractical). It’s up to us to provide something to satisfy that momentary desire, and then sign whatever that thing  is.

I haven’t even brought up the return of the LP and the cassette. Maybe the 8-track idea wasn’t so far-fetched. 

Maybe the best plan is to just continue in denial, and also sell more fly swatters and travel mugs. I wasn’t a business major, if that even needs to be said.