‘It’s the ritual’: vinyl sales look set to break Australian records, so who is still buying CDs?

Computers and cars may no longer come with disc drives – but there are still stalwarts committed to CDs

Beneath the black ceiling inside Hum Records on King Street in Newtown, John Salway spots something on the shelf under the letter “C”.

“Elvis Costello must have a new album,” he says. He picks up the hard plastic square and he and his friend, Regina Safro, squint to read the fine print on the bottom of the back of the CD case. Safro hasn’t seen the album before either.

Salway finds the release date and nods. “2020. I’ll likely buy that on spec.”

Salway estimates that he might buy a dozen CD albums a year. Safro thinks she purchases between 10 and 20. The pair are part of an increasingly small cohort of music fans who continue to buy CDs, in a world where most new cars and computers no longer have a way to even play them.

Figures to be released this week by the Australian music industry are expected to show CD album sales in Australia fell by more than 15% in 2020. Meanwhile, sales of vinyl have rocketed by more than 30%, as more new artists release on the premium format as an alternative to digital streams, and labels continue releasing collector editions of the classics.

At this point it’s much more than just a nostalgia boom: industry insiders predict vinyl sales in Australia will comfortably surpass CDs this year for the first time. In the US, they hit that milestone last year; and in the UK, vinyl sales have reached a three-decade high.

For Peter Thiele, owner and manager of Hum, CDs now represent only a small fraction of his turnover. Hum has been in Newtown since 2000: a local institution in an area which long ago rounded the arc of gentrification. Hum used to have other stores, but King Street is the last of the originals. “Vinyl is the big thing,” he says. “It saved us.”

CDs now represent only a small fraction of the turnover at music store Hum, which also sells vinyl and DVDs.
CDs now represent only a small fraction of the turnover at music store Hum, which also sells vinyl and DVDs. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

As Thiele speaks to the Guardian, young people wander around alone and in pairs, thumbing their way silently through the heft of vinyl. There remains, though, a cohort which steadfastly continues to buy CDs, he says. The CD shelves are a little sparse, with compilations, classic albums and newer artists. But as long as they’re still being made, he will still sell them.

“It’s a bit niche,” he says. “The artists would be an older artist – things like Nick Cave. Is that old man’s music? I don’t know. He’s a bit more crossover. He’s like Bob Dylan. We sell a lot of Bob Dylan on CD. If there was a new Radiohead album, that would sell on CD.”

Madonna fans. Kylie fans. They will buy everything, he says. It’s about ownership.

Salway lives in Goulburn, but comes to Hum whenever he’s in Sydney visiting Safro. He’ll put a CD on if he wants to read on the balcony, or if he’s gardening.

“This might sound odd, but I don’t feel like I own a song unless I have something tangible,” he says. “Even though I might make an MP3 of it, put it on a USB and play it in the car, I still like the fact that I can go back to the CD.

“I like an album. I like the thought that’s gone into an album; the progression of songs, and the moment in time that the album has been created.”

Safro buys vinyl, digital downloads and listens to Spotify. She rarely actually plays vinyl – it’s a bit fiddly – and Spotify does not sit well with her. “It relates to the constant on-switch of the world we live in. It’s like: Next! Next! Next! Instead of sitting back, putting on a CD, and … ” she gestures leaning back, relaxing.

A graphic designer, she also likes the physicality of the artwork CDs come with. It might be a little bit more expensive than a digital download, at around $20 an album, but, “it’s some money for the artist”.

It’s about more than patronage and ownership for her. “It’s the ritual as well,” she says. “I remember saving up money to go and buy your record and putting it on the turntable. It’s echoes of that.”

Regina Safro still buys CDs in part for the physicality – and in part because more money goes to the artist.
Regina Safro still buys CDs in part for the physicality – and in part because it gets more money to the artist than streaming. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Thiele stands in the aisle in a short-sleeved button-up shirt in a tiny floral pattern. Grey hair trimmed and neat. He streams. He downloads. He listens to vinyl, and he listens to CDs.

“People say to me: ‘Sounds better on vinyl’,” he shrugs. “I go, ‘Sounds different.’

“CD quality is the best you can get, because you’ve got a master.”

Physical collections – like CDs, records or books – reflect something about their owner, he says. “They tell a story about you. You don’t go, ‘Look at my phone, here’s my music collection.’ It isn’t the same thing. You go to a friend’s place and you look at what albums they have.”

And it’s not just for older people. Euan Barrett-Lennard arrives at Hum with his dad. The 18-year-old carries three CD albums in his hand: Oscar Petersen, Kasumi Washington, Michael Kiwanuka. He’s into jazz.

His parents have a “massive shelf with heaps of CDs”. Barrett-Lennard likes that they’re physical, that you get to know the artist rather than shuffling through a playlist. He was just talking to his dad about the sound quality; with a CD, he says “you notice all the little bits in the music”.

He takes his small haul to the young uni student manning the till. Next time, when he comes to Hum, he’ll have researched more what he wanted to buy.

For now, though, he doesn’t own many CDs, he says. “I’m only just starting.”


Celina Ribeiro

The GuardianTramp

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