Make way for the CD’s comeback

Much like vinyl before it, the CD is enjoying a renewed interest. The younger generation is discovering the joy of old formats as it pursues the tangible appeal of owning one’s own music collection.

“I got the most unexpected message from my ex-husband today,” Fiona remarked to her workmate as they strolled along Republic Street during their lunch break. “He wanted to know if I still had his old CD collection and if I’d be willing to return it to him. Back when we split eight years ago, he had told me to keep them since CDs were becoming obsolete and he could access all that music online anyway. I wonder why he’s had a change of heart.”

The answer to her query lies just a stone’s throw away, down the slope in St John Street, inside the world’s oldest record shop. Through the ebb and flow of music fads, ‘D’Amato Records’ has managed to remain a steadfast sanctuary for thousands of music enthusiasts in Malta’s capital. Founded in 1885 by Giovanni D’Amato, the shop is located in the same spot it has been since its inception, and it is still owned and operated by the D’Amato family.

We stepped in, and amidst rows of meticulously organised compact disks, we encountered William D’Amato, the shop’s proprietor. We immediately strike a conversation, and he confirms that there is a renewed appreciation for physical music. He observes that it is younger millennials and zoomers, whose lives have been shaped by the digital age, who have emerged as the driving force behind the current CD’s resurgence.

William D’Amato organising CDs at his shop in Valletta.

A Lazarus effect for vinyl and CDs

“Following the vinyl record revival of the last ten years, we have been witnessing a resurgence in interest in CDs over the past three years,” he said. “The vinyl revival unveiled a deep-seated desire for a more physical experience with music, a departure from the ephemeral nature of digital consumption. It rekindled a yearning for the intimate connection with music, a connection fostered through the deliberate act of selecting, handling, and playing a physical record.”

The CD experience mirrors that of vinyl, requiring the physical insertion of the disc into the player and offering the pleasure of holding the jewel case and perusing the cover insert or accompanying booklet.

Unlike the fleeting nature of digital music, vinyl records and CDs are tangible artifacts that grace our living spaces with their presence, becoming companions that endure the test of time. Fenella France, a researcher at the US Library of Congress, has stated that CDs, when properly cared for, can last for centuries. The same things goes for vinyl records.

Photo credit: Andrè Moura

The CD’s arrival in European markets in the early 1980s signaled a paradigm shift in music consumption. The Philips CD100, the first commercially available CD player, was released in the Netherlands in March 1983, sparking a revolution that transformed the European music landscape. Within a decade, the CD had become the de facto standard for recorded music in Europe. Its remarkable popularity can be attributed to a range of factors, including its superior sound quality, its durability, and its ease of use. The CD’s golden era in Malta was in the 1990s, William D’Amato recalls.

The CD’s introduction signaled the demise of vinyl records and cassette tapes, while simultaneously opening the door to digital technologies like MP3 and streaming. In an ironic twist of fate, the latter played a part in the CD’s own eventual demise.

Personal investment and economic benefits

In 1988 CBC reporter Kathy Kastner had predicted that it was “just a matter of time before the vinyl record breathes its last gasp”. That period was characterised by a vinyl-to-CD conversion movement and a wave of vinyl discards. Decades later, vinyl has undergone a remarkable resurgence, with music lovers passionately seeking out and reacquiring their once-discarded vinyl collections. A similar fate was anticipated for the CD during its decline in the 2000s, but a remarkable reversal of fortune defied the prophecies.

CDs represent an outstanding investment in one’s listening experience, combining remarkable sound quality with a price that is truly unbeatable. The CD’s price trajectory truly stands out in a world of rising costs. Two decades ago, the normal price for a CD was Lm7.50 (€17.47). Nowadays, a normal new CD costs a mere €11, with prices going up to €20. In sharp contrast, a normal vinyl record could easily set you back €30.

The renaissance of vinyl records and CDs has, in the meantime, triggered a variety of economic activity. First of all, it has given a new lease of life to Damato Records and other music stores, ensuring their continued presence and potentially nurturing the establishment of new ones.

“The decline of physical music sales, driven by the rise of digital downloads, severely impacted our business, leading to the closure of our Sliema and Gozo stores,” William recalled. “We maintained this shop out of love and family tradition – we’re now in the fifth generation. Thankfully, the future now seems promising.”

There has also been an increase in demand for CD players, as people look for ways to play their CDs – pushing manufacturers to ramp up production.Car and computer manufacturers are re-introducing CD players or drives in their new products or offering them as optionals. 

What’s selling?

So, which CDs are proving to be the most sought after at the moment? Leading the charge in sales are albums by pop artists like Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Harry Styles, and Niall Horan, William explains as he showcases the popular CD selections.

The enduring appeal of rock music is also evident in the consistent sales of albums by legendary bands like Iron Maiden, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, The Cure, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, Arctic Monkeys, Black Sabbath, and David Bowie. Hip-hop, too, is doing well, with artists like Kanye West, 2Pac, and Kendrick Lamar dominating the CD market. Notably, there is a current trend among late teens for K-pop (Korean pop music) CDs.

“Maltese artists are embracing the CD revival too, and their music is finding a receptive audience among local music lovers,” William says as he leads us to the Maltese music section, pointing out local rock band Red Electric as particularly popular at the moment. A particular interest is also observed in CDs of leading local artists such as Nadine Axisa and Maryrose Mallia, as well as in classical music talent, particularly Joseph Calleja. Tourist tend to look out for local folk music most.

Will the cassette be next?

Everything considered, this renewed interest in CDs goes hand in hand with the current interest in vintage items among the younger generation. Perhaps it is a reflection of a desire for something different, something special, and something sustainable.

“I’ve noticed a resurgence of interest in analog photography, with young people opting for film cameras over their digital counterparts. This trend extends to music as well, as cassettes are experiencing a revival too, albeit at its nascent stages,” William observes.

While CDs have become more affordable, cassettes still remain comparatively expensive, and that’s a hurdle that still needs to be overcome. However, when William secured a deal that enabled him to price The Weeknd’s ‘Highlights’ album at €10 per cassette, they sold out quickly.

Photo credit: Louis Laboratory

William’s approach to cassette procurement is demand-driven. When he receives multiple requests for a specific cassette, he recognises a potential market and places an order. This strategy has proven successful. Occasionally, he takes a calculated risk by ordering a small batch of titles and placing them out for sale. More often than not, these cassettes find buyers as well.

The future is physical – and emotional

If you’ve endured years of teasing from friends who perceived your CD collection as a vestige of a bygone era, the tide has turned, restoring your pride. Those who once mocked your CD collection after having got rid of theirs may never fully comprehend the extent of their loss, having discarded not just music but also a repository of memories and emotions.

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