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The CD finds new life among Gen Z collectors


Twenty-three-year-old Kate Carniol has collected every Taylor Swift CD since the original release of “Speak Now” in 2010. A new album release means a new CD purchase, a rule she reserves exclusively for Swift, whose complete discography lines a shelf in Carniol’s room at her parents’ house.

But Carniol doesn’t own a CD player. She hasn’t listened to her Swift CDs in years, instead opting for a streaming platform. Carniol, like other young collectors, considers the CD to be more akin to merchandise than a functional tool for consuming music. She loves the included photos, the design of the album. When I spoke to her in late June, she’d been hoping for a signed copy of “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)” since the rerecord was announced.

“I stay up every night until midnight, waiting to see if she’s going to release a signed copy of it,” Carniol says. “That was the album that really got me into her. I need the signed copy of the rerecord just for the emotional aspect.”

CDs make up a tiny percentage of the music industry’s earnings: about 3 percent as of 2022, down from 96 percent in 2002. Digital streaming services have dominated for more than a decade, with vinyl ticking upward year over year since the mid-aughts. CDs have enjoyed no such resurgence. But they have drawn a devoted user base of young adults who came of age long after the CD’s heyday. These are the self-proclaimed CD people, a small but devoted group that continues to love the compact disc and hopes for a renaissance.

Tabby Bernardus, 22, a recent college graduate from Los Angeles, remembers when her parents gave her a bulky multi-disc CD player when she was a child. She would listen to her father’s favorite, the Shins, or her own favorite, Joni Mitchell; a new artist called Florence and the Machine or a classic like Metallica. Bernardus has since collected about 200 CDs, some new and others dug out from thrift-store dollar bins. She pops them into her car stereo — the only CD player she has anymore, because the multi-disc player is long gone — and listens to the entire album in its intended order. Like her parents before her, she keeps a binder full of CDs in the car.

“I like the collectible aspect of CDs and also just like the [feeling] of going into a store and buying something rather than going on Spotify and adding it to your playlist, which is also … something I do,” Bernardus says. “You know what store you bought it at or the time in your life where you bought that CD, [and] I think [that] leaves a little more impact on you.”

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Many collectors are involved in fandom spaces, where purchasing CDs is an extension of their love for their favorite musician or band. If a fan purchases a CD, they are supporting their favorite musician more than hundreds of streams would. The fan bases of some genres seem particularly drawn to CDs — country and K-pop being among the strongest, said Jon Strickland, vice president of sales at Sub Pop Records.

For Ben Fitchett, a 23-year-old music memorabilia collector from Los Angeles, it’s about having signed collector’s items. Fitchett owns record certification plaques from artists such as Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, along with a cloudlike tulle gown that Ariana Grande once wore onstage. He specifically collects signed CDs and is a member of several Facebook groups in which fans buy, sell and advise each other about whether signatures look legit or forged.

“People will be like, ‘I’m in search of this CD. Does anyone have it?’ And someone would be like, ‘Yes, but I’m in search of this.’ There’s a lot of trades. People often go to those sorts of pages because they know it’s other fans,” Fitchett says.

Another potential reason for the collection subculture is simple: People like objects, and these objects are relatively inexpensive. CDs are both easier to store and less pricey than vinyl records.

The low price point is part of the appeal for 20-year-old Veronica Fuentes. Fuentes began collecting because she thought it would be funny to purchase a Lindsay Lohan CD she found at a thrift store. Since then, she’s established an assortment of mostly ’90s alt rock, which she uses in part for decoration. She’s recently been digging through sale bins for albums from Fiona Apple and the Doors. She plays her modest collection of CDs in the car — she too doesn’t have a stand-alone CD player, though she does have a port that allows her to burn CDs from her computer.

“I think maybe there’s an uptick now because there is this whole generation of people who are getting out of the house for the first time and moving into their own spaces, and if this does grow as a decoration piece, it’s accessible to us and affordable and on trend in its own way,” she says. “Because it is so stuck in one period, it is kind of timeless.”

Fuentes also appreciates the definite structure of CDs and their limited ability to skip tracks or shuffle, in addition to their Y2K aesthetic and their value to up-and-coming artists.

Collectors, eager for a CD renaissance, were excited when, in 2021, CD sales experienced their first uptick in sales volume year over year since 2004. Strickland says CD sales have increased at Sub Pop Records in the past few years. “It’s a way to get yourself out there and develop a pretty loyal fan base,” Fuentes says. “If you go to a house show and you buy a CD for 10 bucks, you’re always going to have that CD and be like, ‘Oh, I remember that band.’”

But the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which tracks the quantity and medium of American music sales by gathering data from the major record labels and third-party sources, has no data to indicate that CDs are making a comeback. RIAA Research Director Matthew Bass says that if any physical medium is here to stay, it’s vinyl.

“While we have seen a little bit of a blip in the radar the last couple of years, if you zoom out to the larger picture, it’s actually been a pretty steady decline for CDs,” Bass says.

Notably, RIAA’s data only tracks first sales — lots of CDs are sold secondhand, and it’s all but impossible to track them. John T. Kurz, owner of Waterloo Records in Austin, says that his used CD sales have remained consistent, even as his new CD sales wobbled during the rise of streaming.

The data also can’t quantify what’s drawing a small but devoted segment of Gen Z to CDs. Kurz finds that young people tend to be interested in listening to an album in the order the artist originally intended, and that it is increasingly important to consumers that they financially support their favorite artist as much as possible.

“I think people are looking to have ownership of their music as opposed to just getting it free or if they’re doing a subscription service for streaming, they’re basically leasing their music,” he says. “The educated fan base has learned … you know, sometimes you’d have enough to buy a sandwich if you have 100,000 streams. [Collectors want] to truly be respectful and supportive of the artist who’s looking to have ownership of their music, and know that there’s a decent return going back to the artists.”

Regardless of whether CDs will ever again meet or surpass vinyl in sales, the physical medium doesn’t seem to be slipping from the public consciousness anytime soon. The ability to hold, touch and permanently own music is beloved, and listeners enjoy the ritual of interacting with the art further than just hitting play.

“It takes the act of listening to music, which has become so easy for everybody nowadays and so accessible, and just makes it feel more like active listening,” Fuentes says. “It makes it feel more like I’m not just hitting shuffle on my liked songs. I want to listen to these songs, and I have a specific vibe that I want to curate for me and my friends. I think it gives a little bit more respect to the music.”

POST AUTHOR: Zoe Glasser

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