Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Fusion

If you're a person born after 1995 who's gone to Starbucks lately, you may have seen some strange objects for sale near the cash register. Thin, rectangular, with pictures on the front and shiny circles inside. Believe it or not, these things weren't decorative coasters for your flat white—they were some of the last surviving specimens of a music distribution technology known as the "compact disc," or CD.

Now, you'll no longer be confused by these odd items, because Starbucks is quitting the CD business. According to Billboard:

Starbucks, the coffee giant with over 21,000 retail stores throughout the world, will stop stocking and selling physical compact discs, Billboard has confirmed, with the CD clean-out due to start next month.

"We will stop selling physical CDs in our stores at the end of March," a rep for the Seattle-based company tells Billboard, adding: "Starbucks continually seeks to redefine the experience in our retail stores to meet the evolving needs of our customers."

The CD was a strange thing. It was highly inefficient—you had to buy the entire album at once, even if only wanted to listen to a single song. The discs could get scratched easily, and the devices you played the music on skipped when you were going over bumpy roads, or when you were jogging with a portable CD player. Every time you moved apartments or houses, you had to lug boxes full of CDs with you.

Advertisement

Still, it was all we had, and people bought CDs in astonishing numbers. In 2000, the year Napster (teens: we'll explain Napster in another post) really caught on, Americans bought nearly a billion CD albums anyway. But over the next several years, digital music sales on iTunes and other platforms cut deeply into the CD market. By 2007, only 500 million CDs were being sold per year.

Today, of course, there are dozens of better options for streaming and downloading individual tracks, without any of the skipping or scratching that was characteristic of the CD era. And, as you might expect, those options have taken a toll on the CD market. This chart from Music Business Worldwide tells the whole story:

Starbucks was one of the last CD stalwarts. For years, it steadfastly remained one of the largest CD vendors in America. In 2006 alone, it sold 3.6 million units. For artists, getting your CD sold in Starbucks was like being picked for Oprah's book club—it meant millions of people discovering you for the first time, or remembering you were out there. But as the American CD market declined, so, too did Starbucks' CD sales.

Advertisement

Last year, CD sales fell to an all-time low—only 140 million units sold. (Astonishingly, only two CDs sold more than a million albums apiece: Taylor Swift's 1989 and the Frozen soundtrack.) So it's not surprising that Starbucks is getting out of the format. Sales of all kinds of recorded music are falling, with one bizarre exception: vinyl, which after years of decline is having a bit of a nostalgic revival.

The silver lining, for Starbucks customers, is that they will have plenty of other ways to hear "Let It Go" with their lattes. "Music will remain a key component of our coffeehouse and retail experience," a company rep told Billboard, "however we will continue to evolve the format of our music offerings to ensure we're offering relevant options for our customers."

In other words, the streaming era has begun. And after years on life support, Starbucks is finally pulling the plug on the CD.