Much has been written about the resurrection of the vinyl record – both sincere and patronizing – but for something to have been reborn it must have first died. Most conventional wisdom suggests that vinyl went the way of the dinosaurs in the late 1980’s when CDs and their crystal clear “perfect sound forever” (as proclaimed by Philips’ marketing campaign) became the dominant format. Instead of disappearing, however, vinyl’s market remained on life support until the early 2000s, buoyed by thousands of jukeboxes still playing vinyl singles and DJ’s spinning 12” singles at birthday parties and bar mitzvahs. Full vinyl albums may have disappeared, but singles kept the pressing plants churning. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the true nadir wouldn’t arrive until 2006 when vinyl EP/LP sales plunged to 3 million units.
Since bottoming out, the vinyl record has found a new groove. Sales increased in 2019 for the thirteenth consecutive year. During this period, this 12.9% increase over the last half of 2018 represented the single highest boost since the last half of 2018 (which rose 12.8%). If this holds steady, the vinyl record during this calendar year will overtake compact discs and digital album downloads to once again become the dominant method of individual LP purchase.
The vinyl record will overtake compact discs and digital album downloads to once again become the dominant method of individual LP purchase.
As the music industry recalibrates itself to account for the rapid and unprecedented decline of physical media, the vinyl record continues its ascendance, disconnected from the state of the industry as a whole. Paid streaming service subscriptions such as Spotify, Amazon, and Apple Music comprise 62% of the industry’s revenue. While vinyl registers only 5% of that music industry market share, it’s also the only format projecting growth. Superstores like Target and Best Buy have reduced or totally eliminated space allocated to CDs, but increased vinyl capacity. Streaming services haven’t yet plateaued, but the percentage of increase has shrunk as it nears saturation. Jack White, one of the most visible proponents of music on vinyl, highlights the cohabitation that’s been reached between streaming and vinyl: “I definitely believe the next decade is going to be streaming plus vinyl – streaming in the car and kitchen, vinyl in the living and the den.”
The Independent Vinyl Sales Factor
In all the impressive facts and figures about vinyl sales there’s many that just can’t be measured accurately. It’s entirely possible that even these impressive statistics account for only a fraction of the total vinyl sales. Most vinyl purchases take place offline, which make them harder to track, and independent record shops generally don’t report sales of any kind – used or new – meaning that vinyl might be moving significantly more units than the numbers submitted by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
That vinyl continues to carve out increasingly larger slices of the music landscape might seem remarkable to a mainstream consumer in a Marie Kondo-inspired world. The elimination of clutter and the embrace of the formless digital delivery of music and movies has become the norm. With an endless stream of music available at your fingertips, how can a 12” 180g disc of Polyvinyl Chloride resin compete in the current marketplace? Conspicuously, vinyl has gained a foothold for many of the same reasons that it fell out of favor in the first place.
As the unchallenged champion of physical music media from 1901 until the 1980s, vinyl and its long history represents a cavalcade of undiscovered sonic curiosities.
Nostalgia drove many collectors back to vinyl. When the novelty of digital music eroded, they dusted off their old turntables and popped back into the neighborhood record shop. Skeptics of the vinyl revival have cited nostalgia as a fickle and impermanent driving force and a predictor of its imminent collapse. Nostalgia’s an easy scapegoat for measuring the appeal of the used market, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The used bins at your local record shop stock curiosity and opportunity – not just moldy memories of listening to Side A of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water on repeat. As the unchallenged champion of physical music media from 1901 until the 1980s, vinyl and its long history represents a cavalcade of undiscovered sonic curiosities.
“I like looking for new things for my collection, either things on my wish list or just something that sounds interesting,” said Andy Ross, a Nashville-based writer and record collector. “I like the history that can come with it. I can listen to the same Kinks record that some other music freak played in 1967. I also love how sometimes you’ll get love notes and other messages written on the back of the records. It’s a real sense of connection to music’s past.”
A Reaction Against Digital and Sonic Isolation
The rise of vinyl sales has coincided with the decline of the compact disc. As more consumers embrace streaming and digital media, the cumbersome vinyl record has become the popular alternative. Owning a vinyl record represents a tactile experience. What emotional connection do you have to an interminable stream of music on Spotify? Holding the sleeve, studying the artwork and liner notes, flipping the record – these are all conscious activities associated music listenership. Streaming provides background noise while you’re performing the primary activities of your day; listening to a vinyl record is the primary activity.
Subscription companies like Vinyl Me, Please and events like the annual Record Store Day have also helped foster a community of enthusiasts through forums and vinyl-oriented gatherings. Subscribers to Vinyl Me, Please receive a curated record selection every month plus member-only access to new releases and unique pressings. The record club also hosts vinyl listening parties in cities throughout the U.S.
Streaming provides background noise while you’re performing the primary activities of your day; listening to a vinyl record is the primary activity.
827,000 records were sold during the 12th annual Record Store Day on April 13th, up from 733,000 the year prior. The majority of these through independent record shops. RSD exclusives feature new pressings of classic titles, brand new releases as well as unique color variants and special editions. Exclusives like Grateful Dead’s Warfield: San Francisco, California and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracts: Test Pressing drove sales.
Past oddities include a glow-in-the-dark slime-colored 12” single for Ray Parker, Jr.’s “Ghostbusters,” a poo-scented South Park soundtrack of Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics, Jack White’s blue-liquid-filled 7” for “Sixteen Saltines,” and Liars’ 12” single for “Mess On a Mission” featuring colored string encased in clear vinyl. It’s easy to chalk many of these releases up as gimmicks, but they undoubtedly spur interest by providing a unique package that gets people out to support independent record stores and bring practitioners of a solitary activity together to talk records and hunt for rarities.
How Touring Bands Have Embraced the Vinyl Resurgence
There’s one more venue where vinyl has become a fixture – the music venue itself. The tour t-shirt has remained a reliable merch-table fixture at live concerts. Many bands, however, now stock vinyl record sleeves alongside the t-shirts.
Most bands struggle to make a living playing their music. Money comes in through only a few avenues: streaming, touring, merch, and album sales. As streaming has become the most popular method for receiving music, it has come at a great cost to the artists themselves. While Spotify has made it known that they’ve worked to improve its reputation with artists, the numbers don’t suggest a win for the music makers. Revenues for recorded music in the U.S. grew 12% to $9.8 billion in 2018, driven primarily by streaming services. After removing cuts for record stores, download stores and streaming services, artists see only 1.1% of that revenue.
On the other hand, if a touring band presses 500 records at a cost of roughly $1,675 (per Gotta Groove Records) and sells those 500 records at their merch table throughout the tour, the band stands to make $8,325 (assuming a cost of $20 per record). This total gets divided up among the band, producers, songwriters, and the record label. None of that cash, however, gets funneled away to distributors or streaming services.
Concert-goers are drawn to vinyl, especially re-issues of favorite catalog titles that have never before been released on the format. At a recent DeVotchKa show in Pittsburgh, I hung around the merchandise table listening to dozens of people ask for the band’s most popular record How It Ends (2004) on vinyl. The band had almost sold through the entire pressing. They’d autographed the last box and started selling them at $80 a piece. Still, a few flush collectors ponied up the $80 to claim one of the remaining copies.
Where t-shirts once-ruled, vinyl has become an equal, if not more popular item. T-shirts fade or get stolen by ex-lovers, but a signed record sleeve is a physical memory and future conversation piece.
Opening acts especially will turn up at the merch table chatting up fans and happily signing copies of vinyl records purchased at the show. Where t-shirts once-ruled, vinyl has become an equal, if not more popular item. T-shirts fade or get stolen by ex-lovers, but a signed record sleeve is a physical memory and future conversation piece.
Boosting Stagnant Album Sales
While new releases often pop up on the best-selling vinyl charts, catalog titles tend to dominate sales. Consider this snapshot of 2010: alongside Arcade Fire, The Black Keys and Vampire Weekend, top sellers included The Beatles (35,000 copies of Abbey Road), Michael Jackson (14,000 copies of Thriller), Jimi Hendrix (11,400 copies of Valleys of Neptune) and Pink Floyd (10,600 copies of Dark Side of the Moon). Much of the same relative distribution holds true in 2019. Queen’s Greatest Hits tops Billie Eilish at #1 and #2, followed by Joy Division, Fleetwood Mac, Lewis Capaldi, Pink Floyd, and David Bowie.
With CD sales drying up and digital downloads on a steep decline (why buy when you can Spotify?), artists can still turn to vinyl for some old-fashioned revenue. Considering that many contemporary artists haven’t released older LPs on vinyl, a relevant anniversary or colored vinyl re-issue could spark stagnant album sales among fans who’ve already purchased the band’s catalog on other formats.
You don’t have to be The Beatles to move records. If there’s anything that the surge in vinyl relevancy has taught us is that record enthusiasts come in all ages and all demographics. Of the major distinguishable music genres, Country had been the most resistant to embracing vinyl record sales. Garth Brooks has done his part to change that perception. Would-be buyers crashed the website selling Garth Brooks’ seven-LP The Legacy Collection on the pre-order date of February 26th.
The Future of Vinyl
All indicators suggest that the popularity of vinyl continues to increase. Vinyl club membership increases. Record Store Day drives more sales every year and the secondhand market has established that vinyl records retain most of their value. Online marketplaces like Discogs.com and eBay.com provide a central marketplace for vinyl commerce. The vinyl “fad” continues to grow.
Collecting and buying vinyl records will never be a mainstream hobby. Owning and playing vinyl requires time, effort and a little knowledge about how to put together a turntable setup. The average music streamer has no desire to learn why vinyl sounds the way it does or curate or care for a collection. And in that respect, vinyl will remain a niche industry – but it can be a healthy niche that continues to influence how we listen to and consume music.
Instead of easy and instantly consumable; vinyl is mildly technical and requires flipping every five or six songs. Those willing to take the plunge aren’t just snooty audiophiles – they’re music fans who still care to participate in the experience of listening. They’re teenagers who want to be retro or crate diggers in it for the thrill of the hunt. The inevitable and instantly erasable digital future might come for all of us in time – but they won’t get our records.