Posted: 12:23 pm Friday, February 24th, 2017
You play music. And you listen to music. And you’ll inevitably be aware that the biggest story in listening habits right now is the vinyl revival. It’s like the “digital revolution” never happened! Or is it?
In the U.S. and the U.K. – the leading territories when it comes to artists and business – 2016 saw vinyl sales take a mighty leap. In the U.S, sales have been growing steadily in recent years: 260 percent since 2009. In the U.K, vinyl sales were up 53% in 2016 in alone.
“While still making up a very small percentage of overall music sales, I think it’s been the only part of the music industry that’s actually been increasing,” Nick Williams, of Boston-based record store Deep Thoughts, recently told the Huffington Post. “Every other part of the music industry, sales have been going down. I think yes, it’s going to keep on going.”
You’ll find vinyl acolytes offering anecdotal testimonies such as this the world over, and it’s true that the vinyl enthusiast can currently feel good about their hobby. The supposed narrative was that; CDs would kill vinyl; then MP3s would kill CDs. Soon, everyone would just download their music, track by track, in some sort of a la carte multi-menu feeding frenzy. It’s not quite happened like that, though.
CDs sales are still collapsing year-on-year, down another 11% in 2016, but it seems downloads are now tanking, too: they’re down 25% in the U.S. The significant growth – of what there is to report – is in buying vinyl or streaming. Who’da thought that?
Hold Me, Spin Me, Thrill Me
Nearly every commentator rightly points out that vinyl just feels better for the serious music consumer. I’m old enough to remember the “glory days” of huge gatefold sleeves, art inserts, posters and the rest, and the CD age never quite delivered that. And downloads don’t didn’t deliver anything on that score. So, in 2017, if you’re happy enough with the sound of digital (a moot point), you may as well just stream.
If you want the whole “package” and bigger “experience” of buying music, then vinyl is delivering in huge doses. The picture of growth is multi-pronged though: vintage buyers are getting to repurchase lavishly packaged vinyl sets with supporting material they never would have got even in the format’s ‘70s heyday. Check out the lavish vinyl-plus box sets for “fringe” artists like Duane Allman of recent years (12 x vinyl LPs, art prints, essays, a book!); or the bumper sets for vinyl stalwarts such as Pink Floyd or the Rolling Stones.
In 2016, the biggest selling vinyl album in the U.K was David Bowie’s Blackstar. The Beatles, Amy Winehouse, The Beatles and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors were Top 10.
On the flip side, the many millennials whose lives skipped the CD era are now finding thrills in owning music as an object. When the rest of your whole life is crammed into your phone, a vinyl record by younger artists is actually quite a thrilling thing. As Williams added, “There is a tactile quality to vinyl records…They are large, you can hold them and they look nice. In this day and age where everything has gone digital, people are kind of pushing back against that a little bit…It [a record] seems so much more real.”
It’s true. How does a quintessentially millennial brand like clothing retailers Urban Outfitters validate its desire for “heritage” and “authenticity”? By displaying (and selling) vinyl! “Music is very, very important to the Urban customer,” says UO’s CEO Calvin Hollinger back in 2014. “In fact, we are the world’s number one vinyl seller.”
Recent research conducted by the Audio Engineering Library even found that MP3s and other low-quality compression formats have a statistically significant negative effect on “the timbral and emotional characteristics” of a song. That’s right, downloads make you less happy: vinyl makes you happier!
Spinning the money
Another key factor? With streaming sites – be it Spotify, Amazon Unlimted, Apple Music or even YouTube – offering meagre returns to artists for streaming, concentrating on producing vinyl is actually one way for artists to keep revenue flowing.
The discerning choice?
One clear pitch of vinyl is that it is for aficionados, and “real” records are no longer just what you find in charity stores or yard sales. Elton John is among the curators of an April-2017-launched subscription service, Experience Vinyl, based around the recommendations of stars. John’s pick of vinyl will be followed by the likes of Quincy Jones, George Clinton and Sean Lennon.
At around $30 a month, it’s like a high-grade Spotify playlist in physical form – subscribers will receive one of the curator’s favourite albums by another artist, along with personal commentary, the artist’s Top 10 albums list, access to the service’s store and other “rewards”.
A future for “the past”?
The key question remains: is this vinyl revival merely a fad? Pop eats itself like no other art form, and a few years back there was even a supposed resurgence in the popularity of cassettes, but unlike the now 10-year-old Record Store Day, 2014’s hyped Cassette Store Day fell on deaf ears. It seems not even the hippest of hipsters like their “mixtapes” that literal.
But everyone seems agreed vinyl sales will continue to grow. Deloitte’s just-issued TMT Predictions reports, “Music industry vinyl is expected to continue its remarkable resurgence, approaching US $1 billion globally in revenues for the first time this millennium. New vinyl revenues and units are likely to enjoy a seventh consecutive year of double-digit growth in 2017.”
That, essentially, is why it’s happening. People not only want it but it’s one of the few ways the music business can now make money. But for the individual consumer, vinyl does need to get cheaper. Record pressing plants are still at a premium, meaning LPs are expensive. But there is progress. This month, Jack White opens a new pressing plant in Detroit for his Third Man Records business, capable of turning out 5,000 discs an hour. White says he’s “bringing the tangible, the unexpected and the beautiful back into the business.”
The good news is, all the kit you need is still there and getting better. Gibson Brands caters for vinyl lovers with Stanton turntables (particularly for DJs), and Philips and Onkyo hi-fi separates (for listeners) should you need to upgrade – or, more likely, buy again – your hi-fi.
Did you keep all your old vinyl? Are you buying it for the first time? Are you investing in upgrading old hi-fi or buying from scratch?