The tables have turned, but will vinyl’s record sales last?
More vinyl records are being bought today than at any time since the late 80s, but how long will our new passion for physical formats last?
In November, eBay debuted its Christmas ad in the UK. In it, a split screen contrasts the morning routines of a father and his son: an alarm clock versus a smartphone, a collared shirt versus a graphic tee, a wireless speaker versus a record player. As the screens collide, both are listening the same Black Keys track with the teenager informing his dad that it “sounds much better in vinyl”.
The joke, if not funny, was at least topical. Despite perceptions that millennials live their lives within the bounds of an Instagram square, they’re the generation responsible for pushing sales of vinyl to their highest level since 1988 in the US and since 1991 in the UK.
The Recording Industry Association of America’s latest figures show US sales of vinyl records up 32% to $416m, while the British Phonographic Industry’s most recent report recorded a 53% rise in physical record purchases between 2015 and 2016. An ICM Unlimited poll meanwhile found 16% of those buying vinyl to be aged 18-24, with consumers aged 18-34 accounting for nearly half (49%) of all records purchased.
This shift to tangible music consumption is a bit of a paradox. As Steve Smith, chief executive of music and sports marketing agency Ear to the Ground puts it, “Kate Bush’s new live album is £65 ($80) – that’s more than a Spotify premium membership for a whole year”. Yet it’s not a wholly unexplainable phenomenon. Most experts believe it comes from a longing for the physical, something today’s 18-year-olds (born just two years before the release of the first iPod) likely never experienced the first time around.
“We know that downloading and streaming through the likes of Spotify and Apple Music is increasingly popular, but you don’t get the wonderful artwork with digital music that you do with a record sleeve,” says Andy Clough, editor-in-chief of What Hi-Fi? magazine.
“Record decks have become cool again and of course they look great too. They’re a great talking point in the home, and putting a record on and listening to it on a proper hi-fi system has more of a sense of occasion than listening to an MP3 on your smartphone.
“We also know that some people are buying records just to hang the artwork on the wall and aren’t even playing them.”
Smith believes sociological factors are also at play in the vinyl resurgence. “For me the biggest driver is about ownership, identity and belonging. The online streaming explosion will go on – that is the way people are going to continue consuming music in the mainstream in the future – but your vinyl collection is a curation of who you are. It’s a little more sacred.”
Vinyl’s journey back into retailers hasn’t been straightforward. The record stores that were once a staple in any town were slowly picked off by the megastores of the 80s and 90s, and after the millennium even HMV could be forgiven for turning its back on the iconic gramophone featured in its logo as digital downloads rocketed and analysts hailed the end of physical music media. Now, the retailer is back to self-styling as ‘the home of vinyl since 1921’ with a cinema ad in collaboration with pressing plant The Vinyl Factory. And indie retailers, whether the type that survived the vinyl apocalypse or startups jumping on the spike in demand, are vehemently championed by the ever-growing Record Store Day – a worldwide celebration that counts BBC Music among its supporters.
But the store arguably most responsible for reviving the trend is Urban Outfitters which had vinyl on its shelves well before the big sales figures started to roll in. “As a brand that sees music as being so vital, we felt it was important to continue offering music in a physical format,” says Simon Burd, brand experience manager at Urban Outfitters. “Vinyl has been hugely popular with our customers, and is critical to our business.”
Burd emphasizes this success has come from more than just a shelf stack of the latest releases; the company’s culture is aligned to support the industry from a grassroots level, and this, he believes, is what will allow it to take on the likes of Target and Tesco, who have also jumped on the vinyl bandwagon.
“Our approach to vinyl, and music as a whole, is extremely genuine. We will feature artists on our blogs and social channels, host events in our stores, support artists with music videos and have launched merchandise ranges with artists. Music is such a key part of the brand. It touches everything. This is not the case for a lot of other stockists.”
Smith believes Urban Outfitters’ approach is a prime example of how brands should capitalize on the trend for vinyl. “It’s kind of given them a sense of realness and authenticity that is brought to the rest of the retail products that they’re offering,” he says.
“Brands have got to work with the right artists and they’ve got to represent physical music in the right way. It’s very easy to get it wrong and look like the dad at the disco. They’ve got to be careful because music is the most important thing in some people’s lives.”
Perhaps as a consequence of this risk, only a handful of brands have jumped on the visual appeal of vinyl as a vignette in their marketing collateral. Perhaps now would be the right time to take the leap though, as many believe the bubble is soon due to burst. Mark Tyler, who revived his father’s 1970s turntable business, Steepletone, in 2002, is concerned the populist, mainstream nature of vinyl collection will soon be undone by low quality hardware.
“The budget end is becoming flooded with poor quality suitcase-styled products that could undermine the popularity of vinyl, as the sound quality and reliability may stop potential vinyl fans from taking up the vinyl bug,” he explains.
For Paul Beahan, the LA-based founder of cult music label Manimal Records, the mainstream popularity of the LP has signaled the beginning of its decline, while the costs and difficulties associated with putting music “on wax” have taken their toll.
“We went overboard in 2008-2010 on releases with artists who did not tour and who did not market themselves via social media, and so by 2014, I had a warehouse filled with vinyl for artists who broke up or did not carry their weight in the deals. These days, Manimal concentrates on single releases from super avant-garde artists, as well as our PR agency and Manimal Films, so the idea of vinyl seems like a long forgotten dream of a time when status and being cool ruled everything.”
He adds: “Physical formats will be obsolete as we move to the minimalist world. Right now, it's a pendulum swinging in the right direction but it will swing back. It’s safe to assume that all of these labels will be sitting on boxes of thousands of unsold records one day soon.
“On the other hand, I just bought my nine-year-old daughter a turntable for the holidays. She asked for it.”
Main image by Gavin Whitner
This feature first appeared in a special music issue of The Drum, published in partnership with Clio Music. You can subscribe to The Drum magazine here.