When Peter Allen released “Everything Old is New Again” in 1974, he had no idea that the title would offer a prescient view of the vinyl on which his song was originally released. Vinyl has long competed with other formats such as cassettes and even the relatively short lived 8-track tape. However, it wasn’t until the 80’s that LP’s nearly vanished into the dustbin of audio history as consumers rushed to replace their record collections with CD’s. Recently vinyl is experiencing a growth that many experts are projecting to only increase in the near future. Almost 12 million records were sold in the US last year alone. This is a 30 percent increase from 2014 and the tenth year in a row where annual vinyl sales have shown an increase. And although many brick and mortar stores are feeling the pressure of online sales, independent record stores accounted for 45% of vinyl sales last year. While the plummeting CD still accounts for the majority of physical music sales, vinyl has substantially increased its market share and now makes nearly half the revenue that CD’s do.
It Just Sounds Better
So which factors are contributing to the renewed popularity of vinyl and how can modern technology impact the future of LP’s? Do the audiophiles have a point? Is an older generation simply craving a bit of nostalgia or are hipsters trying to connect to their music in a new way?
Many audio engineers would point out that, in theory at least, CD’s provide superior sound quality compared to LP’s. In both sonic reproduction and fidelity, CD’s outperform vinyl in many ways. For many though, there are several reasons why the sonic idiosyncrasies of vinyl are preferred. In the early stages of digital technology, some listeners found CD’s lacking. Many of these early deficiencies have been addressed as the technology has matured and developed; however, it left some with a prejudice toward digital audio. Undoubtedly though there is a warmth that is unique to vinyl. In fact, a quick look at digital recording software will show a variety of programs and plug-ins designed to replicate the nuance of records, right down to the crackle and hiss of your favorite LP.
Many of us remember the excitement of visiting the local record store in search of a new release or even coming across a record that you didn’t even know existed. I still remember vividly walking into my local, small town record store and finding a copy of Allan Holdsworth’s “Metal Fatigue” in the late 80’s. I still have it. In all fairness, I have the CD also. But you’ll never see the CD displayed on my wall. This brings us to the visual aspect of vinyl which appears to be a significant factor in record sales. Some albums were known as much for their artwork as they were for the songs. Records combined the audio and visual in a new and unique way that CD’s just haven’t quite been able to duplicate. The statistics suggest that factors in addition to audio preference are involved. Research indicates that 7% of vinyl purchasers don’t even own a turntable and a recent poll showed that of those who purchased vinyl, 48% had not even played it a month after owning it. It appears many simply want to own the vinyl. New records also typically come with digital download codes so consumers can have the physical product but also enjoy the conveniences of digital music.
So who’s behind this vinyl phenomenon? Apparently records have broad appeal. Some recent polls have shown that nearly 50% of records are purchased by people under 35. Hipsters raised in a digital age have become well known for their low tech preferences. Even cassette sales are showing signs of life. And while many new artists find themselves on the best selling vinyl charts, it’s not uncommon to see Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zepplin also. Middle aged and older adults are significant contributors to the increase in record sales as they reassemble record collections from their youth. High school and college kids also listen to classic rock. This format appears to capture the interest of a broad demographic.
From the independent artist’s perspective, getting your music released on vinyl can be difficult. Not only is it expensive, but there are only about a dozen plants in the US pressing records. Wait times can be significant. One such company aimed at assisting independent artists is Qrates. This on demand vinyl manufacturer can produce small or large quantities of albums (starting at 100) in approximately 6-8 weeks by partnering with presses in Europe. Artists upload their music and artwork and then begin promoting the album. If enough fans pre-order the album to cover the manufacturing costs, it goes to press. If not, the artists have the option of making up the rest out of pocket. Qrates can even handle distribution and setting up the project takes only minutes.
Here To Stay
Chief Marketing Officer of Qrates, Taishi Fukuyama, believes the future of vinyl is bright. He says,”We now know that approximately 50% of vinyl users have listened to the music on a streaming service prior to purchasing the record. That’s great news for everyone since streaming doesn’t cannibalize but helps promote vinyl sales.” Fukuyama believes that with copyright and licensing issues continuing to be resolved, the demand for vinyl will only increase. He envisions a time when vinyl can be pressed on demand. These revolved legal issues may enable the consumer to have the option of having their playlist from a streaming service pressed to vinyl or perhaps even using records in various novel ways such as party favors.
The numbers indicate that, for the immediate future, vinyl is doing well and experiencing significant annual growth. Some experts believe it’s still a niche market though and will in all likelihood never regain the prominence it had in decades past. However it appears to offer something for everybody from the purist, to the collector and to the avid music fan who wants some nostalgia with the flexibility of digital media. Maybe it will even be the catalyst to bring back other antiquated musical mediums. I’ll hold onto that minidisc player just a little while longer.
By Mark Whetzel