For years, pundits have wondered what physical form would accompany the ephemeral nothingness of digital downloads. Maybe it would be USB sticks, or t-shirts, or big coffee table books, or strange sculptural totems, or USB sticks shaped like cassette tapes.
Funny story. What if it turned out just to be the vinyl record? What if vinyl, reborn, really is what today’s digital music scene looks like in tangible form?
The counter-narrative, domain of the naysaying cynic, is that the vinyl record is an ill-conceived throwback, a punchline to the joke of valueless music. Vinyl as hipster parody, as Portlandia sketch, is perhaps best embodied by Urban Outfitters claiming recently it was the number one outlet for vinyl sales. That’s the record, surely, at its worst – chain-store pastiche, novelty nostalgia. (Adding insult to injury, Hot Topic ranks #2 in brick and mortar.) And it would lump vinyl alongside Lomography cameras, those plastic photographer toys – lovely as their light leaks are, that might not be where the turntable wants to be for a bright future.
Not so, says Billboard Magazine. In a more detailed breakdown of sales, Urban Outfitters tops physical outlets, but only because the market is so fragmented. The sales leader in the USA when you add in online retail is Amazon – and maybe no coincidence that the biggest vinyl seller is also one of the biggest music download stores. Amazon looks even bigger globally.
But the biggest winner of all is the independent record store. Musicians and DJs, not Millennial mallrats, are the driver, which could see the biggest growth coming from music stores.
And this confirms what seemed obvious to many of us. Vinyl records are an extension of, not a reaction to, today’s musical landscape. The same long tail that has been betrayed by the iTunes store, by U2 exclusives (hello, Bono icon for “Artists”), by Google’s major label favoritism, by lame streaming revenues, is served nicely by your corner record shop or a search for rare vinyl releases.
That is, we knew vinyl was growing – but even though it may represent a sliver of the record market, even though that growth is relative to, well, starting from near-death, it’s the independence of the format that’s encouraging. It’s survival in that niche.
You will find more statistics at Statista
Despite the trend in so many retail channels to consolidation, record stores also fiercely independent. As reported in Billboard
“Independent retailers are still the backbone of vinyl’s growth, and they are still selling tons of it,” says one major label distribution executive. “Indies are driving the format’s growth and everyone else is picking up on what they do.”
Though oddly even Whole Foods is getting in on this (um, organic tomatoes and LPs for dinner?), the Guitar Center push seems the most realistic:
“Our plan is to build on our vinyl strategy in 2015 to really capitalize on the resurgence of vinyl — this is definitely an area of music that consumers are telling us they’re more and more interested in,” says Guitar Center’s vp of corporate affairs Christopher Bennett, who says the chain is also seeing an uptick in vinyl turntables as well.”We’re going to be offering a host of different vinyl record players as well in 2015 for the traditional music audiophile, and also for music producers and DJs.”
This, of course, has big implications for the independent producer. It says that the growth of DJing may well prove necessary to the survival of recording. It values, for better or for worse, those releases that can produce physical pressings. (For better: this may help stop the race-to-the-bottom, valueless tyranny of choice produced by overabundance. For worse: you can buy your way in, and if you can’t afford a pressing, you could be left out.)
It also puts the importance of the online transformation in a different place. In this version of the story, social media and hyper-specialization drive people to their local record shop to thumb through vinyl, rather than making those sales happen online.
It’s impossible to say just how long vinyl’s second run will last, though – these are lagging indicators, not leading indicators, necessarily. What it does seem to suggest, though, is that the enthusiast is increasingly the person on the production side of the equation. Your most dedicated fans may shop the same music stores you do. The “anyone can produce, anyone can be a DJ” phenomenon may produce more music, but is also produces more – and more enthusiastic – music consumers.
It’s painfully easy to overstate the importance of vinyl, too. The best article on the dark side of vinyl’s so-called renaissance recently came from Thomas Cox, for Attack Magazine.
Cox outlines the problems with vinyl. First, the numbers are skewed:
…a large proportion of vinyl sales come from things like audiophile reissues of classic albums, Record Store Day novelties and collectors’ editions, dance music has its own issues to deal with.
— and then there are the over-hyped limited edition runs, which serve largely to artificially inflate prices and distract from the use of vinyl as an actual mechanism for music distribution. This might be reasonable were it not for overabundance of the same music in all these forms. As Cox puts it: “We’re inundated with old music being re-released to make money, while new music is sold to as few people as possible to make the hype machine spin.”
We Need to Talk About Vinyl [Attack]
It’s worth reading Cox’s whole article. But as he argues for a meaningful vinyl market over these “gimmicks,” the latest Billboard findings are encouraging. Part of his thesis is that the gimmicky “rare” market online pulls people away from resellers. But healthy reseller numbers seem to suggest that the more organic market, the one actually listening to music on vinyl, is still not only surviving but growing.
To state the blindingly obvious, there’s no one panacea for musicians trying to make a living. This is doubly ironic in light of the constant industry fascination with the high point of the CD, given those grandest sales went to only a select few, leaving the average musician as financially challenged as ever.
But having some dominant physical form is hugely promising. It means there’s some object that can represent what a record is. It makes the musical album endure as social object, as people gather around those record events – you’ll see this next week in Amsterdam at Amsterdam Dance Event, even as DJing is dominated by Traktor and Serato and iPad and CDJ. They’ll be crate digging shoulder to shoulder; they’ll be attending events in which a label remains meaningful. And even if the future turns out to be those sculptural totems, well, we’ll look back and say the MP3 and streaming didn’t kill the album or annihilate the label. And I think that’s probably going to be a good thing.