The Future of Vinyl
After another year of all-time highs (as Nielsen reports sales up 9% in the US, and BPI posts a 26.8% increase in the UK) the vinyl format is stronger than the My Bloody Valentine Loveless-era. The format has become a cultural identifier — a badge of honor amongst the millennials, an “I told you so” moment for collectors, and a commercial star for specific rheumatoid arthritis medication.
Some have predicted the vinyl bubble will burst. That said, turntable sales are on the rise and big-box shelf space is now devoted to Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift wax. These indicators seem to tell a different story.
To get a read on the situation from those in the know, we’ve asked industry experts, collectors, and enthusiasts from around the world to chime in on the future of the vinyl format. Some even shared their favorite album for 2017.
Black Flag/Rollins Band
I think vinyl sales will continue to go well. I don’t think it’s a bubble. The appreciation of vinyl is a thing because, before CDs, you really didn’t have media by which to compare. You had records and tapes and that’s how recorded music sounded. After 30+ years of digital music, streamed music and whatever other digital source, listeners now have the opportunity to have that “wow” moment when they hear vinyl through good playback and are able to determine, with no doubt, that vinyl sounds much, much better than a CD or something blaring out of your phone.
So, what I’m hoping for is great new releases and reissues on high-quality vinyl, mastered to perfection, excellent packaging at prices that allow young people to go to the record store with frequency. I’m hoping that RSD becomes a true cultural event. Maybe labels that have mandatory listens, like Coltrane‘s A Love Supreme or Television‘s Marquee Moon, would put these titles on sale at a price to inspire young people to give this “old” music a chance. It would be great if there was a massive list of “must hears” that would be in perpetual discount to allow curiosity, and sales, to flourish. Bowie, Stooges, Velvet Underground, Miles, etc.
Every house and apartment should have records and record players in them. Things would be better.
It was a great year for records, so it’s a hard choice. For me, it’s Escape-Ism – Introduction To Escape-Ism, one of the many outlets of the amazing Ian Svenonius. It’s super minimal and in its own way, perfect. I can’t stop playing it.
Yeah, we always took the news of the mainstream vinyl boom the past decade or so with a big grain of salt, and do the same with news of it slowing or plateauing. We’ve always just reached people who are fond of the format, trendy or not. I guess being a store called Dusty Groove, our perspective on that is probably a little different than the big box stores and fashion retailers and high-end grocery chains who hopped in at the crest of a wave, ya know? It’s why we exist, and we started in the mid-90s at the height of CD marketplace dominance, when vinyl was “dead”. Which isn’t to thumb our noses at feel-good vinyl resurgence news, broader cultural interest is great. But it doesn’t make or break our biz here.
True story: Five minutes before I started writing this for you, I emailed a label owner working on a vinyl-only reissue of an incredible rarer jazz gem from the early ’60s to say, “Hey…this looks great, but is there a CD version coming soon, too? We’d totally stock the CD as well!” Dusty Groove stocks physical versions of the music we love, period. That’s what it’s all about for us.
If I had to pick a personal favorite album this year, and I’m not saying it’s literally the best or the most definitive musical statement, just my favorite: George Freeman/Live At The Green Mill – With Special Guest Bernard Purdie
Freeman is a living Chicago treasure, working with excellent younger guitarist Mike Allemana, featuring the still amazing Bernard Purdie on drums, Pete Benson‘s organ sounding so great, and the set recorded at the beautiful Green Mill… I love it.
WFMU receives more vinyl promos that we ever had, more each year in fact, with an extremely high quotient of quality. If anything is hampering the boardroom progress charts, it’s the fetishization of the medium that invariably causes plants to clog up churning out 180g repressings of the Dirty Dancing 2 soundtrack and about 95% unnecessary RSD titles. Meanwhile people who have been ably and amply putting out quality releases on labels like Roaratorio, Diagonal, Total Punk, VDSQ, 12XU, Richie, Awesome Tapes From Africa and many more have to get their own progress hampered getting in line for limited plant space while a lot of lame stuff gets to the front of the queue.
I don’t really buy that Nielsen has a finger on the pulse of what people are listening to; there’s always been a vinyl underground for people into hip-hop, experimental, international, postpunk, electronic etc., and most of it probably doesn’t make a blip on their radar. I think far too much light is shed on institutions like Vinyl Me, Please that cater to people who just want something sent to them regardless of what it is (and there’s a lot of crap being pumped out); many of these people aren’t really fans of the medium as much as they wanna be included in something allegedly cool and don’t want to feel left out. Now I feel like those people who aren’t getting good stuff in their monthly subscription mailings are just losing interest, so rather than do the legwork and find good new music on their own, they decide to go collect wine for a while or something and everyone starts fretting about the numbers of vinyl output.
I hope the good purveyors stick to their plan and continue. I go to Academy in Brooklyn, Repressed In Sydney, Honest Jon’s in London and feel a common thread that these places are being run the right way and the customers will trust finely curated new selections rather than sit at home waiting for some mystery Vinyl Me, Please package they’re told is gonna be great and ain’t.
Record Store Day
I’m skeptical of anyone who thinks they can predict the future, but I can look at where we are right now and get a good indication of where things are going. I work with indie record stores and they need to be profitable on what they buy and sell to succeed. Right now, they are stocking more vinyl and are selling more vinyl than before. They are also buying and selling more turntables than ever before.
The price of good used vinyl continues to go up, also another good indicator of where things are going. On top of that, Record Store Day this year broke all sales records for the most vinyl sold in one day. And, the final indicator is that Record Store Day partnered with Third Man to launch the first ever music industry convention devoted to vinyl manufacturing, called Making Vinyl. We hoped maybe 100 music industry people would show up. It looks like we will triple that. All of this tells me that vinyl hasn’t peaked and isn’t near peaking.
As someone who spent untold thousands of hours hanging out and working in record stores from a very young age, I’m overjoyed by vinyl’s resurgence — so much that seeing big vinyl sections in places like Urban Outfitters, which normally would trigger my deep-seated music-snob gag reflex, makes me very happy. Knowing that so much of that resurgence comes from generations younger than mine, who didn’t grow up with their eyes riveted to the gatefold sleeve of Sgt. Pepper’s or Exile on Main Street or, my first vinyl album purchase with my own money, Elton John‘s Captain Fantastic (which not only was a gatefold with dazzling cover art, but came with two booklets and a poster!) makes me even happier.
But has it peaked and where is it heading? To be honest I would be surprised if the vinyl market got much bigger than it is now — that’s not to say there isn’t room for growth because there is, but I don’t believe it’s ever going to command more than a low-mid-single-digit percentage of the overall music business. Having said that, there is a thriving, hungry, discriminating market for quality vinyl releases that I’m so happy to see being served so well — and whenever I buy a new album, that feeling of leaving a store with, as my mother used to say it, “a large, flat package” tucked under my arm, is like going home again.
Third Man Records
My response to Nielsen’s report of vinyl flattening is that their focus and metric is isolated and isolated from the entirety of the business. There are still COUNTLESS labels and self-releases that never come close to the Nielsen barcode scanning radar. I mean, I’d venture to guess that upwards of 90% of seven-inch sales are completely undocumented in this country. That’s insane. We have at least ten seven-inches in our catalog that have shifted more than 10,000 copies. Granted, we are probably the ONLY label that can claim those numbers, but I am unsure what of these records shows up on Nielsen, if anything. I do know when we started TMR in 2009, Soundscan was not even tracking seven-inch sales. I’m confused as to whether or not that has changed in the intervening years.
Two years ago we finally admitted to ourselves that the turntable bubble was not going to burst and would be a viable category for years to come. We expect to see a leveling of growth over the next three to five years, but believe it will remain in the double digits. This expectation is reinforced by the appetite of our retail partners, who continue to expand their assortment of turntables and accessories.
We are also seeing new customers enter the category as our demographics shift slightly to a younger audience. Many of our new customers are looking for “experiences” in their daily lifestyles – experiencing analog sound, album art and liner notes – and a stronger sense of community by gathering friends to see and listen to their curated selections.
We are continually developing new products to address the re-emerging needs of the market. We recently introduced the AT-LP3 and AT-LP5 turntables and the VM line of cartridges and styli. We will make additional product announcements at CES 2018 in January.
In response to Nielsen’s idea of vinyl “plateauing,” I think that’s kind of short-sighted and also a bit too based on how Nielsen reports sales itself. For example, during the “vinyl boom” we had (or are currently in), the top 10 consistent YTD sales leaders have been dominated by classic rock which hasn’t been in print for 25-30 years. So, yes, if you put Dark Side of the Moon in print, it will sell. However, you can only sell it to the same normal customer once.
There was an inevitable situation where those figures are going to mutate as people start buying outside of those styles and those particular titles will plateau as new customers buy a turntable and buy them. So, to Nielsen’s eyes, it’s going down. But when you look beyond that to independent/current artist vinyl sales, it’s actually increasing. Let’s not forget that, if I’m not mistaken, Nielsen does not include club membership type sales like Vinyl Me, Please (which I believe is above 20k subscribers) nor a place like Discogs for sale. More so, a lot of independent labels and record stores do not report their sales to Nielsen and never have. When I was the buyer/pricer at Academy we’d sell 30-40 copies of a record over a year and those went unreported (distributors do not report, only from market retail sale). So, the entire representation of Nielsen is skewed to just a particular sub-market within vinyl sales. We’re talking about stuff like Urban Outfitters, Amazon, etc.
The future: I think with all the new plants opening up it’s offering a chance for more smaller independents to get more product out faster and (hopefully) slightly cheaper. An issue the last five years has been that the majors have sort of muscled into the manufacturer’s frontline and have dominated them, especially around RSD/Black Friday. For this reason, a lot of indies will run out of product on a hot record that can sell a ton more if repressed sooner than later but there’s a wide gap before it can happen.
This is problematic as people tend to move on to something else and get used to streaming the record, might wait to see it used somewhere as opposed to buying it at a shop. One caveat that is my two cents in a word of caution is that there might be buyer fatigue coming from RSD/Black Friday type releases. I know a lot of stores are having trouble moving those unreturnable units and a lot of them have not been gaining value as the collector’s pieces they are supposed to. This can turn off a lot of potential lifetime vinyl fans who we are all trying to convert from “RSD People” into people who go to record stores two to four times a month.
Also, I think everyone in the Discogs community knows vinyl sales never really went away. In the ’00s people were still buying a ton but it wasn’t getting reported. There’s a ton of records out there right now selling thousands of copies that the label does not report because they don’t really care about Nielsen sales.
I think it’s been well established at this point that vinyl is the enduring physical medium. Vinyl has already been at death’s door a couple of times in recent history, both when cassettes became the most popular format in the early ’80s and then again in the ’90s when the CD grew to dominate the market. We can debate why vinyl keeps surviving these onslaughts, is it actual vs perceived sound quality, the collectible nature, the intangible cool factor, but the fact remains, records simply will not go away. Even during those eras when it was being forced out to a large degree by newer formats, a hardcore collector market remained and was still actively buying and selling vinyl.
Having said that, I do think certain segments of the vinyl market are not sustainable. The idea that every release needs to come out in multi-color limited variants or a deluxe box set nearing the $100 price point just doesn’t seem to have enough demand for it to be a viable concept long term. As someone who buys some of these products, I can tell you that a large percentage of these titles end up being drastically discounted several months down the road when retailers need to purge dead inventory. Once we get over the paradigm that every record is a potential collector’s item and get back to it merely being a preferred way to enjoy music, I think the talk of the “vinyl bubble” will cease and we can get back to just buying records for more utilitarian purposes as opposed to investing in them. So that’s what I think the future of vinyl really is, I can definitely envision a time when it’s the only physical format and everything else is just digital, or brain implant or whatever crazy technology is coming next. But there will always be people who want to hold an album in their hands, put it on a physical player and kick back with the liner notes and album art. Those folks will be listening to vinyl for a very long time.
As for record of the year, 2017 [was pretty epic] with albums by King Krule, The XX and milo all being strong contenders. But the champ to beat in my mind is Father John Misty – Pure Comedy. The production is just immaculate, perfectly balancing strings, horns, vocals and even some electronic elements into a coherent and lush whole. And lyrically the guy is just going for it, a truly scathing critique of modern culture and his own role in it. I was a big fan of I Love You, Honeybear, but he really took it to another level with this one, at the risk of alienating a lot of people as well, which in my mind really paid off. Sure it’s kind of a downer, but as an artistic statement, it’s definitely an ambitiously brilliant work.
Record People Magazine
I think that the popularity of vinyl has reached a certain saturation point. People that originally liked vinyl will continue to love the format from now on.
However, it is skeptical as to whether people who have newly purchased analogs in recent years, especially those who find value as things, will continue to be interested in vinyl as a format.
For vinyl beginners, if we do not tell attraction of vinyl other than “value as a thing,” it is a popularity that is difficult to sustain, and I think that acquisition of a new fan base will be also difficult. Also, to realize the goodness of vinyl, listening in a proper environment is also important, so I think that the height of hurdles to having players is a problem to be cleared up.
I often hear the opinion that “I am interested, but it is difficult for me to buy vinyl records because I don’t have a turntable.” In order to meet the needs of those people, the vinyl format with DL card can satisfy various needs.
Our own customers continuously debate digital vs. analog. For many music enthusiasts, vinyl is a format that will never go away. While it may not be a go-to source of music for the masses, more people are discovering the pleasure of vinyl. It is cherished both for its musical quality, as well as its romanticized experience. It simply feels good to play a record. The tactile experience, the ritual, the deliberateness of everything, all make for something more than having a playlist on shuffle streaming.
In terms of the future of the format, there are still many music enthusiasts who are discovering the format, and instantly getting hooked on that experience. On our end, we are projecting solid growth in our turntable category. Since launching, our turntable line has had some of the most explosive growth in our brand’s history. With our customers, we’ve noticed a strong desire to continually upgrade their components as they learn and explore audio as a hobby/passion. People are always researching components, specifications, placement, anything to enhance the audio experience. We are growing with those needs by developing higher-performing turntables that will fulfill those more distinguished tastes.
It is our job to step up to the plate and produce turntables that meet the growing demands of enthusiasts. Consumer demand will hopefully also encourage higher fidelity vinyl pressings leading to a more enjoyable playback experience. Going beyond 2017, the success of the format will be based on continually improving audio playback and providing a superior music experience.
We had some lively debate in the office about [our favorite records of 2017] since we all have very different tastes. A few that stood out: Hans Zimmer – Live in Prague, Gorillaz – Humanz, Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, Rezz – Mass Manipulation, Incubus – 8.
Vinyl Me, Please
Vinyl, in my opinion, is a format that still has a ton of room for growth. For one, I see it as very complimentary to streaming and believe that as streaming continues to grow, vinyl will continue to grow alongside it. I think it could be become the physical format for music. I also think physical is a big part of an artist and label strategy, and with CDs slowly dying, more attention is being given to vinyl as a result. Only superfans are going to make the jump to buying vinyl, and artists can create high quality, customized fan experiences, whether that be touring, or things like what Childish Gambino did with his VR Box Set. On top of all that, there are gear manufacturers that are making getting into vinyl easier than ever, and their products act as blatantly beautiful furniture pieces that are worth owning and putting on display.
However, more abstractly, vinyl offers something that streaming doesn’t: physicality. It allows for a deeper understanding of the music you’re listening to through the tangible connection you have with it. It’s like reading a physical book. It just feels better. You can highlight, you can write in the margins, you can hand it down. The same is true for vinyl. And in a world that is becoming increasingly more digital and our relationships with things and people are becoming ever more abstract, vinyl is a product that soothes the soul. I don’t ever see physical music going away, and I think vinyl will be the format of choice because of this.
Warner Music Group
The vinyl market continued to mature and simultaneously expand AND contract in 2017. We have more subscription outlets. We have more independent music retail shops. We have more storefronts selling vinyl in 2017 than we’ve had since the very early days of the CD. Hard to believe but it’s true. That doesn’t mean that all those storefronts are doing a great job of selling vinyl, but it does mean they are all trying to play a part in the ongoing growth of the format. Not for the sole benefit of the format/lifestyle, mind you, but for their small piece of the coin that the resurgence in vinyl has brought.
Let’s not fool ourselves (the royal “ourselves” which includes all vinylheads, collectors, dreamers and guardians of the lifestyle) into thinking that these added store fronts are going to remain dedicated outlets, to be sure, they will not. Not because they do not see the immediate gain of having vinyl in their marketing but because the overarching direction of physical retail is being pressured downward. I should state, I am not a retail analyst per se but I can read the business sections of the New York Times, BBC News, Business Insider and the like and can read the tea leaves as if I was a trained psychic.
But the core of the business here and around the world will remain. Great indie shops selling the depth and breadth of the format, new releases and catalog and reissues and found sounds and previously unheard and unreleased gems from the collective vaults across the territories. Online sites, both generalist, and specialist as well as their physical storefront divisions. Offerings direct from an artist, their management team and/or their label/distro partners. These three segments will become the steady and load bearing beams for the format for the extended foreseeable future. A grand statement, I know, but an accurate one. As we wrap up 2017 here in the U.S. Indies and Non-Trad make up 87.5% of all vinyl scans. Non-Trad is a rather large bucket that contains mail order and venue sales, online sales and Non-Trad physical sales.
While the Non-Trad segment has certainly shifted some of the business from the Indie sector, what it has really done well is moving vinyl buyers out of the more general physical storefront and into an online environment. And none of this even touches on what’s happening in the Amazon marketplace, eBay or Discogs (or other “like” destinations). Yes, vinyl fans are going to go wherever they need to go to find what they are desiring and as long as we continue to be creative and smart we will see a strong and growing format for years to come.
In 2016 I was on a panel at SXSW discussing the Vinyl Industry and where it would be in 2018. I believed we’d have a 15% growth in 2017 and about the same in 2018 so that by the time we rolled over into the new year of 2019 we’d have sold about 20M full-length albums. Well, 2017 is in the books and the market was up 8.9%, and with that info, I think it’s sensible to predict 2018 will be up somewhere north of 10%. I know, a little short of my original estimates.
However, there were two items in 2017 that make me feel even better about the future: One, Q4 performed better than any Q4 from the last decade with the exception of the boom years of 2013-2015. With the quarter being up 21.4% over 2016, this also means it performed better than any other Q4 in the modern era. Two, Record Store Day 2017 was the biggest event in its history and achieved sales and awareness that solidified the Independent segment as the bastion and destination it has always been for the vinyl fan.
Beyond today, who knows? But I feel good about the work we’re doing and I look forward to another banner year in 2018.
Pigeons & Planes
Talk of vinyl being “the future” or “the past” misses the fact that vinyl has very much been the present for over 50 years. Major labels might have moved to CDs then digital files (and are now coming back around to vinyl), but independent labels never stopped pressing records and selling them to the consumers who cared.
A new generation of record buyers has emerged, however, music fans who grew up in the digital age but who want more than a Spotify playlist or mp3 file. More music is more instantly accessible than ever before via the internet, and consumption for many people seems to have become an exercise in instant gratification—skipping through to the next big hook or slick verse. Buying a record provides a counterpoint to this. It requires an investment of time and money, but rather than a digital file that can be replicated infinitely and immediately you get a physical object, a piece of art.
I would never say there is a better or worse way to listen to music — to each their own — but there is a reason that vinyl has endured, generation to generation, and it goes far beyond economics.
Why vinyl Matters
When I started writing my book, Why Vinyl Matters two years ago, I was met with confusion by the general public (read: my family) about this topic. “What? I have not bought a record in twenty years. But I still have my whole collection of Doobie Brothers and Van Halen albums from the ’70s and ’80s” (this from my aunt). The last part, about holding on to her beloved collection, was delivered with a bit of blissed out nostalgia: she had not tossed the vinyl even during the advent of CDs, as it held so much meaning, memories and well, identity for who she was, who she had become: it was a musical narrative across decades of her life. This is the same aunt who about eight years ago when I went to visit her at Christmas, had “decorated” one of the fir trees in her front yard with disused CDs.
The reason I bring this up is that even at the height of the CD, she never thought of putting her valuable record collection out in the elements; it was too much a part of who she was. And this is why we are just seeing the renaissance of vinyl: the reach of the format is like no other. It harks back to a moment that people of my aunt’s vintage remember, when saving up and buying a record was a BIG DEAL, sharing the music was a ritual and a building of community. But it also opens up what is probably ‘new’ idea to those under 30 — the physical ritual of investing time, space and thought into music, engaging with it instead of it just being the background noise to your daily activities.
A decade or so ago, we were in this self-perpetuating cycle: People were not buying vinyl as the shops that once sold vinyl were closing. Stores were closing because people were not buying. We were still a bit away from well-known websites for the casual buyer to grab a new release or have a cheeky dig for an old favourite – LOOK! I CAN buy Huey Lewis and the News Sports from the comfort of my own living room, right here on Discogs, without the withering judgment of some High Fidelity-esqe clerk.
Vinyl becoming once again more visible reminds the older set, e.g. those that grew up with physical product of how fun, important and well, fulfilling it is to own a format in your hands that has meaning to you. More places stocking vinyl means more opportunities for people to grab that Arctic Monkeys that they may have only had as an MP3. This is the ‘entry’ drug, if you will, for once they have savoured the amazing vinyl experience, they can then step into the B-side, outtakes and collecting world and communities that Discogs offers.
Supermarket giant Sainsbury’s announced that they were going to have their Own Label of vinyl records. Most of my friends were a bit shocked and horrified by this; but I see it as a total opportunity, to bring vinyl back from the incorrect perception of it being an oddity, a fad, the companion to the hipster beard, and into the every day. If your thirty-something can grab a copy of the new Ed Sheeran or take a chance on a new artist as they do their weekly shop, it just opens up the possibility for more vinyl fans, more ‘mainstreaming’ of the format and more people valuing it in its rightly place as the best way to experience music.