Vinyl is Back, But Will You Benefit?
In the past 5 years, more vinyl records have been sold than the total sold in the previous 15 years.
The format has become one of the most hyped products in the music industry, and the trend is only continuing to explode. But vinyl is only growing swiftly among a select demographic, and they’re buying a very specific type of music. If you’re an artist who fits the bill, then vinyl could quickly become one of the most lucrative sources of income for you. But if your music and your brand don’t match what people are buying, then investing in the expensive process of pressing your album to vinyl could leave you broke.
Which are you?
Vinyl is making a comeback, and it’s here to stay.
In 1993, less than 500,000 annual units of vinyl were shipped. Sales languished between 500,000 and 1.5 million units per year for more than 15 years, supported almost entirely by hardcore vinyl fans. But then, in 2008, something happened. Amidst the inexorable march of culture into digital formats, vinyl sales nearly doubled from 1 million to 1.9 million and began a shocking period of annual double-digit growth. Last year, the RIAA reported 13 million units shipped in the United States, and revenues grew from $200 million in 2013 to more than $300 million in 2014. In total, more than 30 million units of vinyl have shipped between 2008 and 2014.
Vinyl’s resurgence isn’t just hype. It’s real, and it’s being fueled by a deep cultural trend towards authenticity. However, even though vinyl’s growth is extremely strong, it’s not reclaiming its place as a dominant listening format in the music industry and it likely never will. It’s very much a niche product, one driven by nostalgia and the most hardcore fans.
As an artist, you shouldn’t automatically jump on the vinyl trend by pressing your album. It’s a big financial risk.
Image Source: Pitchfork
Let’s put the resurgence into perspective. Pitchfork’s graph shows incredible growth in vinyl since 1993. But one look at Business Insider’s chart will reveal that 1993 was the lowest point vinyl ever reached.
Vinyl sales still only count for about 2% of music industry revenue, even post-resurgence. Annual units sold has dropped from more than 500 million in 1978 to the 13 million shipped last year. If you want to be on top of the dominant trend, it’s streaming, which now generates nearly 30% of the music industry’s revenue.
Source: Michael DeGusta for Business Insider
Why is vinyl coming back?
The standard explanation for why vinyl survived beyond the 1990’s is that it just sounds better. Vinyl has a pleasing level of low-level noise and distortion, which often blends a track together more cohesively, and also evokes a twinge of nostalgia. Some noise and distortion is pleasing to the ear, like how many people find the sound of the ocean relaxing. This, plus the extensive additional mastering which must be performed to prepare a track for the vinyl format, contributes to give vinyl its ‘warmth’.
But this isn’t the real reason more people are listening to vinyl now. The format has always had those characteristics, and music online in 2000 was certainly worse than the high-quality files most people can stream today. What’s really going on?
Vinyl is a cultural trend which reaches beyond music.
In an era in which most of our lives are spent on computers and our culture is increasingly consumed as data, people have begun to crave physical, tangible manifestations of the things they love. It’s no secret that music has pulled inexorably away from live instruments into compositions composed wholly (or nearly so) on a computer. Hundreds of thousands of people each year show up to music festivals like Ultra or EDC, in which most songs are composed and performed through computers, and even more people simply watch the festival through video streaming sites like Twitch. Even a modern rock track performed by a 4-piece band is often constructed from Steven Slate drum samples, virtual bass and guitar amplifiers, and vocals run through Melodyne.
We crave authentic experiences, tangible products, and to give the interests which shape our identities a proper sense of importance. In data, everything is equal; but in life, some things matter to us more than others.
Vinyl is the perfect antidote. It’s a physical object you hold in your hands. The music is etched into the record, and the ritual of putting on a record helps ensure that you focus on listening to the music, not just having it on in the background. Records are beautiful; they belong on the walls of your apartment as much as on the turntable. And vinyl has the unique power to both directly refer to pop culture and to remain part of the cultural underground.
Records are symbolic; they are a way to define identity around favorite artists and genres; a way to indicate who you really are. Vinyl will never regain its throne as the standard way people consume their music, but this is a core reason why it’s becoming so popular. Instead of completely displacing the analog medium, digital technologies helped re-contextualize it.
Modern vinyl records are incredibly successful because they completely buy in to the trend of authenticity. They’re almost entirely small-batch, boutique-pressed runs, released as limited editions, collector’s editions, or displayed in iconic and bold colors. And artists can add even more symbolism by pressing the ashes of their lyrics, dirt from their hometown, or even their own blood (in rare cases, as this is generally prohibited by pressing plants) directly into the records. The 50th Anniversary Edition of Kind of Blue by Miles Davis was released in 2009, and contained a translucent blue 180g vinyl record, exquisitely printed pictures, and a richly-illustrated hardcover book about the cultural significance of the album. That’s what the vinyl trend is about — the ability to form an intimate and respectful relationship with an artist who you identify on a visceral level. Vinyl is the best method.
What music sells on vinyl?
Vinyl was kept alive — barely — through the 1990’s and 2000’s by hardcore vinyl fans, who were typically boomers. But it’s the most digital generation of all time that’s driving vinyl’s growth now. Though fans under 35 contribute to 44% of the overall music marketplace, they account for more than 72% of vinyl sales. But more interesting, perhaps, is exactly what they choose to purchase.
The Billboard vinyl charts are dominated by classics, indie rock, folk rock, and hip-hop, R&B, and pop artists with exceptional indie crossover appeal. If you searched Spotify or 8tracks for ‘indie’ playlists, then turned to the Billboard charts, you’d see an incredible similarity. Rock is by far the dominant genre of vinyl, from classics like The Beatles to modern acts like Modest Mouse, who are currently number one. Occasional representatives of other genres do show up, most often hip hop, like Kendrick Lamar’s good kid: m.A.A.d city, R&B like D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, and electronic music like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. However, each of these records has incredible indie crossover appeal.
Should you invest in vinyl?
If you’ve read our earlier posts about streaming music, then you’ll see the value in vinyl immediately. For the right kind of artist, it is the perfect product. It’s intimate, collectible, premium, physical; all things which streaming is not.
But there are a few things to consider before investing in vinyl.
- Vinyl is a niche item, and it’s best suited for niche artists
The people who buy vinyl are most often hardcore fans, willing to shell out a premium for a better experience of your music. This type of fan is also most often found among niche genres and artists. Before you can sell vinyl effectively, you need this kind of fan base.
- Vinyl is best suited to indie genres
There is a specific type of music which vinyl is particularly well-suited for. First, there are physical limitations on vinyl which make accurate bass reproduction nearly impossible. This means that bass-driven genres aren’t often well-suited for vinyl in comparison for midrange-driven genres like rock. And second, the type of music listener who purchases vinyl seems to be more attracted to indie genres. To get an idea of whether or not your music is a good fit, try looking through the Billboard Top 100 Vinyl charts.
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