By Jack Sharkey
This year will be the best year for vinyl sales in a long, long time. Total vinyl sales in 1993 were around 250,000 units (in the US), and will top out a little over 6 million this year.
In other news, even though most people assume the CD is dead, CD sales were 165 million units against 118 million for digital album sales. Digital retailers really want you to believe the CD is dead, but so far, it's only just slightly wounded.
As for vinyl, 6 million units compared to 165 million and 118 million isn't much, and with less than 2% of total sales comprising vinyl, it's easy to write off the numbers as just the reflection of a hipster fad that will eventually go the way of painfully skinny jeans and humongous, fantastically groomed beards. But there are many of us who believe it's more than a fad.
In the last twenty years if you wanted to own a business with flat growth in the best of years and steeply declining revenue in every other year, you would have owned a record pressing plant. That's why by the dawn of this century there were only half a dozen or so pressing plants in the US cranking out vinyl for DJs and the occasional nostalgia piece. There are now sixteen plants nationwide, and most of them are running three shifts a day, seven days a week to keep up with demand. Nashville's United Record Pressing plant just added sixteen new presses to keep up with demand. If the vinyl resurgence is just a fad there are an awful lot of people investing an awful lot of money in it.
There is no doubt CD sales are in a steady decline, but one trend being overlooked is the decline in sales of digital albums. Streaming services like Pandora and Spotify are definitely responsible in some part for this, but to say that streaming is single-handedly killing the physical product market might be a tad short-sighted. CDs and digital are dropping while vinyl is increasing almost exponentially. That speaks volumes to me.
In 2013, digital singles dipped just under 6%. Granted even with the dip, 1.26 billion singles were sold, but it's still interesting to note that this year for the first time since the launch of iTunes in 2003, sales have declined. In the US, CDs comprise 57% of all sales while digital albums make up 40%. The other two-plus percent is shared between vinyl and that bastion of horrible fidelity – the cassette.
Comparing sales in 2012 to sales in 2013:
• Digital albums fell from 316 million units to 289 million (- 8.4%)
• CD sales fell from 193 million to 165 million (- 14.5%)
• Vinyl rose from 4.55 million to 6 million (+ 32%)
The music industry is not dying a slow and painful death. The sales are still there (as are the income streams), they're just different now: Most industry insiders acknowledge the decline in physical product is offset by the increase in subscription and ad-supported streaming services. When I was a kid we called that "radio." Streaming services will provide the same vital function your mom's little transistor radio provided fifty years ago, but it's kind of naive to assume that streaming will become the only way we listen to music.
But Maybe It's About the Sound
In my research for this piece I came across more than two "audio" blogs who scoffed at vinyl because of its fragile nature and inherent noise. One audio blogger even explained to me that mp3 was a better format! (Even though it's on the Internet kids, it's not always true, so be careful who you read). There are problems with every playback method to some extent, and quite frankly, I haven't been to a live performance in a long time where I was totally happy with the sound. That's the nature of the musical beast.
My view on listening to music is that I live in the real world, along with other people, cars, dogs and airplanes that fly over my house on their way to the local Air Force base. Music is emotional and not logical so it shouldn't be that hard to assume we can listen past the imperfections of everyday life to get at the core of what we're listening to. Do I want the very best listening experience my environment and equipment can provide? Absolutely, but I don't want music to be anti-septic, I want it to be real. That's one reason why I'm a fan of vinyl.
A lot of folks are downplaying the increase in vinyl sales as the result of a mere fad, but since every format is flawed in some way, maybe we should look at the increase in vinyl sales as the result of people who truly love music finding out that they prefer vinyl over the other formats. Maybe people have become over-technologized and their antidote is the imperfection (and beauty) of an analog record. It doesn't have to make sense to the bloggers and critics and the stuffy people of the world, it just has to make sense to the people buying the product.
So, Maybe There's More To This Than Just The Desire To Look Cool To Our Friends
Unless they're being manipulated for nefarious purposes, numbers don't lie (I've been wanting to use 'nefarious' for like three months, but the word never really comes up when talking about audio and music).
Sure vinyl sales are a mere drop in the bucket when compared to CDs and digital, but you cannot deny a 32% increase in anything. Is it possible we're moving toward streaming for our casual listening (we used to call it 'radio') and back to vinyl for our serious listening? Is it possible people are becoming interested once again in serious listening? Maybe there's room for every format and – wait for it – maybe the choice of how we listen can be left solely to us and not the experts. I know that's technological blasphemy, but it may also simply be true.
Let's take a look at the experience we have when we listen to vinyl:
• You get to hold a physical product that gives an actual connection (however tenuous) to the artist who created it
• You have to get up after around 22 minutes to flip the album over
• Skipping from track to track is a bit of a pain so you're more likely to listen to an entire musical statement by an artist rather than just the songs you really, really like
• We hear in analog, including all the bits of air and space that we don't even know are there, so maybe we're able to make a deeper connection to the music
Physically, when we download a song, we have no more connection to it than we do all of those people we are 'connected' to on Facebook. When I really want to connect with a friend, I go to a bar and sit and talk (until he starts checking his phone, then I just get annoyed and leave). When I really want to connect to a song, I want to be immersed. I want to listen. I want to hold a record sleeve and read notes and look at pictures. My computer is a poor substitute for that experience.
Because the remote control has been removed from the equation, I'm a captive audience to what is playing. By being a captive to the music, I get the full emotional experience the music was intended to give to me.
Since I can't skip tracks (easily) the music I'm listening to needs to be good all the way through. I save the singles for my Spotify account and iTunes, but vinyl reminds me of the joy a really good set of music can bring.
I contend that eventually science will overcome the truly discernable difference between analog and digital and account for that difference, but for now its there and you can't ignore it.
Technology Schmektology, I'm A Human Being Dammit
I just gave you four reasons why vinyl may be on the increase, and even though they have very little to do with listening technology, they are valid reasons. They are human reasons.
But to me, the greatest part of the vinyl experience was and always will be, the trip to the store and the search for the record, followed by the rubbing of the plastic cover on my jeans to open the record up so I could put it on the platter and the drop of the needle.
And lastly, have you noticed, back in the days of vinyl you listened to music with other people and now you pretty much just listen to it by yourself while you're doing other things?
We're social animals and we thrive on shared experience. That's why NFL stadiums are generally full in spite of the weather or the record of the team (sorry Oakland and Jacksonville, you weren't part of this survey). Football is much better on television but somehow, sitting next to some drunk guy who drinks milkshakes and beer and then belches in a horrifically unnatural manner throughout the game (true story) is more desirable than sitting on your couch eating nachos while your dog stares at you.
Maybe we're getting a little tired of all the 'i' in our music and we're missing the 'we."
To me, that was the single greatest thing I lost when technology took over my music.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and not necessarily those of KEF or its employees.