Kanye West famously tweeted earlier this year that CDs are dead, and his last album design was meant to resemble “an open casket to CDs”. While Kanye is a little premature with his death sentence, CD sales did continue to fall in 2015 at 17 percent, according to the RIAA. CD’s bulkier, older brother vinyl however sold 17 million copies, despite being pronounced dead in 1988.
That marks 10 straight years of sales growth in vinyl album sales, according to Nielsen. Vinyl is becoming a viable revenue stream again for artists, and it’s had a major impact on how artists sell their music.
If you’ve been in an Urban Outfitters or went to a show in the past 10 years you’re well aware of this trend. By surpassing ad supported streaming revenue last year, according to the RIAA, vinyl sales are clearly not just a fad. Streaming and digital downloads still make up the majority of how people listen to music these days, making up close to 70% of revenue for the music industry. Vinyl however has had a huge impact on physical music sales, and has started to push out CDs even more than digital already has.
“We have a hard time pushing CDs at shows anymore,” said Brad Commers, a merchandise rep at the Old National Centre in Indianapolis. “If we do sell them it’s typically to the older crowds. The kids are buying vinyl even though it’s often double the price.”
Amazon Sales Support Vinyl
Browsing through Amazon’s vinyl collection online (the number one seller of vinyl, according to Billboard), it’s obvious that even online prices are drastically higher. Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy winning LP from this past year is listed at $15 for the CD, and $25 for the vinyl copy.
“The prices are steep, I’ll never argue against that, but I thought it might be a cool way to sort of relish and show off my favorites. I get them a lot at shows and it’s cool to look back and see what concerts I’ve gone to,” said Andy Buckley, a record collector in Minnesota. “CDs to me aren’t really something you can show off. Vinyl feels more authentic to me and almost like a souvenir.”
Memorabilia At It’s Finest
One thing that’s remained consistent throughout music’s evolution is live performances. Fans are immersed with their favorite musicians. The music is more raw, unclean and sort of a mess in the perfect way. Every show is different and it’s an experience that fans can’t replicate. Whatever the type of music is being played, it’s a significant event for those who came to see the artist perform.
“Live shows are events I never want to forget. Vinyl’s a great memento because a lot of times I’ll get the artist to sign my copy and hang it up in my room”, said Buckley.
This feeling of authenticity associated with vinyl is one that a lot of record collectors share, and was a huge component of the widely popular unofficial holiday, Record Store Day.
“Record Store Day is a day to show all fans of music that true interest and artistry can co-exist with retail and still have a personal touch,” said Zak Frankel of Zia Records.
Every year around Mid-April, a coalition of independent record stores across the U.S. unites to promote vinyl, as well as music in general. This year even artists like Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift supported the event. They both released vinyl copies of their most recent albums on the holiday, according to the Record Store Day Association. That’s just one example of the hundreds of artists releasing and re-releasing vinyl albums on Record Store Day. Fans of the recently deceased David Bowie can find re-released limited edition copies of his earliest albums. The Doors, Bob Dylan, and even more current artists like The All American Rejects, The Flaming Lips and Mac Demarco are releasing vinyl copies of past and newer albums.
With a mixture of artists from past and current generations, Record Store Day exemplifies vinyl’s versatility across demographics. Even albums released purely online, like Kanye West’s most recent album “The Life of Pablo,” were copied onto vinyl and the bootlegged albums were sold on Record Store Day, according to Modern Vinyl. CDs never got this cross generational effect, partly because of the release of digital downloading software so early in their lifespan. According to the RIAA, a huge portion of music listeners missed CDs completely because of digitals introduction. The first form of physical music they’re seeing is vinyl.
“Spotify’s made it too easy to get music for free, but I’m partial toward vinyl when I purchase music. It sounds better and it’s more of a collectable thing,” said Jake Reiss, 18, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
CDs Aren’t Going Away
CDs are still sold widely at record stores however, and even with vinyl’s resurgence they make a significant impact on revenue.
“We wouldn’t be in business without them,” said Jason Nickey, owner of Landlocked Record Store. As for why people buy them, there are a variety of reasons, likely some combination of they are affordable, portable, and you can do whatever you want with the files.”
Nickey brings up CDs versatility, something that vinyl can’t match when it comes to cross platform applications. If you wanted to share a vinyl album with a friend, you have to of course go and hand it to them yourself. CDs are cheap, easy to share, and much smaller than vinyl making them more portable.
Both have their pros and cons, but when it comes to the fall of CDs and vinyl’s resurgence Nickey raises a critical point. “The things people say today about CDs are the exact same kinds of things they said about vinyl 20 year ago. They wanted you to ditch your vinyl then just like they want you to ditch your CDs now. So that you have to buy them again in whatever current form they’re hawking.”
While his bias against the record labels is evident, he’s of course correct when pointing out music’s ever evolving nature. RIAA data shows that music industry revenues are almost perfectly segmented right now. 34 percent of revenue comes from digital downloads, 34 percent from streaming and 29 percent comes from physical music sales. This will undoubtedly change over time, but vinyl’s recent growth has at least kept physical albums competitive. For those out there like Jason Nickey that equate the lack of realness of mp3s and streaming to “phone sex,” that’s good news.