Is the vinyl revival really sustainable?


In 2007, the year that Record Store Day launched, vinyl accounted for 0.1% of the market in music sales and was at an all time low. Now record sales account for 1.5% of the market. While that might not sound like much of a change, it takes on a different kind of significance when you realise that in 2017 vinyl record sales will become a billion dollar industry worldwide for the first time since the 1980’s with actual sales matching record sales in 1991.

It is the only music format that is increasing in sales. Since the first modern vinyl record was pressed by Columbia Records in 1948, it has outlived the 4-track, cassette tape, 8-track, compact disc, MiniDisc, and countless other pretenders. Even the MP3 is dying.

That’s wonderful, right? Maybe. Maybe not. While on the surface, the year on year rise in record sales since 2007 seems like a triumph for physical music sales, not to mention a saviour for record stores worldwide, a deeper look into those sales reveals a number of rather worrying trends. Let me explain my concerns.

People under, let’s say, the age of 24 do not have a physical connection to music. And they’ve never had to make an investment, financially or with their time, to listen to it.

Now this argument will probably garner a lot of flak and make me sound like a particularly cranky old man. It even reminds me of a Grandpa Simpson quote: “I used to be with it, but then they changed what ‘it’ was, and now what I’m with isn’t it. And what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me”. Hell, even my reference to a 90’s TV show makes me seem old. But wait a second and hear me out.

2000 was the best year for revenue from physical music sales worldwide. I was fifteen. Every Saturday a group of friends and I would make the bus trip into the city to venture from record store to record store to buy music with our pocket money. To get a bit of an impression of the importance of our weekly trips you should know that we used to dub them ‘pilgrimages’. To say it was a ritual and near religious for us, would be an understatement. In fact, after buying our CDs we would return to one of our houses and just hang out together and listen to the music we had just purchased. Imagine that.

I remember one occasion in late 1999. The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails and There Is Nothing Left To Lose by Foo Fighters had both very recently been released. Without the money to buy both, I had a tough decision to make. In economics they would call this ‘opportunity cost’. Anyone under the age of 24 has never really been faced with this decision, nor have they had to make a bus trip to access music. This is a trip with requires an investment of time and generates a sense of musical community with your peers. And so, I wager, without those factors, their value of music is entirely different from my own. They may value computer games or sports, where there still exists opportunity cost, in the same way as I value music, but the intrinsic value of music in their lives is undoubtedly different.

vinyl revival
I ended up buying ‘There’s Nothing Left To Lose’. Retrospectively, not the better choice.

The statistics bear this out. Only 16% of vinyl sales are to those 24 and under. Now this could be because they do not have the disposable income to buy vinyl, but I suspect there is more to it than that. What happens as these people grow older? Without a physical connection to music, and without ever having to suffer through opportunity cost to get their hands on music, will they actually buy physical music?

48% of people who buy vinyl do not actually listen to it. It’s just a cool trend.

For many, regardless of age, buying vinyl is a fad. A hip trend. Nearly half of the people who purchase vinyl, never even play it. 7% of purchasers don’t even own a record player! For them, it’s a cool decoration for their house like a rug that really ties the room together. They’re nice pieces that match the curtains or their vintage art prints or purchases motivated by ‘collectibility’.

You need only take note that records are now being sold by uber hip fashion store Urban Outfitters and by quirky household accessories shop Tiger to get an impression of the place of vinyl within the mainstream consciousness. And I’ve no issue with this in theory. People can decorate their homes in any way which they see fit. The problem here is what happens with ‘retromania‘, as Simon Reynolds calls it, goes out of fashion. Obviously, fashion is fickle. What happens when vinyl stops being cool?

vinyl revival
Admittedly, this looks pretty cool.

Vinyl sales are mostly heritage acts.

The top ten best selling records of 2016 were: David Bowie – Blackstar, Amy Winehouse – Back to Black, the Guardian of the Galaxy OST, Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool, Fleetwood Mac – Rumours, The Stones Roses – The Stone Roses, Bob Marley & the Wailers – Legend, Prince & the Revolution – Purple Rain OST, and Nirvana – Nevermind. Out of that top ten, only two are releases that consist of new music. And both of those releases are by artists who one could consider ‘classic’ at this stage.

Why is this concerning? Again, it shows how the revival is mainly based on an obsession with pop music’s recent past. To be honest, ‘pop will eat itself’ has never been a more accurate phrase. As with any cultural movement, there is a savage reaction to it. Punk was a reaction against hippies and the bloated stadium rock of the 70’s, alternative music was a reaction against the frivolousness of the 80’s, and independent cinema was a reaction against the bombastic cinema in the 80’s.

It would not be ridiculous to suggest, that it is possible that there will be a reaction against this obsession with ephemera from our recent past. Perhaps, this vinyl surge is simply the death rattle of traditional music consumption in this truly transitional period for the music industry. I’m hopeful that what’s next will be absolutely revolutionary.

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