I have a running argument with an industry colleague who believes that the resurrection of vinyl is nothing but hype.
“It’s a fad,” he keeps saying. “It’s not real. There’s no future in the format. It’s just a matter of time before it dies off.”
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I’ve confronted him with all kinds of industry numbers, hard sales statistics, and endless anecdotes about how vinyl is more popular than it’s been since at least the late 1980s — 1988 was the high water mark — but he won’t budge. He just won’t admit wrong.
Sorry, dude, but I’m about to throw more numbers and research in your face.
We can trace much of the vinyl revival to the establishment of Record Store Day in 2007, a Hail Mary attempt by Eric Levin, Michael Kurtz, Carrie Colliton, Amy Dorfman, Don Van Cleave, and Brian Poehner, a group of Baltimore record store owners desperate to save their dying businesses.
The success of the first event, held on April 19, 2008, took everyone (including artists and labels) by surprise. Vinyl sales have vectored upward ever since with nonstop double-digit year-over-growth.
Record Store Day now extends around the world, with annual events in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the UK, Ireland, Spain, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Japan, and Australia. RSD events have also been held in places like Turkey and South Africa.
The 2018 edition was the most successful. Here are the top-selling records for the week ending April 26, according to Nielsen Music.
- A Perfect Circle – Eat The Elephant
- Neil Young – Tonight’s The Night
- Prince – 1999
- The Doors – Live At The Matrix Part 2
- David Bowie – Bowie Now (RSD special)
- Arcade Fire – Arcade Fire EP
- Pink Floyd – The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn
- Van Morrison – Moondance
- Madonna – Madonna
- Bob Marley & The Wailers – Legend
A total of 27,000 fresh pieces of vinyl were purchased by Canadians that week, an increase from 18,000 the week before. (Keep in mind that we’re only talking about new records. These numbers don’t take into account the sales of used vinyl at record shops, record shows or online purchases through sites like eBay or Discogs.)
Moving south of the border, Nielsen tells us that 733,000 vinyl albums were sold in the US for the week ending April 26, an increase of 190 per cent over the previous week. That marked the second-highest sales week we’ve ever seen, trailing only Christmas sales ending Dec. 21, 2017, when 811,000 records were sold.
Another fact: 588,000 of those 733,000 records were sold through independent record stores. The founders of RSD have to be very pleased with that.
If we look at the U.S. SoundScan vinyl chart, we can get some better perspective on the quantities in which people were buying.
- A Perfect Circle, Eat the Elephant: 6,527 copies sold
- Neil Young, Tonight’s the Night: 5,225
- Sleep, The Sciences: 5,058
- Bruce Springsteen, Greatest Hits: 4,801
- David Bowie, Welcome to the Blackout (Record Store Day special): 4,433
- Pink Floyd, Piper at the Gates of Dawn: 3,829
- Rage Against the Machine, Democratic National Convention: 3,727
- Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, Dylan and the Dead: 3,671
- Prince, 1999: 3,534
- The Cure, Mixed Up (special expanded edition): 3,526
Again, to put things in perspective, if any record sells more than 2,500 copies in a week, it’s cause for celebration.
To find a record that sold fewer than that, you have to go all the way down to #32 for Linkin Park’s which moved exactly 2,483 units. Added together, the Top 50 American vinyl sold 148,023. Excellent. Really, excellent.
“Yeah,” my colleague will say, “but this whole thing is being driven by middle-aged men who still have their Cerwin-Vega speakers from college. When they go, so will vinyl.”
Well, no. According to research by Forbes, a full 50 per cent of new turntable buys are Millennials. The Economist says that 50 per cent of vinyl purchases are made by that same group. Drilling deeper, we find that the 25-35 demo is buying 33 per cent of all new vinyl while those over 50 account for just 18 per cent.
(Again, keep in mind that we’re talking just about new vinyl. While there is no exact number for the sales of used records, the older demo has to be the champion here. I mean, have you been to a record fair? Then again, my record shop buddies tell me that they’re often out of stock of albums like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, because younger customers can’t seem to get enough of them.)
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The biggest single seller of vinyl in the U.S. beyond Amazon? Urban Outfitters, with an 8.1 per cent market share. Its customer base is people 18-24.
Meanwhile, Vinyl Me, Please, a subscription service, reports that a substantial percentage of its members are in their 20s and 30s.
It’s important to note that this group is not driven by nostalgia, since they were too young (or not even yet born) when vinyl was the thing. For a demo that has lived so much of their lives in a virtual world, many of them are craving physical product to own and to interact with. They’re discovering the ritual of listening to a record, from the searching and purchasing to the playing and listening —not to mention things like artwork and liner notes.
It’s not just legacy acts, either. More contemporary artists, like Jack White and Arctic Monkeys, make sure that their releases are available on vinyl from day one. That strategy has been working well.
There can also be a certain snob appeal, too. “See how much I love music? I’m demonstrating it by listening to it using an ancient, inconvenient non-portable format!”
And I hate to get dark, but another reason vinyl continues to be hot is because we’re now losing so many legendary musicians. Every time we lose a Bowie or a Prince — and let’s face it, more deaths are coming — there’s been a rush to buy vinyl as a tangible memento of that artist’s work.
So to my industry friend, you’re wrong about vinyl being a fad. Gen X, Y, and Z is seeing to that.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.