There is no better way to get traffic to your website than to copy-and-paste a glowingly optimistic story about the vinyl resurgence. I know, I’ve done it before.
It seems that even people who don’t touch vinyl records are cheered by what has become not just the resurrection of a once “obsolete” medium, but an unprecedented one. In the march of technology from wax spools to shellac records to streaming, there had not been one example of a format being left for dead and returning to widespread circulation (with cassette tapes, there may now be two).
And there are lots of glowingly optimistic stories to copy-and-paste about vinyl. The numbers seem fantastic if you look at percentages. According to Nielsen, the RIAA and everyone that keeps track of such things, the vinyl market isn’t just recovering – it’s exploding. Nielsen claims sales of vinyl LPs are up nearly 20% in the first half of 2018. That is a huge leap. The RIAA meanwhile claims vinyl sales as a whole jumped 13% (PDF) over the same period.
This is all good news, but it’s good news that has almost nothing to do with you and me.
What most people don’t realize is that the “vinyl revival” is very, very small, and that contrary to everything we’ve read (and copy-and-pasted), it may have hardly touched the dance music industry at all.
(Boomer) Rock’N’Roll Will Never Die
In September, there was considerable alarm about a report from a site called Thinknum, which crunched the publicly available data from a single large vinyl retailer (Best Buy). Their findings were not cheery and optimistic, which is why you maybe didn’t read about them.
Thinknum’s data revealed that not only were vinyl sales going down – they had already collapsed. Best Buy’s sales showed a gigantic peak in January 2017, followed by a steady decline in the 18 months since.
This was quite shocking, given the relentless drumbeat of positive sales numbers that pour out of industry groups and into your Facebook feed.
The dire prophecies from vinyl lovers about the “vinyl crash” have been so persistent that it’s actually gotten kind of annoying.
Attempts to debunk the Thinknum piece pointed out that Best Buy’s customers were mostly buying standard Boomer Rock records – The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Journey, and other staples from the ’60s and ’70s. And they were. But what do you think the vinyl best-sellers of 2018 look like? Across the board, and almost without exception, the “vinyl boom” has traded on exactly the sort of records that Best Buy sold a lot of.
Take Discogs.com’s own Top 30 (PDF) – the most popular 30 records sold on the site in the first half of 2018 – which contains many of the same records as Best Buy’s inventory. In fact, Best Buy’s selection is actually more modern than Discogs’. Discogs’ Top 30 chart, for instance, does not contain a single record released in the last 25 years. Not one. The most recent appears to be Nirvana’s Nevermind, released in 1991. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon appears at the top, and Pink Floyd – perhaps the essence of ’70s Boomer Rock – released four of Discogs’ current Top 11 most popular records. The top 10 “new album sales” at Discogs underline the dominance of Boomer Rock in the vinyl boom, featuring largely reissues and new records from artists that peaked decades ago, such as Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, Bowie and Springsteen.
Thinknum also outlined what they called a “Christmas surge” – a spike for the sales rank of vinyl among Best Buy’s inventory. This makes complete sense to me. Thinknum mentions that these titles sound like “a vinyl starter kit” – but they sound to me like the kind of thing kids would buy for “the dad who has everything.” In the past, one might have visited at the same shop and walked away with a DVD, or gone to a book store across the mall. Instead of buying their parents a Led Zeppelin coffee table book, they’re buying them the $20.99 deluxe remastered edition of Physical Graffiti.
In a story released just last week, Billboard once again crowed that vinyl sales were booming – and nearly all of the top selling artists are Classic Rock artists: The Beatles, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Queen. Panic! At the Disco, Metallica and Michael Jackson are the only artists on the top 10 in sales that didn’t peak in the ’70s.
The biggest impact on dance music has been a significant takeover of the once booming bootleg market by legit, major label releases.
Back Catalog vs Bootlegs. Guess Who Wins?
Predicting the “vinyl crash” is almost a hobby among those who, paradoxically enough, loved the medium first, will love it last and love it always. The dire prophecies from vinyl lovers about the “vinyl crash” have been so persistent that it’s actually gotten kind of annoying.
Talking to industry folks this month (in our part of the industry, that is – dance music and people that sell it) tells a different story from the sales reports and breathless press releases. I hear from some friends how labels that used to sell 300 copies of a new techno release are now struggling to sell 200 in a similar timespan. The big records still sell, but the numbers haven’t “boomed.” Distributors aren’t going broke as frequently as they once were (the dark ages of the mid-’00s, when seemingly every day brought news of bankruptcy filings, padlocked offices and warehouses), but they’re still going broke.
Ironically, the “vinyl boom” and the major labels’ renewed interest in the format may actually have hurt sales in the underground in a very specific way: by capturing much of the market for bootlegs and, uh, “unofficial releases.” A number of classic disco labels (or rather the major labels that own their masters now) have taken notice of the desirability of their back catalog and packaged up what used to be bootlegs as legitimate reissues.
In the past, “major label reissues” were usually pretty awful affairs. Now, these often come with quality remixes by both established and up-and-coming producers that rival the bootlegs of yesteryear. (And bootlegs, you may have noticed, have also become harder to sell after probably not unrelated legal pressures.) It’s not a huge market for them, but it’s a revenue stream, and they seem interested in working it for all it’s worth.
Major labels have hired some very smart people who are making the calls on remix records now, shifting money that once circulated in the underground into the coffers of Sony. And – if you want to believe this – the original rights-holders.
People (and Labels) Die of Exposure
This may sound pessimistic. It’s really not. If dance music is outside of the boom/bust cycle limits exposure to a wide audience, but also limits exposure to massive losses. Today, not so many underground labels are facing the kind of catastrophic losses suffered in the last big vinyl crash in the early-’00s. There are mechanisms like Bandcamp to sell independently. The scene is larger, even if a couple hundred records are about the limit for most releases. Sometimes health is more important than growth.
There is significant evidence that there are more new underground house and techno records being pressed than there were 10 years ago, and if sales are down it’s likely because of a glut of product outstripping demand – there are more producers than there are DJs to buy them at the moment. Our scene is like that: it ebbs and flows. Stick around long enough and you’ll see both happen to you.