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The vinyl resurgence is real, but it won’t save the record industry

Vinyl is an easy savior figure for an embattled industry. But it’s more complicated than that.

Frederick Bass via Getty Images

A vinyl record is breakable: not terribly, but obviously. Pull it from between the sheaths of its cover, and the rings shine. Drop it, and it won’t shatter — but bend it, and it’ll snap. To keep a vinyl record in good condition, to make sure it will last to be a thing that can survive you, you have to be careful with it. You have to appreciate its very existence.

For years, critics and market researchers have treated the vinyl medium’s resurgence in the digital age with the same kind of tentative caution. Connoisseurs are grateful for the format’s return, for the permanence and tangibility it offers. But vinyl’s resurgence is always tinted by a looming question: Is vinyl really back, or is it just a trend?

Vinyl is selling, but it can’t save the industry

For the 11th year in a row, Nielsen Soundscan reported an increase in vinyl albums sold in the United States. Consumers bought 13 million vinyl albums in 2016, an increase of 10 percent over 2015. That’s more vinyl records sold last year than from 2008 to 2012, the heralding of the genre’s comeback, combined. Compare that data with sales of CDs (down 16.3 percent) and digital sales (down 20.1 percent), and vinyl is the only music format with stable sales; everything else is in rapid decline.

The Nielsen Soundscan numbers make clear that the only sector of the music industry that’s succeeding these days is vinyl, which makes it an easy “savior” for a music industry that hasn’t figured out how to make money off streaming as other physical formats continue to decline. Due to the streaming market, artists are making less money off listens to their music than ever before, and major (and minor, indie) labels haven’t figured out how to reliably make money without physical sales. Many of these labels are now pinning their dreams of the profits of yesteryear to these spinning plastic disks that sell at higher prices for nostalgic value.

But the vinyl obsession is still difficult to predict, making it a problematic savior figure.

Using the midyear vinyl numbers in July 2016, Michael Nelson argued for Stereogum that not only have we reached “peak vinyl” but we’d passed it. Nelson looks at the year-over-year increases in percentage sales of vinyl from 2012-’16 midyear reports to show a bell curve (14.2, 33.5, 40.4, 38.40, 11.5), and uses this to argue that the bell curve will continue downward. “If that arc continues on that trajectory (and I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t), vinyl sales are gonna plateau sooner than later,” Nelson argues. “And not long after they plateau, they’re gonna crater.”

Nelson’s not alone in his fear that the vinyl obsession might be a Band-aid to the industry’s profit issues more than a solution. Doomsday rhetoric around vinyl began in 2015 when Marc Hogan wrote a piece for Stereogum titled “Have We Reached Peak Vinyl?” which argues that because the music industry has lost any semblance of an idea for how to make money off art, vinyl is a doomed product.

Both Nelson’s and Hogan’s arguments gloss over a key factor in the life of vinyl records, though.

True vinyl success might not actually be a win for the labels

Both of those Stereogum pieces write about vinyl in the context of the ever-in-danger record store, the majority of which closed fairly quickly over a very brief period of time in the early 2000s. This was a shock to the industry, and signaled a lack of interest that very quickly led to a lack of profit. Without stores to ship new music to, how could consumers find it?

Some of the concern regarding where and how the actual vinyl transaction occurs has been mitigated as major corporations like Amazon begin to offer robust vinyl selections. But all of that vinyl — the vinyl that Nelson’s and Hogan’s articles are concerned with — is newly produced and pressed. And therein lies the complicating factor in vinyl’s supposed savior status.

“What these mainstream stats never capture is the massive secondhand market and independent stores that have never gave up on vinyl,” Dominik Bartmanski, the author of Vinyl: the Analogue Record in the Digital Age, tells me. “That's important, and these sections of the market continue to be important for vinyl's relevance as an economic good, and above all a cultural good.”

Anecdotally, when I think about the vinyl albums I (a music person) bought in 2016, this assertion makes sense. Of the 10 vinyl albums I bought in 2016, I purchased seven of them secondhand at record stores. None of those seven albums got counted in the Nielsen consumer report, and the year-over-year change in percentage of secondhand albums bought isn’t counted at all right now.

A man browses through secondhand records.
Stuart Freedman via Getty Images

My experience isn’t unique, either. Many people buy secondhand vinyl because labels reprint very few older albums. Sure, if you want, say, David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane (a 1973 album), you can buy it as a new edition on Amazon for about $13 — but that’s because Bowie died last year, and consumer interest in his records shot up. But what if you wanted to buy another 1973 album, like Call Me by Al Green? You can buy that on Amazon, but it’ll cost you $43.12. At the secondhand shop in my neighborhood, I found it for $17.89.

Unlike some other formats, vinyl records hold up over time, meaning their secondhand market is pretty well-stocked (not to mention those records that are handed down between generations). To find an obscure or specific album from the original vinyl era, you’ll very likely have to go to a secondhand shop, where it’s been purchased from a previous owner. Under this model, the question then becomes: Which part of the music industry is vinyl expected to save?

Let’s say I take my shiny three-year-old Lana Del Rey Born to Die vinyl to a secondhand store. When I bought it the first time at a concert, everyone made money: Lana, her label, the songwriters and engineers, the people working the booth. But on second sale, only two people make money: me and the owner of the secondhand shop. That’s how all secondhand sales work, but if vinyl’s resurgence is mainly taking place in resale markets — which I’d argue it is — it’s not going to help the industry at large at all.

Vinyl doesn’t seem to be going anywhere

Because the secondhand market is untraceable and doesn’t really make any money for the greater industry, almost all of the focus (both in vinyl-as-savior narratives and in doomsday narratives) is on how well new vinyl is selling. And while it’s selling better than CDs and digital albums, it might not be sustainable for the larger industry.

The discussions around peak vinyl and whether or not vinyl will continue to boom often circle around a deeper, greater fear: that the music industry is broken in a way that cannot be fixed. Because the industry is still largely controlled by major labels, and there is no clear way to pay artists for work that is streamed hundreds of thousands of times, only to make them a few hundred dollars, vinyl has become a false messiah for an industry that’s forgotten how to make a profit.

“The drop-off in CD sales after the industry’s 1999 peak coincided not only with Napster but an early-2000s U.S. recession; meanwhile, real wages for Americans on average have barely budged in decades,” Hogan wrote for Stereogum. “To a degree, the fate of the current vinyl boom is inextricable from what happens to the broader economy.”

Employees at Erika Records work in the record pressing plant in Buena Park, California.
Frederic J. Brown /AFP/Getty Images

To a degree, Hogan is right. During the next recession, consumers will probably buy fewer $20 vinyl records, just like they will buy less organic food, and fewer hardcover books, and less bespoke fashion. But that doesn’t mean those trends will die, or even that they won’t be able to recover. In the last US recession (in 2009), for example, book sales took a huge hit that some stores, like Borders, never recovered from. Since the economy has recovered, book sales have returned — and, as with vinyl, they’ve mainly returned to independent and secondhand stores.

One thing is clear: Vinyl is not going to fix the greater problems with pay in the music industry. But that doesn’t mean vinyl itself is dying.

“I do not think the rekindled interest in vinyl is a passing trend, or a mere retro fashion or a short-lived vintage craze,” Bartmanski tells me. “If mainstream demand continues to grow, new pressing machines can be built, and prices are likely to grow too; if it plateaus and stays at this relatively healthy level, it means it can live on, certainly in cities with vibrant music cultures.”

The resurgence in vinyl, as Bartmanski’s book argues, doesn’t just show us something about the music industry; it shows us something about ourselves. “Music is more than data, more than convenience,” Bartmanski says. “Vinyl's an equivalent of quality slow food in music consumption.”

And that seems to make all the difference in whether people perceive vinyl as thriving or dying: satisfaction. According to Bartmanski, people buy vinyl because it sounds different (not better, just different), and because it’s an object they can hold in their hands. Consumers are attracted to vinyl because they like the big-format art covers, and they like to keep the music in their collection. Sometimes they even buy vinyl just because they like how fragile it is. Just because the format can be broken doesn’t mean it will.

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