CD sales are down but record sales are up. Vinyl, long written off by the industry as obsolete, has been experiencing a renaissance of sorts over the last several years, with vinyl sales on the increase, steadily building in momentum over the past few years. In 2007 there was an estimated 15% increase in sales of new records just from the year before.
And it's not just DJs who are buying records these days. Nor is it just fans of hip-hop/rap and electronic/dance music -- the two genres most associated with vinyl -- but fans of other types of music, including different sub-genres of rock and experimental, among other genres. Additionally a lot of music fans, especially young fans who are tired of MP3s, are discovering the superior warmer analog audio quality of vinyl pressings -- be it on a 7" single or full-length 12" album.
In some cases artists or labels are pressing up vinyl-only releases, often as a way to beat the current rampant free-downloading of MP3 files. But even with a lot of vinyl releases, the record label includes free MP3s such with the new Cornelius vinyl copy of his Gum 12" EP on Everloving/Warner which comes with a printed card in its jacket containing information on the link to MP3 versions of the same songs on the vinyl just purchased.
"A lot of people appreciate the whole aesthetic of vinyl. There is something permanent about the LP format that they really like. With MP3's, even with CDs, there is a disposability with the format," offered Chris Curtis of Hollywood Amoeba Music, where he is a vinyl point person between the floor and warehouse -- overseeing many smaller genres but getting a good overall grasp of the state of vinyl in 2008 with music fans. "To kids that were born after 1990, the LP was dead," said Chris, "but you see a lot of kids coming in to buy vinyl. I think there is a certain coolness connected with it."
So who exactly digs in the vinyl crates at Amoeba Hollywood? "You see tons of teenagers in the section...you see as many teens as baby boomers and then Gen X, and fewer older people," according to Chris. And what is being sold? With new releases it is a lot of indie rock stuff but with used it could be anything, according to Chris. Some artists or titles just always fly out the door. "We can never keep the Smiths or the Cure (on vinyl) in stock. But people prefer the older original pressings." Other artists with new releases on vinyl selling briskly include Radiohead, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, and most new English indie rock artists, which "9 times out of 10 will be pressed up on vinyl," noted Chris, adding that a lot of new indie rock LP releases also contain a free CD disc of the same music inside.
But while indie rock and other new genres continue to build in numbers of new releases been pressed up, ironically hip-hop, the DJ driven genre that once lead the way in all things new on vinyl pressings, has slowed down a bit in both new pressings and customer interest of late. Hip-hop buyer Luis at the San Francisco Amoeba Music store noted "a decrease of new vinyl (sales), but used vinyl is doing pretty well. Basically with hip-hop vinyl there is no middle ground. It's either in low demand or huge demand. There are still collectors searching out and buying classics," he said, and those records will always sell well it seems.
I also talked about this vinyl renaissance with Fabio who owns and runs the indie music shop Earwax Records in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, asking him many of the same questions I put to Chris at Amoeba Hollywood. Fabio had a lot of good stuff to say so I have included it all below, starting with his answer to my question about who is buying records these days?
FABIO @ EARWAX RECORDS: All sorts of people are coming in to buy records lately. The big chunk seems to be a lot of younger people, say 18-30 crowd. I think it's partly a fad and partly that they are actually getting SOMETHING for their money which they can hold and refer to. There are also a fair amount of foreigners coming through to get deals with their Euros, Kronar, etc... I know this is in a way looking backwards, and to be honest, it's hard to say that this will last, but for the moment, there is a real interest in vinyl.
Some people that come to buy it are obviously DJs, whether pro or otherwise is not a concern, but the fact that they are using it not in a casual way is something important to consider. Collectors and music fans buy it because they think they are getting a better deal than paying for an MP3 or even a CD which clearly does not sound anything like a record.
The sad truth about this however, is that most newly issued LPs/vinyl and all or most re-issues are mastered from some digitized copy of the master (or a copy of a copy of a copy of the master...). In essence, they are getting a digitized recording on an analog medium. In some ways, this is a defeat of both mediums, but in another way, it maintains the illusion that vinyl lives on and the hope that true analog to analog recordings can still be had (they can, it's just very expensive). It also keeps things alive for fans of analog sound (being able to get needles for turntables, turntables, cartridges, records themselves are still traded briskly, etc.). Anyone who really listens to records will know how much pleasure they get from putting down a needle on a freshly cracked lp from the jacket. It is a unique experience, certainly a far way off from punching up an MP3 on an iPod....
How long will this trend last? Difficult to say. I think it will depend greatly on the younger generation to decide which way they want to look and listen to this. Another factor is IF they ever figure out a way to make MP3s or some other as yet un-devised format/medium that can handle and reproduce a full-spectrum sound wave similar or better in quality to an lp (or at the very least a CD), then things may take yet another course.
The way I look at it is this: records are akin to movies. Watching movies in a theater is a singular experience. Watching the same movie on TV is sort of like listening to a cd version of that record, and watching a movie on an iPod or similar hand-held device is like listening to an MP3: these are incompatible experiences and no one can claim to have had otherwise, they are fooling themselves if they think otherwise.
-- That was Fabio of Earwax Records talking with Amoeblog. Earwax is located at 218 Bedford Ave. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY 11211 (718) 486-3771.
There have also been several recent mainstream news stories on this topic including one by CBS News and another by NPR that ran a couple of days ago on the program Marketplace that included quotes from Hollywood Amoeba Music's Jason Moore. Listen to the clip archived here.
Thanks for reading and please add any thoughts or observations on the topic of vinyl in the COMMENTS below.