How Vinyl Got Its Groove Back: In 2017, Vinyl Is Predicted to Be a Billion-Dollar Industry Again
Don’t call it a comeback.
Diehard fans of vinyl records and niche audiophiles are a committed bunch who have stood by the format for decades, and their numbers are growing. Nielsen Music began measuring LP sales in 1991, and last year marked an all-time high in that metric. Sales of new vinyl reached 13 million units in 2016, and Deloitte has projected that vinyl sales in 2017 will near $1 billion — the first time vinyl would hit that mark since 1985.
“It has become cool to collect vinyl. There are even people buying vinyl who don’t have turntables,” said John Simson, program director for the Business and Entertainment Program in the Department of Management at American University.
Call it the vinyl revival. Call it the dust and groove renaissance. Call it what you will: America seems to be enjoying the physical format of LPs once again, falling in love with the hisses and pops that digital music has eliminated. The music industry is rising to the occasion to meet demand.
This vinyl renaissance was helped by Record Store Day, which began in 2008 as a way to put the spotlight on independent record stores. The annual event seeks to promote brick-and-mortar music shops through special vinyl and CD releases issued by an array of artists. The holiday for music lovers has grown to include 1,400 participating independent stores in the United States and thousands more globally.
Record Store Day will celebrate its 10th anniversary on April 22, and the event’s website lists all of this year’s releases. Some notable entries include Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition cut “Ain’t It Funny,” a Run the Jewels record tote bag, The Atomic Bomb Band performing the Music of William Onyeabor, Big L’s Devil’s Son EP (From the Vaults), and Soul Jazz’s Nigeria Soul Power 70: Afro-Funk Afro-Rock Afro-Disco.
“There are certain genres that lend themselves to vinyl releases—certainly indie rock, EDM, hip-hop,” Simson said.
Vinyl’s revival is still a small slice of the pie compared to overall music sales, but the upward growth is impressive. While vinyl has been on a steady uptick in recent years, nearly all other formats have been steadily declining. That’s a significant trend, especially considering vinyl sales peaked all the way back in the disco era.
The Recording Industry Association of America reports a record 344 million LPs and EPs were sold in 1977. The format experienced a sudden decline in popularity between 1988 and 1991, when the major label distributors restricted their return policies and began charging retailers more for new releases if they returned unsold vinyl. Retailers responded by only ordering popular titles they knew would sell, starting a domino effect. Record labels mostly stopped producing new vinyl. Pressing plants closed due to the lack of production demand. By 2006, vinyl revenues were at the lowest point in history.
Speed up the record to recent years. In 2015, sales of vinyl records were up 32 percent to $416 million, their highest level since 1988, according to the RIAA, surpassing on-demand ad-supported streaming services such as YouTube, Vevo and Spotify's free service. Vinyl revenue will likely never exceed paid subscription services and internet radio services like Pandora, but that’s OK. Records keep spinning.
Vinyl's return to glory is the result of many factors. The way people discover music is changing as the internet makes it easy to find more musical styles and formats than ever before. The boost in vinyl sales is part of a wider shift in business and demographic trends.
There are a lot more places to buy vinyl these days. In addition to indie stores, larger retailers are getting involved, with Urban Outfitters and Barnes & Noble and even Whole Foods selling vinyl in an effort to connect with younger audiences and diversify their product offerings. Consumers in their 20s and early 30s are discovering old-school albums, falling in love with physical formats of music, and seeking out a way to differentiate their music habits.
“It’s also the quality of the sound. I have students who are majoring in audio engineering or audio technology who say vinyl has a warmer sound, and I think that’s probably true,” Simson said. “The vinyl industry revenues are tiny compared to the rest of the industry, but it’s certainly growing due to many factors.”
Simson further points to the growing interest in DJ culture from young people as a driver of vinyl popularity growth. He also points out that musicians such as Jack White and his company, Third Man Records, have played a major role in reviving the medium. But will the vinyl trend continue?
“I don’t think vinyl is coming back to the point where you’ll see sales back at their record highs, but it’ll likely stay pretty healthy going forward,” said Simson. “Urban Outfitters was one of the first retailers to embrace the trend, and they’ve done well with it. And now, as a result, there are more places to buy records and more artists are thinking about vinyl releases.”