Earlier this week, a story did the rounds which prompted some debate in the UK music world.
This is the news from Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA), which suggested digital music had been beaten in sales by that stubborn old minx, vinyl, for the first time since its inception. A rare positive tale of a physical format that’s been sentenced as obsolete, time and time again.
As someone who’s spent their life engrossed in the waxy stuff, it’s a narrative I’m more than happy to ride with. It implies a win for the core roots of the music industry. Unfortunately, it’s also a slightly deceptive statement.
The figures showed UK vinyl sales hit £2.4m in week 48 of 2016, compared to digital sales of £2.1m. Cool, right? In 2015, the vinyl take was effectively half at around £1.2m, while digital sales amounted to £4.4m. So this is a complete reversal.
The tables have indeed turned, but there’s more to this than meets the eye. The difference in retail price is the main factor – an average LP currently sells for around £20, whereas a digital album is about £8; over 50 per cent less.
But what else is going on? The reason for the dramatic decrease in sales of digital music is quite simply down to the explosion of streaming, as it rapidly becomes the platform of choice for consumers. People’s desire to pay money to essentially own a piece of code, without anything tangible attached, has clearly waned.
Aside from the increased availability of online radio options, such as new DIY-broadcast sites (Mixcloud et al), the array of streaming platforms has grown exponentially. There’s a wealth of choice, all easily accessible to anyone on the internet.
That’s not to say vinyl is dead: there is, of course, more to this shifting balance than the chosen preference of audio digestion.
Vinyl sales have grown steadily for the past eight years. While the shutters were nailed down on independent and chain music retail outlets nationwide a decade ago, there has been a gradual reinvigoration in recent years.
Established outlets such as Rough Trade have reported repeated growth in their stores, especially their online offerings (although time will tell whether the effects of an ever-changing exchange rate due to Brexit has long-term impacts on global imports and exports).
A number of new independents have set up shop across the country. The indie label sector has had successes with initiatives such as a global bi-annual Independent Label Market, offering fans the opportunity to buy wares straight from the source.
Campaigns such as the (slightly contentious) annual Record Store Day event have ensured awareness of bricks and mortar shops remains prevalent. Even supermarkets have got on the act, meaning you can grab yourself a Fleetwood Mac album as part of your weekly grocery haul. Outlets ranging from Urban Outfitters to Tiger are also having a punt. Put simply, vinyl isn’t as much of a rarity as it was at the turn of the century.
New lease of life
As a result of that, physical releases once again cater across genres and tastes - beyond long-time collectors, disc jocks and cool kids. Soundtracks and obscurities have been given a new lease of life, due to pristine packaging and limited presses, brought about by labels such as Deathwaltz, Mondo and Finders Keepers.
For retailers who have never stopped selling vinyl, it’s a little laughable when people repeatedly talk of a vinyl comeback. It never really went away. But there’s no doubt there’s been a resurgence in production and accessibility to it, and subsequently a lot more sales.
John Peel once famously said “somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, “listen, mate, life has surface noise”.
And it’s not just vinyl: CDs, though undeniably on the downwards slope a little, have also surprisingly held their nerve, especially during seasonal periods – giving something people can unwrap is just way more appealing than receiving an email with a download code.
There’s also the “peak-2016” factor. The sad loss of legacy artists such as David Bowie and Prince led to a massive volume of purchases from people rebuilding their collections, and/or prompted to complete their catalogues. A morbid statement, but a true one.
Further growth in physical music remains to be seen. Digital formats collectively accounted for 54 per cent of all UK music consumption last year, and it's apparent that the streaming machine will continue to dominate.
But vinyl is going to keep on growing. While the future of the digital download is very much in question, there’s no doubt turntables still have legs. As long as production costs don’t spiral any more than they have been in recent times (hello, weak pound), this is entirely sustainable.
The vinyl industry, though way off its heyday in the eighties, is currently the healthiest it’s been since that time. Ironically, a BBC poll earlier in the year revealed half the vinyl purchased in recent years doesn’t even touch a turntable – it remains shrink-wrapped on a shelf.
But the desire to own physical product is undeniable – be it for nostalgia, cool points, or because it’s just nice to own something you can touch and feel.