News about the music industry is almost unfailingly grim, from plummeting profits to plunging sales figures. Between 2006 and 2007, overall sales revenue sank almost 20 percent.
Amid the bleak news of declines, however, some facets of the music industry’s sales are trending upward. Consumers purchased over 200 million more digital downloads in 2007 than the year before, while another medium’s sales are also climbing—vinyl records.
After ten consecutive years of declining sales figures, retailers sold over one million vinyl records in 2007, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, more than a 35 percent increase from the year before. While vinyl accounts for less than one percent of all recorded music sales, a medium many people considered long dead is actually on the rise. It’s being called the vinyl revival.
“The market’s just exploding the last few years,” said Tim Livingston, director of sales and publicity at Sundazed, which re-issues classic albums on vinyl. “With everything about the music industry, last year was our best year.”
One factor driving the upswing in vinyl record sales is a deal offered by many record labels that release new music on vinyl: Purchase the record, and you can download the tracks in mp3 format for free.
“I think it’s been a huge factor in the revival of vinyl sales,” Patrick Amory, the general manager of Matador Records, wrote in an e-mail. Other record company personnel agreed that the program has been a success.
Merge Records receives “lots of enthusiastic messages filled with capital letters and exclamation points” from customers who take advantage of the offer, Wilson Fuller, the digital assets manager, wrote in an e-mail.
Matador Records and Merge Records both reported an upswing in vinyl sales between 2006 and 2007. Amazon, the Internet’s largest retailer, opened a separate site for selling vinyl in October 2007 that offers over 150,000 titles.
Vinyl LPs, or Gramophone records—named after the German company that pioneered their manufacture in the late 19th Century—were the dominant medium for distributing recorded music during most of the last century. For years, vinyl records withstood challenges from eight-track tapes and compact cassettes, remaining a popular medium of recorded music until, finally, the compact disc supplanted it in the late 1980’s. But vinyl never went away altogether; since the late 1980’s, record labels have continued to release new and old albums on vinyl for the consumption of a loyal stock of supporters, such as DJs, collectors, purists and audiophiles.
In the last year, though, sales figures have shot up as more and more listeners have come to appreciate the advantages of the LP. The free mp3 download offer helps LPs approach something like convenience, a feature it sorely lacks in the face of mp3 players that, while not much larger than 45-adapters, can hold boxes worth of seven-inch singles.
New vinyl records, such as the latest albums from indie rock acts like Spoon and the National, come with a small paper ticket that includes a web address and a unique access code. Using the code, the consumer is permitted to download the album from the record company’s website to their computer; then they can burn the mp3 files to a CD or upload them to their portable mp3 player.
Merge is recognized as the first company to offer the free mp3 downloads when it included the offer with The Clientele’s “Strange Geometry” in October 2005.
“We thought it’d be cool for people buying vinyl to be able to listen to the records in their car or on their iPod,” Merge’s Fuller wrote in an e-mail. “We love vinyl, but understand its limitations in playback and portability.”
Since then, many other independent record labels have followed suit.
“There was an excellent press release by Matador when they announced their similar program,” Fuller wrote, “which was something to the effect of, ‘Yes, Merge did it first, but if Merge discovered air first, we’d still all breathe it’—except, phrased better than that.”
Vinyl has its setbacks, as even many of its most ardent supporters would admit: it’s not portable, it scratches easily, the general listener can’t record her own and it’s impossible to share with friends who don’t have a turntable—and difficult to share even with those who do.
The free mp3s component solves these problems; some writers have surmised that the combo, working together, could defeat the CD’s hegemony of the music market. (“Vinyl May Be Final Nail in CD’s Coffin,” read a headline in Wired.) People talk about CDs these days as though they’re newspapers: a dying, old-fashioned medium soon to be replaced by an invention of the latest digital revolution. That day, though, would likely be a long way off as CD sales still account for nearly 72 percent of recorded music revenues, according to figures from the Recording Industry Association of America.
Vinyl records are more costly to produce than CDs and they are priced accordingly. As of this writing, the manufacturer’s suggested retail price of the Arcade Fire’s “Neon Bible” was $14.98 on CD and $21.98 on vinyl. The offer of free mp3s might make the records seem like they are worth the extra money, particularly as the customer won’t have to buy the CD or the mp3s—or download them illegally—if she wants to put the album on her mp3 player.
Vinyl fans cited several reasons to account for the medium’s increased popularity beyond the mp3 offer, including nostalgia.
“There’s definitely a romance with it,” Livingston said.
Others point to aesthetic reasons.
“The vinyl is usually the version the artist cares most about,” Amory wrote, “so you’re getting the record the way it was meant to be seen and heard. The artwork is full-size and beautiful.”
But the reason vinyl fans cite most often is that, compared to its digital counterparts, the analog LP sounds better.
“Analog recordings have a sinuous richness and flow that digital bits can never hope to reproduce,” Amory wrote. “You might not notice this in a quick comparison for tonality, detail, or whatever. Instead, you’ll notice that you’re more involved with the music, paying more attention to it, less likely to turn it down in the loud parts, more emotionally moved by the recording.”
A digital recording “is still ones and zeroes representing what your music should be,” said James “Flames” Pitilli of Electric Frog Recordings, a mixing and mastering firm based in Asheville, N.C. On the other hand, listening to an analog recording, like a vinyl record, is “organic, a natural way to hear something,” he said. The sound a record produces is not the result of a machine interpreting digital bits, but the physical result of a needle reading the tangible grooves of a record. Listeners often refer to this as vinyl’s “warm sound.”
Many audiophiles believe that the sound quality of CDs—and, by extension, mp3s, which are usually ripped directly from CDs—is generally getting worse.
“Today, there’s a competition of ‘volume wars’ where everyone wants to have the loudest record, which is bad,” Pitilli said. “It degrades the sound.”
While a listener controls her stereo’s volume level with a dial or remote control, every song has an inherent volume as well, which is established during the mixing and mastering process. This is why you may have to change the volume on your iPod in between songs. Some songs are louder than others.
CDs can only reproduce volume up to a certain decibel level, at which point the sound distorts, or “clips,” producing a toneless splatting sound. Many engineers today, in order to provide a louder sound, compress the audio levels on CDs so that they can squeeze in more sound waves below the decibel level, which is like a volume ceiling. This keeps the loud parts loud and makes the quiet parts loud as well; as a result, many modern recordings, particularly on CD, have little to no dynamic range.
“Nothing ever takes a breath, nothing ever takes a break,” Pitilli said, “it’s just balls to the wall.”
Vinyl is not limited by a volume ceiling like digital. If a record gets too loud, it distorts, but naturally, what Pitilli called “good distortion,” adding that it can be “harmonic and happy.”
For Matador’s Patrick Amory, vinyl records have more to offer than simply better sound quality.
“So much music is disposable today,” he wrote in an e-mail, “background music in stores, commercials, movies, TV shows, laptops, headphones, iPods – a soundtrack for living your life. There’s nothing wrong with that. But putting on an LP requires taking it out (carefully), putting it on the turntable, lowering the needle to a physical place on the record, turning it over after only about 20 minutes – it’s a total music experience.
“The artifact is not disposable or replaceable – there’s no jewelcase or CDR you can buy in bulk to replace it, so it feels like a one-of-a-kind object, a thing of beauty.”