Vinyl Still a Popular Music Medium
Last year, sales of vinyl records beat out CDs for the first time in 35 years, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
Despite the popularity of online streaming services, vinyl albums are still hanging on in the music market.
According to Variety, vinyl sales in 2023 are up 21.7% over the same period in 2022. That’s the 18th year in a row that vinyl sales have increased.
The number-one-selling LP in 2023 as of July was Taylor Swift’s Midnights, with 251,000 copies sold this year on top of the 945 thousand sold in its 2022 release year.
Record Store Day
Vinyl records are so popular, in fact, that Record Store Day (RSD) was inaugurated in 2008 by independent record store owners. Labels and artists release special editions of vinyl LPs, and stores host cookouts and other festival-style activities. Some venues even have meet-and-greet events with artists represented in the special releases.
The organization has announced more than 170 special edition releases for the RSD Black Friday event on November 24, 2023.
There are more hip-hop releases this year than in previous years. Artists on the list include Dr. Dre, Lil Wayne, Nas, De La Soul, Madly, Schooly D, and Three 6 Mafia. Noah Kahan, Kim Petras, and Aimee Mann are among the contemporary genre releases.
The Jonas Brothers and Post Malone have hit collections in the sale. Classic rock is well-represented, with selections from Joni Mitchell, Los Lobos, and INXS. Classic country fans will find Willie Nelson, along with a previously unreleased live record from Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels. Bo Diddley and Prince represent the Classic R&B and Blues genre, while Bill Evans and Les McCann are among the jazz musicians included in the sale.
The History of Vinyl
American inventor Thomas Edison experimented with sound reproduction and, in 1877, recorded the first sound on a sheet of tinfoil wrapped around a cylinder. Wax cylinders hit the market in 1889, with disc records coming in about the same time.
By 1912, disc records were more popular than the cylinders. They were cheaper and easier to store. From the late 1920s through the late 1940s, the standard record was a 10-inch disc that played at 78 rpm. Each disc had one song on each side. Albums consisted of four to six discs packaged together. Starting in the late 1940s, the 12-inch long-playing (LP) albums that played at 33 rpm were introduced and grew in popularity. The 7-inch 45 rpm record followed soon after. “Singles” also had two songs per disc, but their smaller size made them popular for portable record players, plus they were cheaper than an album. Columbia Records issued its first 45 rpm single in 1951. By 1954, 200 million singles had been sold.
Although digital music started taking over the market with the advent of the compact disc (CD), vinyl discs never died out. Many audiophiles contend that digital music, as clear and perfect as it is, is still digital. Their argument is that the analog vinyl sound is warmer, richer, and deeper.
A.J. Wykes, with SoundGuys, writes, “People like vinyl for the experience; it’s a deep, physical connection to music. Some listeners prefer the experience of dusting off the record, lining it up, dropping the needle, and kicking back, instead of just scrolling and tapping a screen. Listeners are more likely to engage in the listening process, and the medium encourages the consumption of a complete album as a piece of work.”
The Other Face of Vinyl
One downside of vinyl records is that they’re expensive to produce. Since they’re no longer the predominant medium, pressing factories have closed, limiting production. This means many independent artists have a tough time paying the extra expense for vinyl copies of their music. Digital is cheaper and much faster, so indies can get their music to the masses quickly and easily — anyone with an Internet connection can listen.
Adam England with PRS for Music cites a 2021 report from Mixmag. “There’s a global demand for around 400 million vinyl records each year, but the capacity to produce just 160 million.”
Despite these hurdles, some artists like having their work available on vinyl. It’s something else to sell at shows, which means some extra income. Musician Colin MacIntyre told England, “I see my fanbase definitely engaging with this format [vinyl]… It also provides for a different relationship with certain demographics of your audience, in that if you take care to make a visually interesting product then it excites fans, looks bloody nice too, and gives you another creative outlet in terms of artwork and bonus tracks.”
Vinyl record terminology is still used in the digital music age. A collection of songs by an artist is an “album,” and one song released is still a “single.” Recording engineers still refer to recording or playing songs back as “rolling tape,” referring to the original tape recording medium. A scratch on a vinyl album often caused a song to either skip or repeat the same phrase over and over — hence the term “like a broken record.” Vinyl is embedded in global pop culture.