Music Musings

Anarchy in the UK: Vinyl Outsells Digital Downloads

record-store

The Vinyl Factory reports that for the first time ever, vinyl sales were higher than digital downloads in a single week in the UK:

ERA [Entertainment Retailers Association] confirmed that £2.4m was spent on vinyl albums in week 48 of 2016, while only £2.1m was spent on digital downloads. It marks a huge swing from the same week in 2015, when the £1.2m spent on vinyl albums was eclipsed by £4.4m of digital downloads.

Of course, taking a look at the numbers for more than a second shows that there was a £1.1 million decrease in sales overall. As plenty of commenters have already pointed out, part of the dip in digital sales can likely be attributed to an increase in the use of streaming services. Why drop $10 on a single album when Spotify costs $120 a year and comes with all sorts of benefits? And while the rise of vinyl in the last decade has been a curious and fantastic thing to watch, The Vinyl Factory also reported that it’s already starting to slow down:

The report shows that vinyl sales dropped 9.1% drop during this first half of 2016. According to the RIAA count – which tracks album shipments to retailers – the format slipped from 8.4 million units compared with 9.2 million in H2, 2015.

Which isn’t comforting news for anyone. Artists and labels make less money, record shops don’t rake in as much to support their business, and consumers are left with fewer options.

I stream, and on rare occasion I’ll pirate an album if I really, really want to hear it but can’t find it on one of the two streaming platforms I use (Napster, which I signed up for years ago, and Spotify, because it’s free). The reasons should be obvious: I listen to a lot of music, and the only way I’ll ever get to hear >95% of it is because of those two options. I’ve been burned enough times to know not to trust many artists enough to buy their new album when it comes out without giving it at least a cursory spin.

And I do buy a lot of music. I don’t think it’s that I’m old-fashioned so much that my brain functions better when a physical copy is available. Most of the stuff I buy, though, is used, because with the plummeting interest in CDs, it’s incredibly easy to go splurge on a few dozen albums and walk away without having spent even a hundred bucks. That’s how it was with vinyl when I was in high school and started collecting. There was a lot of stuff no one seemed to want, so it was pretty cheap—not uncommon to find Beatles and Zep, Springsteen and Dylan, Talking Heads and Clash albums for $5 or $6 each where I was living. But after I started university it started to change, around 2007/2008, I’d say. Prices started going up, and the shops I went to were always a little more crowded.

Plus, lots of bands were releasing stuff on vinyl. The quality of the record itself—sturdier, a bit heavier, harder to scratch—increased, and for a few dollars more than a CD you’d get not only the record, but pretty sweet liner notes and a digital download, sometimes even a CD. But it’s an expensive hobby, one that’s hard to sustain in high volume unless you’re wealthy.

But as much as I dump on vinyl for being overpriced for a listening experience I do not feel is inherently superior to CD or high-quality digital, I admit it’s much more fun than either. The large album art, the plunk of the needle, flipping it over to hear that side B leadoff. The resurgence of vinyl—however brief or long it might be—is evidence enough that while digital is indisputably convenient, people will never be willing to completely give up the real thing.

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