The incessant march of technology takes no prisoners: it’s either upgrade and adapt or rapidly become irrelevant. Such a mantra for modern times finds no better proving ground than in the music industry, which has always been inextricably linked to advances in technology. The digital revolution that swept through in the early part of the millennium, for example, caused a major tectonic shift in the way music is distributed and sold, shaking up both major labels and indies. The decade since this meltdown moment has seen the steady ascendancy of digital music. But while digital sales accounted for 50.3% of all music sales last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, a new, quieter revolution is currently afoot.
For the fourth consecutive year, Nielsen reports that more vinyl LPs were purchased than any other year since they began tracking sales in 1991. In 2011, vinyl albums accounted for 3.9 million in sales, exceeding the previous year’s record of 2.8 million LPs, for an increase of 36%. Nielsen even concedes that this number is probably higher because 67% of all vinyl albums were purchased at independent music stores, which often do not employ SoundScan. In terms of the evolution of musical formats, from vinyl to eight-track to cassette to CD to iPod, this embracing of older technology is akin to favoring a horse-drawn buggy over a Ferrari. But it’s happening from the Bay Area to Brooklyn, and mere nostalgia cannot explain why.
“For us, it [vinyl] is the only thing that’s increasing in sales,” says Shane Marcum, of Amoeba in San Francisco, one of the country’s biggest independent record stores. “We’ve had to expand our vinyl section several times over the years due to the increase.”
This trend is mirrored on the manufacturing side as well. Samuel Torrez of EKS Manufacturing in Brooklyn says, “The last two years, we’ve gotten really busy. We’re probably pressing 80-90% more records than we normally do.” Most of his customers, he says, are independent labels.
David Andler of Morphius Manufacturing & Distribution in Baltimore echoes this opinion saying, “This has been a busier time for vinyl manufacturing than any time in the last 25 years. In terms of dollars of manufacturing, at the moment, vinyl is approximately equal to the total spent on CDs and DVDs combined.” Vinyl is, of course, more expensive to produce and ship, he points out, but that does not diminish its overall impact. On the distribution side, Andler says, “Sales are still in the 10-15% range for vinyl,” but that suggests to him that a bigger percentage of vinyl sales are direct to the consumer via live shows or over individual band sites on the Internet.
Exploring the reason behind this current trend towards vinyl, Amoeba’s Marcum offers, “When technology is advancing so quickly, Americans tend to reach for something they are familiar with–something as important to American pop culture as vinyl. Vinyl feels cool, it sounds cool, and it looks cool. It’s also an indicator of who’s a real music fan.” Andler, who fondly recalls his days of vinyl shopping as a youth when he used to buy some records just based on their cover art, adds that “in these days of disposable culture, vinyl is a physical artifact that has importance. It’s not only the music, but also the artwork and liner notes that come with it. I think kids today are rediscovering that lost component.”
Mastering engineer Mike Fossenkemper sums it up saying, “Vinyl I think is more of an experience. When you pick up a piece of vinyl, you engage it, you think about it, you feel it, you see it, you have to care for it, place the needle on it, flip it over, you’re paying attention to it and it makes the experience of listening to it more meaningful. That’s what’s missing with MP3s on the phone that’s in your pocket as you walk down the street.”
Whatever the case, vinyl is back and coming to a record store near you.
Skiz Fernando’s byline has appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Vibe and The Source magazine. He is also the author of the book The New Beats: Exploring the Music, Culture & Attitudes of Hip-Hop, which has become an important document of the culture behind rap music.
After becoming familiar with the music industry through his work on the book, he started his own label, WordSound Recordings, in December 1994. Over the last 18 years, WordSound has released 65 full-length albums and numerous EPs, singles, and remixes, running the gamut from dub and hip-hop to electronic and Middle Eastern music and collaborating with such artists as Bill Laswell, Prince Paul, DJ Vadim, Kevin Martin (The Bug), Mick Harris (Scorn), Style Scott (Dub Syndicate), Scott Harding (New Kingdom), Anti-Pop Consortium, Umar Bin Hassan (Last Poets), DJ Rob Swift (X-ecutioners), and The Jungle Brothers.