Is vinyl, long the preserve dwindling numbers of music snobs, audio nerds and woolly uncles, finally making a comeback?
By the end of November 2014, more than 1m vinyl records had been sold in the UK for the first time since 1996. Total sales for last year are expected to be about 1.2m records although exact figures have not yet been released. Vinyl sales reached an all-time low in the UK in 2007 at 205,292. In 2009, when sales were 219,449, the industry was worth around £3m - it’s now worth over £20m.
Since 2012, vinyl sales have rocketed from 388,768 to 780,674 in 2013 to current levels and it’s certainly more than possible that this trend will continue in 2015. Since 2009, volume sales of vinyl have been growing about 40% a year. This surprising growth is not singular to Britain. In the United States, vinyl sales jumped from less than a million in 2005 to 9.2m in 2014. Globally, after falling below £50m in 2004, 2005 and 2006, the market was worth £213m in 2013. There is even an international Record Store Day, founded in 2007, in April each year.
It’s important to put this comeback in perspective, however. Sales of vinyl still only make up around 2% of the UK music market. As yet, the vinyl comeback remains more Inspiral Carpets at Sheffield Leadmill than Blur at Hyde Park.
Off the back of the announcement that the 1m sales mark had been broken Michael Hann of the Guardian commented bitingly, “That’s right: the combined sales of all vinyl in the UK have matched the sales of the second Ed Sheeran album.” In fact, by the end of year sales of Ed Sheeran’s X, also Spotify’s most-streamed album worldwide in 2014, had multiplied to 1.7m copies – meaning Sheeran absolutely thrashed vinyl.
Digital growth continues to be led by the exploding streaming market, which doubled in value to £14.8m last year, amounting to 15bn plays. The growth of streaming and on-demand services is expected to continue apace this year, particularly as Apple looks to push its new Beats service.
Vinyl is not just retro but expensive. Amazon’s cheapest supplier charges £29.98 for the vinyl of Pink Floyd’s The Endless River, which recorded the highest first week sales of a vinyl LP since 1997 with a huge…6,000. The CD is being sold for £8. That’s quite a premium to pay for the mythical “warmth” of sound you get from the analogue grooves of a vinyl which in theory you do not from a digital rendering, besides the vinyl record’s status as a kind of art object.
The legendary Neil Young, who has recently brought out an extra high quality digital music player, Pono, has branded the vinyl resurgence as nothing more than a “fashion statement”.
“A lot of people that buy vinyl today don’t realize that they’re listening to CD masters on vinyl, and that’s because the record companies have figured out that people want vinyl,” said Young on Southern California Public Radio. “And they’re only making CD masters in digital, so all the new products that come out on vinyl are actually CDs on vinyl.”
While there is certainly a segment of hipster purchases in the increase in sales of vinyl, it is classic rock and its ilk – a genre both stereotypically and factually patronised by middle-aged men - that dominated the vinyl charts in 2014. In fact, of the 10 top-selling records in the first 39 weeks of 2014, seven were reissues. The fifth, seventh and ninth were Led Zeppelin’s first three LPs: it’s hardly difficult to pick out an element of nostalgia in this.
The list makes an interesting comparison with 2013’s, when all the top 10 were newly-released albums. The vinyl market can hardly expect to grow on classic rock reissues forever (although you’d imagine the reissue of Led Zep’s classic double LP Physical Graffiti in February is a certainty for the top 10).
Cost, utility and even supply will ensure that vinyl remains a fairly niche concern in the digital era. But regardless of whether growth of the vinyl can continue at 40%, the last five years represent a major turnaround for a historic and much-loved media that a decade ago looked as if it was going to die very quietly indeed.