Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
XVI: The Vinyl Bandwagon
(October 2008)

"Vinyl Records Make a Return." "Vinyl LPs Still Sell." "Vinyl Revival Defies Music Industry Forecasts." Yep, the headlines are coming fast and furious. Once upon a time, PSF editor Jason Gross would email these articles to me maybe two or three times a year. These days, it seems as if I get a link sent to me every few days. The difference is that these articles are no longer coming from local newspapers or obscure music magazines, but major players like the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal.

In the old days, I could almost imagine Perry White yelling, "Clark! Lois! Head on down to the local record store and see if you can find out about this so-called 'Vinyl Revival.'" Indeed, the first stories were little more than interviews with local music store owners and contained more anecdotal evidence than hard facts. "Sure, LP's are still selling at my store. But the funny thing is that the kids are starting to buy 'em! Tarnation!"

So why is the Vinyl Renaissance finally starting to get some coverage in the mainstream press? Well, the hard facts have finally arrived. The RIAA has just released data that shows LP sales in 2007 being 36.6% higher than in 2006, with approximately 1.3 million units flying out retailer's doors (this is still dwarfed by the 511 million CD's that were sold in the same period, but that number is way down thanks to downloads). These RIAA statistics are significant, however, when you consider that vinyl diehards such as myself have always been critical of these numbers.

Over the last decade, the RIAA statistics for LP sales have hovered at around 1 million, or slightly less. In other words, the vinyl revival has never had an empirical basis until now. I've talked to many specialist retailers over the last few years that have made a lot of money from vinyl, so this didn't make sense. One of the largest vinyl retailers in the United States told me a couple of years ago that his vinyl sales were up 40% over the previous year. So why didn't this show up in the RIAA statistics until now?

Well, it seems that the RIAA has never been able to track LP sales accurately because it was difficult to get sales figures from specialty retailers and stereo stores... you know, the people who have been selling the most LP's over the last couple of decades. And the RIAA couldn't care less about the freelancers who have been making money selling new and sealed albums on eBay and on small, independent websites. The truth is that the real excitement in the world of vinyl has always been in the used market, where collectors have been driving up the prices of used LPs since the '90's. The RIAA and the mainstream press couldn't care less about the used market, so the Vinyl Renaissance simply didn't exist. Until now.

What changed? Has the RIAA finally been able to track the true activity in the vinyl market? I think the answer is no, and that these new sales figures just reveal that LP sales have finally impacted mainstream retailers. In other words, the news is even better than we think.

A couple of months ago, I watched a local news broadcast on the "return" of vinyl. The story centered on the fact that LP's were now being sold in Fred Meyer, a supermarket chain here in the Pacific Northwest. The reporter interviewed one of Fred Meyer's buyers, who claimed that the whole program was started by a simple shipping error. A CD shipment arrived at the music/electronic department of one of their stores in Portland, but the carton was full of LP's. The department manager told the clerk to put 'em out anyway to sell if they would sell. They did. Quickly.

I went down to my local Fred Meyer to see if this was true. Sure, enough, I found a fairly small cardboard display that contained 20 or 30 LP's. The top of the display proudly proclaimed, "MUSIC AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE HEARD!" Cool enough, I thought. I rifled through the LPs and found a somewhat respectable mix of new releases (R.E.M.'s Accelerate and the White Stripes' Icky Thump) and reissues (the 30th anniversary pressing of Thriller). Like a thousand dead lawyers at the bottom of the ocean, it's a good start.

The best part of the whole RIAA deal is that I now have ammo for the nay-sayers. For years I've raved about the growing LP market, but I've never had the hard numbers to prove it. Now I do. I recently baited one of my Usenet nemeses about the rise in LP sales. In the past, he would mutter something about the LP market being artificially inflated by DJ's, or that the numbers were still minuscule compared to the digital formats. This time, he was foolish enough to say that LP sales were not up, and he even posted the link to the RIAA statistics without even looking at them (he's done this in the past, much to my frustration). Suffice it to say that I couldn't have planned it any better, and the other posters started saying, "Hey, sales are actually way up!" Even I was surprised.

In my first column, way back in February 1998, I said that vinyl sales were up. It only took me a little more than a decade to prove it. It's time to celebrate. I'm off to the supermarket to buy some champagne... and some LP's.

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