The image for this story is of a new solo album from Dean Ween. It came out in late October. One of the standout tracks is a slice of funk rock jam featuring Michael Hampton, guitarist of Parliament-Funkadelic, called Mercedes Benz. It's got enough nasty swagger to get you going on a Wednesday. Being a massive fan of all things Ween, I stream that track every day. I also own it on vinyl. Apparently I'm not the only one whose collection keeps growing.
A story out of The Independent shows a somewhat surprising trend in the UK music buying public. "The Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA) said vinyl sales earned the record industry £2.4m in week 48 of 2016, while downloads took in £2.1m. It is a significant shift in how people are consuming music. In November last year it was reported that vinyl albums made £1.2m in sales while digital records made £4.4m."
Many theories abound on why this is happening. First there are more outlets selling vinyl, particularly in supermarkets and *gasp* record stores. This is also true in the America where Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters are the primary brick and mortar purveyors of records. In other words if you make something accessible, people will buy it. Who knew? Another theory suggests movements such as Record Store Day are also helping to put vinyl back on our consciousness, although I'm skeptical it appeals to many people beyond hardcore vinyl enthusiasts or rabid fans of specific groups. Perhaps it has to do with this strange duality in our psyche that the more technologically advanced we become, the more we desire more analog stuff in our life. This would certainly explain the plethora of books on home canning or why so many creatives I know in L.A. are scouring Craigslist for pre-1987 cars. The most plausible reason for the uptick is the fact we're nearing the holidays; vinyl makes a great gift. Although that doesn't explain the massive jump from last year to this year.
What's significant about that last reason is for what it says about digital downloads as much as what it says about vinyl. The implication is that something that costs 99 cents a single or 9.49 an album (or 3.99 if you're Lady Gaga desperately trying to go platinum) has no value. And why would it? First off, we were told for years that an mp# is merely a series of "ones and zeroes," and that information wants to be free and that it's not stealing if you make a copy. Does that sound like a gift you're give to someone? But let's suppose you are doing the right thing and paying for a subscription service or at least suffering through Pandora's horrendous idea of radio advertising. One way or the other, you are still paying a bargain price to stream music unlimited times. My Apple Music subscription gives me access to millions of songs. If everything is near free or at least extremely cheap in that sense, would I ever get a subscription as a gift?
The real reason might just lie in the fact that vinyl gives you something a streaming service or digital download can't: something tangible. Spend enough time in forums devoted to specific bands who were popular before the advent of Napster or streaming and and you'll see a pattern emerge. The fans love the music and listen to it online and watch concert videos on Youtube but bemoan the fact that a digital download or stream pales in comparison to vinyl. Not in how it sounds mind you, but in what a physical object provides-- access to album art work up close and personal, liner notes, lyrics if they're printed in the album sleeves, mysteries big and small. Put another way-- The Beatles album Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is almost 50 years old. Journalists and scholars are still writing about its significance, starting with the album cover. As good as it sounds remastered for mp3 or in FLAC, the art work pales when its in pixels. In this sense it's less of a desire to return to analog roots, and more a desire to have something physical that has value.
Whatever the reason, at least in the UK people are starting to shift some vinyl units. Not just for the artist. Although I should point out we're not just talking about Adele here. As an artist on a major label she has to move more units to cover overhead. A musician on an independent label, or their own label, or an unsigned artist makes more money per sale because they have a smaller overhead. There's no marketing machine or PR or building designed like a stack of records to pay for, so you can in theory make a decent middle class living if you have enough fans. The benefits go beyond the musician, however. More sales of vinyl means more jobs where vinyl is made. And with a renewed interest in tangible goods, hopefully it spurs on the creativity of the people designing the album art work. Which means even more album significant works of art we'll be talking about, many years from now.