Back in Black: Vinyl a bright spot in music landscape

Even in a world where people expect convenience, the allure of oversized black discs full of music remains. Photo: via Flickr

DALLAS, March 29, 2012 – Decades from now, curious children probably won’t scroll through their parents’ digital iTunes library or click through the contents of a forgotten MP3 player with the same sense of wonder that our generation felt while thumbing through stacks of vinyl records.

Even in a world where people expect convenience and to have everything at their fingertips, the allure of oversized black discs full of music remains. This is part of the reason why in 2012, vinyl album sales grew by double-digit margins for the fourth year in a row.

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“Vinyl records exemplify authenticity in the digital age of the music industry. Culturally, we’ve lost value for the tangible — and vinyl is a burgeoning platform for artists to get their creations into hands of listeners,” said Daniel McCarthy of

Sales figures from Nielsen, which tracks all physical and digital music sales, showed vinyl on pace to total 4.7 million units by the end of last year. And while that figure represents less than two percent of all music sales, vinyl is the one rapidly growing segment of the music industry where MP3s grow more steadily and compact disc numbers are declining.

Audiophiles have long held up vinyl as the superior format because the large discs capture the true recording and full sound of the musicians, while CDs and formatted MP3s chop off the high and low ends of the audio spectrum.

But that long-standing claim didn’t prevent the CD from becoming the preferred format in the ’80s and ’90s. And the convenience of digital downloads coupled with affordable MP3 players made physical formats almost an afterthought during the beginning of the 21st century.

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From an aesthetic perspective, the return to vinyl can be seen as a backlash to the early 2000s’ digital land rush, when Napster and other file-sharing services made it possible to download any song at any time for free.

The result? Hard drives containing thousands of tracks—and most of them barely listened to since finding meaning with an infinite shuffle soundtrack quickly became a chore instead of a pleasure. Now contrast that frustrating experience with listening to a vinyl record where a music fan can spend an hour closely focused on an artist’s work.

In a way it’s a callback to the heyday of the long-play album (LP) during the ’60s, which coincided with rock-and-roll’s cultural dominance. Traditional pop, country, and R&B albums were typically just singles then—while bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin had a creative vision that could fill up to four sides of vinyl. There’s a reason why those artists helped form the foundation of the AOR (album-oriented rock) radio format.

By comparison, vinyl’s comeback hasn’t shown up much in hip-hop, modern pop, R&B, or country sales where hit singles remain the focus instead of a 45-minute musical statement. According to Nielsen, 93 out of the 100 best-selling vinyl albums in recent years were from the broadly defined rock and alternative genres, and rock represents 32 percent of all current vinyl sales.

Not coincidentally, traditional rock and indie artists make up the largest segments catering to the renewed interest in vinyl by jumping on board with the internationally recognized Record Store Day. Held on the third Saturday in April since 2008, it’s a day when scores of record labels and musicians release one-day-only, limited-edition singles, EPs, and albums.

It’s probably no coincidence that Nielsen’s first dramatic jump in vinyl sales happened during the inaugural Record Store Day, which encourages devoted music fans to line up before the doors open at independent record stores, and load up on the extremely rare offerings. The quasi-holiday doubles as a sort of collective statement of support for musicians and outlets that treat music as a prized art form instead of a downloadable commodity.

That outpouring creates predictable and needed sales jumps at participating stores such as the trio of proudly independent stores in the Amoeba Music record store chain (located in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Hollywood in California), which points to vinyl sales as the only product segment that has increased in recent years.

The same is true at independent record stores all over the country, while mass merchants such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart continue to trim their musical offerings and avoid stocking vinyl because it’s a niche format (in terms of total dollars in sales) that takes up too much shelf space and doesn’t produce enough profit.

That leaves the growing hunger for vinyl in the hands of small retailers and mail-order labels like Third Man Records (the imprint of former White Stripes singer Jack White) that trades in vinyl exclusively. Other labels and bands are following suit, offering meticulously crafted vinyl sets for fans’ home enjoyment, as well as free download access to keep their iPods fresh—giving music lovers the best of the old and the new.


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Tommy Swanson

Tommy Swanson is the Co-Founder of Think Stripes, a content marketing and brand storytelling agency. He works with nationally recognized NPOs and businesses on developing their online marketing strategy. Swanson is also a serial entrepreneur, having started and sold several companies in his early teens. You can find him at @tommyswanson.  

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