New data tells an ominous story
I refuse to use streaming services because they rip off artists. So i buy physical media where possible or pay over suggested price for downloads from co-op sites like Bandcamp.
The music industry is utterly, dysfunctionally FUBB.
Boy I have a lot to say here, but I’ll keep it short. Yes the majors don’t want to be in manufacturing. Yes the majors only care about streaming. But people who buy records and don’t have turntables are basically buying a tshirt. That is not a record buyer. Vinyl is a luxury object, so are many turntables and home stereos at this point. There are people who want lps but the fact is, and I’ve said it before, 60 million people pay to stream in the US. Such a minuscule comparative amount buy vinyl. It’s no longer, and never will be again, the premier music format. It’s there if you want, like making your own pickles, or learning how to butcher, it’s a way to connect to a different time and a different sound. Most people, including those who buy records without turntables, don’t really care. There’s no need to -woe is me- vinyl. It’s doing what it supposed to do, which is allow those types of people who want to listen to records, learn who the artist and producer is, and after 20 minutes get up and put on another one. The phone does that without all the work. The past way we used vinyl won’t repeat, why would it.
I worked at a NYC audiophile record pressing plant, Europadisk, in the late 80s and 90s. We created the highest quality records, had in house Direct Metal Mastering (where the state of the art ended), in house electro plating and several machines pressing the highest quality German Teldec vinyl (ie, quietest - less tics and pops, good bass frequencies). What I know for sure is that making this quality vinyl record was as much an art as it was a manufacturing process, with a wide variety of potential costly problems to deal with on a daily basis - inconsistent vinyl pellets, delays and volatile imported vinyl costs, minute issues with plated production parts (stampers), issues with steam generation which the pressing machines rely on, broken machine parts which were difficult to obtain back in the day and probably more so now, and on and on. I think we’re way too far down the digital road to ever realistically get back to a profitable place with vinyl when digital is cheaper, and yes in many cases sounds better (cue the squeals of dismay). Also, vinyl is a petroleum product, and how could it ever make sense to dig in deep with this technology again when it seems the goal in todays world is to eradicate anything having to do with it?
I loved my vinyl records for as long as that made sense. Still have them. Don’t play them. The musician/artist side of me wishes there was still a decent market in which to sell physical product. But I live in the world as it is now and deal with the positive and negative as best I can.
I love your essays, and this one was 100% correct, but only fails to take into account the world (for better or worse) as we find it regarding the economy and the ever falling value our world places on music.
One of my daughters is into vinyl, so I bought her a turntable and bluetooth speaker set up she enjoys. But it took many weeks, maybe months, to get those Beyonce and Taylor Swift LPs she ordered. A rebrand of the old East Coast (Boston area) record store Newbury Comics has a busy Long Island mall store with manga, K-pop merch, and new vinyl, but even my daughter thought it wasn't worth it for me to buy her the new Lana Del Rey album or whatever for $30-$40. And $30 appears to be ground level for most new vinyl.
I have zero nostalgia for vinyl, and I am quite happy with CDs. Less importantly, I like a crisp sound. More importantly, my recollection of vinyl was of surface noise, pops, clicks & skipping. I was not careless, because these things happened right out of the package, and always only on particular labels. Indie labels were the worst, my assumption being that they could only afford inexpensive pressings. Black Saint/Soul Note, Riverside, ESP, BYG Actuel - they were all terrible pressings. I kept returning them and trying again, but the replacements were no better. Soft Machine (the 1st) on ABC Probe was full of clicks and pops. I replaced it over and over (thank you, Sam Goody, for good customer service) and none of the new ones were any better. I didn't get a clean copy until a 2 LP set with that and their 2nd album came out in the UK. Verve must have had something against Gary McFarland, because all of his Verve albums had horrific surface noice. His later Impulse! albums did not. In fact, I never had an issue with Impulse!, or Atlantic, Blue Note, Reprise, or many others, leading me to believe that it was not my turntable or cartridge. I know that in the vinyl revival the pressings were made from better vinyl, but my frustration at being unable to get through, say, Charlie Byrd at the Gate, forever poisoned me against vinyl. I avoid streaming services since they do not pay their artists adequately, but I have no problem at all with CDs. I love CDs. I always will.
I'm fortunate that we have some great secondhand vinyl stores nearby us even in rural Vermont. But, we also bought new records at deep discounts from independent record stores and big boxes alike, and built a very respectable vinyl collection in a hurry. My wife and I also inherited a sizeable classic rock vinyl collection from a family member for free. For us, vinyl is actually our favorite way of enjoying music, but for many people it's either a collection for investment or memoribilia's sake.
I don't think there's anything wrong with people without record players buying vinyl; after all, if you're going to collect any kind of music memorabilia, that's probably a solid buy as long as you don't overpay what many people were paying in 2021. We always sought below-market prices before we bought anything, and our collection has maintained its value according to discogs quite well.
I do entirely agree that this vinyl resurgence was terribly mishandled by the music industry, and the worst part of outsourcing is the poor quality control. Many new records are warped or otherwise damaged right out of the shrink wrap; again, this is why my wife and I have leaned towards used records or ones that were pressed long before the boom. I really do hope that someone comes along and gives vinyl and music lovers the selection and quality we deserve, but who knows if that's going to happen. I am hopeful that it does.
There is something more than a little weird when half the folks who buy vinyl don’t own a turntable. It forces music into the same category as Norman Rockwell collector plates (limited edition of course), Cabbage Patch Kids, and Barbie. In the absence of humans getting back on the road to evolution this will end only when all the basements, closets, and garages on Earth are filled. Maybe Musk or Bezos will invest in developing self-storage units on the Moon.
Nice article Ted. Yes, my confidence level is zero too. I’ve seen it all from the late 60’s forward. Eight track tapes, vinyl, cassettes, CD’s, Digital, etc. I also kept trading my record collections regardless of format over the decades. When the vinyl revolution (reinventing demand) occurred I had zero interest. I wasn’t going to reinvest in turntables, pricey vinyl, because I had longed moved on. In the early 70’s I would daily listen to full albums. It’s a rarity today. In addition everything has been repackaged a minimum of five times over. The only repackaging that I consider of “real” value were the Jethro Tull remasters by Steven Wilson in the multi CD 80 page booklets. Even if some industry wizard comes along with a vinyl “value” extreme makeover, I highly doubt I would get onboard. Cheers Ted!
A couple years ago my brother lived next to a record store in a gentrifying neighborhood in Chicago--white hipster/yuppie types driving out working class Latinx situation. My brother has a solid turntable setup and has accumulated a strong collection of LPs over a decade: new releases + used classics--he has some stuff like first pressings of the first Stooges album and Tago Mago. By no means a vinyl junkie, per se, but he has talked about taking out a supplemental insurance policy specifically on his records should something happen to his apartment. Exactly the sort of consumer who, if the music industry could cultivate many more like him, the industry would be thriving. He has a great relationship with the owner--he got his Amazon packages delivered there, kept an eye on the store occasionally, and got some hefty discounts on some Grateful Dead LPs because the shop owner knew he would spin and appreciate them like a real fan and not a more transactional type or like one of those people paying premium cash for a paper-and-plastic poster like you mention.
A little under 2 years ago one of my uncles passed away. He was a major CD and book collector--there were ~10,000 CDs in dozens of bankers' boxes and all that, from a lifetime of trips to Borders and ordering from boutique operations from the 80s onward. My brother and I inherited his collection. We asked the shop owner to come do an assessment, and he wound up taking possession of the majority of it all, consigning it to a speciality reseller and splitting the proceeds as those get cataloged and sold. (My brother and I had absolutely no interest in flipping it all ourselves and wanted to distribute it out as best as we could. We got a relatively modest payment for it and obviously first dibs on picking things we wanted.)
I'm not too into the details of the business side of things--I don't collect vinyl or have a turntable myself--but from what my brother has told me, apparently the proceeds being derived from selling those CDs, primarily to buyers in Japan and Eastern Europe, is what's keeping the record store afloat. The store is not the flashiest or biggest operation, but you could hardly ask for a better location/demographic for selling vinyl ... and it's a tangential side deal in CDs that is keeping the lights on.
As the shop owner has told my brother, 'I never imagined I would wind up in the luxury retail business.' It's truly appalling how badly the music industry as a whole has failed their best devotees and champions when anyone paying half attention to music trends knows how to fix things.
According to this story, prices for new vinyl are about to go up even higher (hard to believe that would even be possible!): https://www.google.com/amp/s/torontosun.com/entertainment/music/blood-from-stone-huge-price-increases-coming-for-vinyl-albums/wcm/27cc1d0b-ac38-4fa8-91e8-0c98fa9d4a10/amp/. The price notwithstanding, the fact is used vinyl often sounds better than new pressings and relatively inexpensive. Great for the listener but another hit for musicians who, as correctly noted, don't make a dime off of used sales.
In my opinion the whole vinyl resurgence was just another passing fad. For most people vinyl was desirable only because of the hype that is was cool in a vague sort of retro style sense. While vinyl has always had some die hard fans that believe it to be the superior sonic format the truth is that digital has significantly better potential dynamic range and in theory has infinite durability. Records collect dust, get scratched, get warped and eventually degrade just from the stylus dragging through the groove. The only advantage I see is the larger package provides a larger canvas for album art.
I think it was when I saw Toto IV going for $20 used that I knew we were reaching the end of this particular wave of tulipomania. A record that had sold in the millions and which was by no means rare.... Then I saw a reissue of Jon Anderson’s first solo LP for $40. Unhinged.
Spending money on R&D for vinyl, of all things, is practically oxymoronic. It's an obsolete technology that's achieved its inexplicable resurgence precisely *because* it's obsolete. In another sense, the "R&D" to improve on vinyl already happened, first with the CD and now with hi-res digital audio.
Vinyl. I held out all through my years in college and med school. CDs were almost 20 bucks a pop, places like Tower Records were clearing out their vinyl inventories. 3 for ten bucks. A friend would buy 2 CDs for 30, I'd walk out with 9 albums for the same price. B&O turntable with a needle that cost more than most folks' CD players, which weren't cheap back then.
Fast-forward ten years or so, I had probably a couple thousand vinyl records. But my new car had a CD player so I bought one for my apartment. Purchased CDs, now considerably cheaper, at the rate of ten a week. Load ten in the car and just skip certain songs, or zip from one album to the next. Same thing at home with the remote control. It was a mistake buying the one that held 300 CDs, couldn't remember which ones were where, and got lazy with swapping them. But the convenience! Especially since I was making astonishing progress figuring out lead guitar by playing along to my favorite tunes. Wanna replay a certain segment, just a couple buttons on the remote. Magic.
I laughed at the whole vinyl revival thing. All the expensive retro things are just fads. I never did go digital in the sense of downloading or streaming music. Still can't fathom the ridiculousness of listening to songs through tiny "speakers" in your ear, or through a dumbphone. (My speakers cost considerably more than my B&O needle . . . ). I know, the warm sound quality of vinyl and all that. I'm not sure I can discern much of a difference, and it's kind of moot if it's a new recording made in a digital studio where they're bending over backwards to make everything sound "perfect" anyways?
But there has to be a balance re the convenience. I never did find a CD player I could use while running. But you can't play vinyl say in your car.
The record companies, at least the big ones, are beholden to their investors demanding ROI. Only it's not just a decent ROI anymore, it's squeezing every last nickel and dime out of every damn turnip. Look what it's done to everything else in this country. The shock should be why anyone would expect anything different at this point. And while I haven't gone digital, another interesting aspect to ponder is where consumerism leads us all to. At least with digital you don't have the plastic packaging and wondering what happens in the landfills. Although there must be a digital landfill somehow somewhere.
There's one big reason to buy vinyl that no one is mentioning: the artwork and the liner notes (ok 2 reasons). The large format of a 12" beats hell out of 4 inch square CD. And liner notes in a 5 point font squeezed into a CD booklet, well, somehow it lacks the gravitas of the tomes inscribed on the backsides of the old Blue Note pressings I started collecting in 1973.
Does the attraction for memorizing arcane details of the recording session and zoning out on the cover art disappear when you haven't just smoked the herb that you just cleaned on top of said cover art?
Say it ain't so. Or is it just that we're not sixteen anymore?
Next power outage I'm gonna hook up my amp and turntable to my Sears Die Hard battery to make sure I can continue to dig my vinyl when the grid goes down for good. The way the world's going, I would expect no less.
I have both a turntable (to be honest, three) and a CD player. I don't consider myself an audiophile; I just prefer playing records. In the last ten years I've traded a few thousand CDs for a couple hundred used LPs, and have been trading out records as well. I prefer records for a reason I haven't seen mentioned in these comments (though perhaps I missed it): 20-25 minutes of purposely sequenced music.
One comment spoke disparagingly of needing to get up every twenty minutes to change the record. For me, that's the point, and in a different way, it's another reason I don't see "new" vinyl records taking off. I've been disappointed, naively, to realize that the new records I purchase are just a CD's worth of music pressed onto vinyl, often a two-LP set with Side D blank.
I tired of CDs because I rarely want to hear 65-70 minutes of one artist at a time. And that generous time allotment leads some artists to insert filler material.
When creative artists were THINKING in LP mode, they sequenced a record side in the same way they sequenced a live set, just shorter. You pick an opener and a closer for each side, then create a flow with the inner tracks. Not everyone was as good at it, or as careful, but that's the LP attraction for me--a good "side" of music, then I get up, pick another record (usually already have that in mind) and put an another.