Many wish that vinyl had stayed hidden away; that it had remained a treasure for music geeks only, like a dark and waxy mistress that always knows just how to please you. But, whether you like it or not, the vinyl boom is now in full swing – so much so that it’s creating a bubble – and that leaves those of us trying to navigate this shifting terrain with some big questions. Can albums sold from distros for $13.99 at release continue to go for hundreds of dollars mere days later? Will the LP go the way of the baseball card? Is there seriously an underground vinyl market for Taylor Swift records? This is a huge topic with lots of ground for discussion, and it has given birth to a formidable partnership between Casey at Type In Stereo and Chris at Modern Vinyl. Together, they will get to the bottom of it all: life, vinyl, and everything. For those of you that don’t know, Modern Vinyl is dedicated to getting music information out to their fans, and they frequently have the inside scoop on vinyl pre-orders. Type In Stereo is all about quality music commentary and analysis – that is to say, we argue about anything and everything musical. Without further ado: our first discussion…
So how did this whole vinyl thing get started anyway?
Modern Vinyl: When we talk about the start of this “whole vinyl thing,” it’s important for recent fans of the format to note that records never actually went away. They may have disappeared from store-fronts and they may have been overshadowed by CDs and MP3s in popular culture, but the passionate record collectors were still searching through mail-order catalogs and trading amongst each other while most music fans downloaded the newest version of iTunes. These are the collectors who actually own first pressings of those ’90s classics that we’re all waiting for represses of. These are the collectors with those deep and vast hardcore collections (a genre which never seemed to disregard the format at all).
With that said, the question becomes: when and how did this new wave of interest in vinyl begin? Commercially speaking, you’d have to look at the early ’90s — which is when the Nielsen SoundScan began tracking record sales once again — as a starting point. 1993 saw 300,000 units being moved into the homes of proud vinyl collectors, a statistic which would continually increase until 2000, when the units surpassed 1.5 million. Record sales would go on to decrease, never topping that 1.5 million mark again until 2008, when the market saw a ridiculous jump from 1 million sales to 1.9 million. Since then, it’s increased every year, eventually hitting 4.6 million units sold in 2012. It’s also important to quickly note that many webstores are not counted in this end tally (Source
). So…that’s a lot of vinyl in very small time frame, considering that this was exactly the time when CDs and then MP3s took over the music market . So why was there such a huge jump?
The difficult part is attempting to identify what happened between 2007 and 2008 (which I’m going to call the start of this new wave), along with what has continued to happen in the years that have followed. My personal opinion? It’s all simply a result of the digital revolution. As digital libraries have been forced upon consumers, a select and growing group of fans have longed for a viable, tangible product. When CDs weren’t cutting it anymore, these fans migrated over to vinyl (or returned to it). It’s strange, but it seems that the ability to easily steal any album you desire played a part in the saving of records. Yes, fans won’t hesitate to steal the latest albums, which has led to the massive decrease in CD sales. These very same fans, though, still want a physical collection, and they’re turning to vinyl in order to fill that void. Some may use their collections just to show off (there’s music on these things guys!), but I truly believe that an increased audience is getting into this format for the right reasons. In regard to present day, it’s easy enough to figure out why things are doing well now: vinyl has become “cool” again, and as more fans began collecting records, more bands and artists were either forced to or allowed to finally embrace the format.
Type In Stereo: I think you’re right in saying that vinyl never truly disappeared. I certainly never ditched vinyl completely – I distinctly remember picking up assorted 7″s at punk and hardcore shows, specifically because they had songs on them that weren’t on the CDs. I even remember my first 7″ being a Link 80 record that I picked up at one of their shows (their singer was the one who sold it to me, just a few months before he died). I also had friends in college who were very much into records and always had massive collections, but I must admit that aside from my very small box of vinyl, I was content with CDs for the time being. But although there were always those intense collectors (most of them probably hardcore and metal fans) it’s obvious that vinyl has gone through a real rejuvenation in the last five years. The sheer amount of distros that have started and gone on to release band’s back-catalogs is staggering, and even more so are the prices that some people are willing to pay for those out of print or limited pieces. That alone is evidence of vinyl’s resurgence, let alone the figures you listed above.
Of course the digital revolution and the subsequent clamor for physical recordings is the #1 factor for this recent rise in popularity for vinyl. Music collectors were starting to be left out in the cold with big box retailers like Best Buy shrinking their music sections by increasingly large amounts. I mean, do you remember how much good music Best Buy used to carry? It was aisles and aisles. Now, after I returned to the US from a few years abroad, it’s hardly anything at all. At the same time, most small record shops closed their doors, and places like Tower Records went belly up within a few years. Even bigger local retailers in Portland, like Music Millennium (that were always busy mind you), couldn’t keep up with rising rent costs – I imagine it was the same nationwide. In addition to this, I think a smaller (but no less important) factor was that download cards began to be offered with most LPs. Nowadays you can have your cake and eat it too; you can support the band, have a cool physical piece of music, and still have it in your car on the iPod. And, if the band doesn’t put in a card, screw it – I have no qualms with downloading something I’ve already bought. But you brought up a pretty interesting point earlier…
Why did the hardcore/metal/emo scenes stick with vinyl when the rock crowd didn’t?
Modern Vinyl: I think the key as to why the rock crowd didn’t stick with vinyl is simply money. Things are different now – as you said earlier: vinyl is a “cool physical piece of music.” Records have, simply put, become cool again, and bands of all different styles have been able to take the chance on an expensive merchandise option once again. The more popular rock bands never completely left the format behind, with mainstream groups like Third Eye Blind, Pearl Jam and Nirvana consistently including records in their full length releases. Now that bands of all genres can break even on records again, it’s not just the major label groups that can afford pressings. Independent artists and groups with small labels (like Pure Noise and No Sleep) can afford to give vinyl to their fans again. Getting back to your actual question, it’s tough to say why the hardcore and metal genres in particular retained the format. The fans within these genres are notably fierce and dedicated, so I’d lean towards attributing this resiliency directly to them. Without fans of hardcore music buying up everything their choice artists released, vinyl may have died out just the same. It remained alive in just enough locations to retain its customer foundation, and that helped a great deal in letting in claw its way back up to mainstream relevance.
Type In Stereo: You’re right when you say that it never truly got left behind, but I feel that if you took your average “Rock Fan” in 1997 and asked if vinyl was their format of choice, maybe 2% would say that it was. Whereas hardcore, which was a much smaller scene, had a much higher rate of LP (or at the very least, 7 “) ownership. I would say probably somewhere in the 70-80% range. It was less so with the emo and punk scenes, but still much higher per capita than the mainstream rock world. I think that these smaller scenes managed to keep vinyl alive simply because these are styles built on tradition, especially hardcore. They don’t evolve rapidly – nor do they want to. The hardcore riffs and gang vocals of Judge and Gorilla Biscuits sound a lot like the stuff that is coming out of that East Coast scene today, and even hardcore dancing is the same as it was ten years ago. Of course, it should be mentioned that you can fit four or five fast hardcore songs on a 7”, something that helped hardcore vinyl sales back when they were mainstream in the ’80s. Part of it could also be “giving the finger to The Man,” but again, that’s what the scene has always been about. Tradition runs deep in hardcore, and vinyl has always been a part of that tradition. Personally, I’m glad they kept the market alive in their scenes though; it’s nice to see some people sticking with what sounds good, rather than just jumping at whatever comes out next.
Casey and Chris will return with more vinyl-fueled action. Make sure to check it out and join in on the discussion.
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