Why Vinyl Is NOT Going To Save The Music Industry (And What Will)

Vinyl sales have exploded over the past six years. They grew by 44% in 2010, 39% in 2011 and 19% in 2012. At first glance, this seems huge — Especially when you take into account that music sales in general have dropped over 60% from their peak.

But here’s the dirty little secret you probably haven’t read so much about: Look more closely and you’ll quickly realize that vinyl isn’t so huge at all.

Vinyl can still be a meaningful supplement for some niche bands and audiences. If you can make money selling it, please do. I may buy it. But in the grand scheme of making music sustainable in the 21st century? It doesn’t really matter much at all. It is most definitely not going to ‘save the music industry.’ And if we continue to tell a false story about vinyl, we might just end up hurting musicians far more than helping them.

On a personal level, I like vinyl. I own far more of it than most people do. I listen to it, I enjoy handling it, and I get the appeal. I just know that I’m in a tiny minority. I can’t deny the true scale of the format, or what really has to be done to make musicians’ incomes grow to a sustainable size again.

Here’s a hint: It has nothing to do with selling discs.

How Big is The Vinyl Market?

Recently, a marketing agent for a vinyl-by-mail company called Feedbands wrote an Op-Ed for Digital Music News.

I can accept that marketing agents and PR people sometimes write “news” stories, so long as they reveal who they are, and they stay accurate and intellectually honest. But this one raised my rankles. With a misleading title like “Why Vinyl Is More Important to Artists Than Streaming, Touring, and T-Shirts“, it was just begging for an honest, no-BS reply.

In the story, the author writes that “musicians tend to make about 2 percent of their income from the sale of non-­musical physical merchandise like t-­shirts, hats, and posters.” But to suggest that vinyl is more significant than this (or any other stream of revenue) is ludicrous on several levels. It’s not just misleading, it’s flat out wrong.

First, let’s look at the larger numbers: The total music industry revenues for 2012 were about $16.6 billion. (That may sound like a lot until you realize that at their peak they were over $50 billion, adjusted for inflation.)

Meanwhile, vinyl sales in 2102 were around $160 million. This is a lot less than 2% of the total. In fact, it’s less than half that — A bit under 1%. So even if vinyl defied any sense of scale or reason and suddenly grew by 100%, It’s still not going to touch merch as a percentage of revenue. Ever.

But it doesn’t stop there: The claim that musicians only make 2% of their income from merch sales isn’t even right to begin with!

To come to that figure, the author cites a small survey that includes responses from teachers, composers, symphony performers, wedding band musicians — All sorts of people who make $0 in both merch and vinyl sales. In fact, 88% of them made no money from merch and 66% of them made no money from CDs, downloads, or streaming, let alone vinyl.

If you unpack the numbers and look at the portion of musicians who made any money from selling merch, it turns out that they made more than 16% of their income that way. For bands that sell any merch at all, it turns out to be the second largest slice of the pie after live performance. It was bigger than recorded music revenue and songwriting royalties combined.

It’s also worth mentioning that all of the bands who contributed the most to vinyl  sales last year are on labels. Many of them are on major labels. This means they have to share a large portion of that revenue, just like with CD sales. Which means the author’s follow up statement that “500 records sold at $15 each means $7,500 in extra income for you or your band” is so misleading, that I don’t know where to start.

Most self-released bands are simply not going to sell 500 copies of their record on any format, let alone on vinyl.  Of the 75,000 CDs released in 2010, 60,000 of them sold an average of 13 copies each. On any format.

To make this even more clear, we should compare sales of vinyl compared to other major formats. If we look at CDs alone (which are dying but still make up more than 40% of the paid music market) they currently outpace vinyl sales by a factor of roughly 3,000%.

If we wanted an increase in vinyl sales to merely make up for the 13% loss in CD sales this past year, then we’d need them to grow by about 350% next year. This is not going to happen. Vinyl growth is already slowing, and CD sales are going to continue to shrink much faster than vinyl could ever grow to make up for it.

I’m sorry to say it, but I think that whole article, and so many others like it, are what the kids call a “logic fail.”

Why Are We Shooting Ourselves in the Foot?

The people at FeedBands aren’t the only ones causing us to ignore the real problems and real solutions. We mislead ourselves, unwittingly, all the time.

Recently, a friend of mine who works hard to get people back into the idea of re-valuing music wrote:

“If we change the perception, do we change the result? Have we forgotten how to market music? Is the low sound quality of most digital a turn off?”

These questions speak volumes. Yes, we do need to change the perception. Yes, we’ve probably lost most of the inspiring marketers to other, more profitable sectors. (Computer technology anyone?)

But — Is the “low sound quality of digital a turnoff”?

There are two possible answers to this: A ) “Yes, if by ‘turnoff’, you mean ‘people are listening to more music than ever before.’ (They’re just not paying for it)” or B ) “Yes, but only because our perception is dead wrong.”

Here’s the reality: Modern digital doesn’t have low sound quality. By any objective standard, it’s actually far better in terms of raw sound quality than vinyl is!

We’re not just talking about CDs here. This statement includes any good resolution downloads or streaming files. The problem is that music marketers have effectively been lying to listeners by telling them that modern digital doesn’t sound good. And we’ve got to stop. Now.

Perception affects enjoyment more than anything else. That’s where the failure is. Right now, by any objective standard, we have the best listening formats and equipment ever made, and at prices that are mind-bogglingly low.

In reality, modern digital actually sounds f*ing great. A 320kbps stream from Spotify, eMusic or MOG sounds indistinguishable from a CD when heard by the ear. This has been confirmed in countless blind tests. Meanwhile, within the spectrum of human hearing, a CD is unquestionably closer to the original master than vinyl is. We can prove that with measurements and we can prove it with listening tests. There is no doubt. Zero.

In terms of raw sound quality, what’s available today is provably higher-fidelity than vinyl, cassette, 8-track, reel-to-reel, wax cylinder, AM/FM radio, and just about any other consumer format ever invented. But we’re failing to tell that story.

At this point, we don’t need to convince the engineers to design better digital. They’ve already done their jobs. The technology is there. Now we’ve gotta do our jobs and convince people to start paying for it again!

Unfortunately, my friend went on to write:

“I’m embarrassed to admit that it has been years since I heard vinyl. That all changed 2 nights ago when I was at a friends house. I was sitting there and noticed the warmth, the sonic space, the timbre of the instruments. It was…sumptuous, sensual, dare I say, intoxicating.”

I believe my friend. Wouldn’t doubt him for a second. But here’s the thing: What really happened was that he sat down and listened to an amazing-sounding recording on a friends’ stereo… Which was far better than his own. Of course you’re going to notice new things!

Yes: Great speakers sounds amazing. Hanging out with friends, listening to albums and feeding off of each others’ enthusiasm is awesome. No question. These things can make a huge difference in perceived audio quality. Vinyl on the other hand? Not so much.

Don’t get me wrong — Vinyl can be great. People actually can hear a difference under blind listening conditions. There can even be something so subtly familiar, ‘so soft around the edges’ about the medium. It’s just that with good vinyl, those differences are not that dramatic at all. And, when we prefer it, it’s because we like the measurably less pristine sound of the format.

It may be counter-intuitive to some vinyl promoters, but pretending that digital can’t sound as good or better than vinyl is a major part of the problem facing musicians today. Not only is it untrue, but it reinforces the backwards notion that today’s recordings just aren’t worth paying for. When we lie to kids and tell them digital is lousy, we’re effectively saying “that sucks, you don’t have to pay for that garbage.” While in fact, ‘that garbage’ is among the best we’ve ever had.

The problem of musicians’ income in the 21st century is not going to be solved by singing the praises of vinyl. It is going to be solved by developing great streaming services and making sure they pay fair rates. It’s going to be solved by reasonable and effective crackdowns on piracy. And it’s going to be solved by information campaigns that tell people the truth, inspiring them to put value back into the music that is already right there at their fingertips.

That is all that can save musicians. There is no way that vinyl can do it alone.

So spread the truth: If you want sound quality, we’ve got better sound quality today than ever before. If you want convenience and access, that’s here too. If you want low prices, my God are they low. Perhaps too low. If you want physicality and ritual, you can get that too. Buy your CDs, buy your vinyl. As long as you’re buying, those things are not going to go away.

Come to think of it, you could say the same thing about good music.

So: When was the last time you bought some good music? As a consumer, it doesn’t matter if you’re paying for streams or downloading, buying LPs or CDs. As a consumer, all that matters is that you’re contributing and not just leeching. Oh yeah: And that you enjoy it.

The rest of it is for us to figure out.

Justin Colletti is an audio engineer, educator and journalist

This entry was posted in All Stories, August 2013, Featured Stories, Industry Trends, Most Popular, Rants and Raves. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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