For the Record is a Billboard column from deputy editorial director Robert Levine analyzing news and trends in the music industry.
For the past decade, the biggest story in the music industry has been its remarkable comeback, fueled by subscription streaming. At its 2014 low point, recorded music brought in just $6.7 billion in the U.S., according to the RIAA – less than half of its previous 1999 peak of $14.6 billion or its new 2021 peak of $15 billion. But the most surprising story may be vinyl, which is growing much, much faster.
At its low point, in 2005, vinyl brought in just $14.2 million – about what Tool made selling concert tickets in January. Then it started growing – to $88.9 million by 2010, $243.8 million by 2014, $419.2 million by 2018. By 2020, vinyl accounted for $643.9 million, or 5.3% of the U.S. recorded music business. Last year it was worth $1 billion – 70 times as much as in 2005. It even brought in more revenue than Latin music in the U.S. (although not internationally). And signs suggest it’s growing fast.
A few weeks ago at the Music Biz conference, MusicWatch founder Russ Crupnick presented a new consumer research study on the topic, “Revelations About the Vinyl Revolution,” about where this growth is coming from and why – as well as how the business might expand. (The study was funded by the Music Business Association and the RIAA.) Based on more than 1,400 consumer surveys, including more than 900 vinyl buyers, the report segments the market of vinyl buyers according to how long they’ve been collecting (38% more than a decade, 30% between three and 10 years, and about a third less than two years) and how often and why they buy. Although we tend to think of vinyl buyers as a particular tribe, there are more of them than most people realize – 17.6 million in the U.S. That’s more than a third of the number of Americans who bought tracks as downloads at the peak of that market. And although 26% are “veteran and committed,” there are also consumers who focus more on packaging (26%) and artists (20%), as well as pop fans (12%) and “new occasionals” (15%).
I fit into “veteran and committed” – I’ve accounted for several thousand dollars of the growth in vinyl sales over the years – to the point that I probably ought to be literally committed. (At a time when you can stream all the music you want for $10 a month, this is both enormously impractical and a ton of fun.) I enjoy record shopping as an activity as well as a goal, and I’ve reached the admittedly ridiculous point where I don’t just have favorite bands – I have favorite pressing plants. (On the rare chance you care, they are Quality Record Pressings and Pallas Group.)
For years, the story of the vinyl business was not unlike that of comic books: What was once mainstream entertainment birthed a larger business (major labels, superhero movies) but then itself gradually became niche, where a relatively small number of consumers spent significant amounts of money in specialty stores staffed by argumentative obsessives. (Face it: The Simpsons‘ Comic Book Guy could easily find a gig at an indie record store.) Comics themselves then came back – as graphic novels that are sold in bookstores – and records seem to be doing the same.
For most of the time I’ve been collecting vinyl, many (but certainly not all!) buyers looked like me: Pale, male and the kind of person who enjoys flipping through old records at a garage sale. That’s changing. Vinyl consumers are 46% female, 20% people of color, and evenly balanced between those over and under 35, according to the MusicWatch report. And in a hobby known for devotion to the obscure, many have mainstream taste: The best-selling records of 2021 include albums by Olivia Rodrigo, Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish, as well as Prince and The Beatles.
In the name of field research – and, OK, also for fun – I took Crupnick to my favorite record store in Nashville, Grimey’s New and Pre-Loved Music. Before lunchtime on a weekday, the store had almost a dozen people who seemed to be shopping for all kinds of music, from mainstream to obscure. (Downstairs, the clerk was playing Blue Öyster Cult, which Comic Book Guy would appreciate, and I did, too.) Crupnick bought a Dave Brubeck Record Store Day release and used albums by The Clash and Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, and I picked up used records by Eddie Floyd and Alex Chilton, plus an Emmylou Harris album as a gift. Neither of us are young pop fans, but the presence of some at Grimey’s made the store lively at what would normally be a dead time.
The exciting thing about the MusicWatch report is that it describes several vectors of growth for vinyl. A subset of the music business once dominated by classic rock is expanding as younger consumers seeking out the same pop and hip-hop they listen to on streaming. At the same time, older vinyl fans are buying just as much – sometimes more, as more titles become available. (At least some of the success of pop in the vinyl format reflects record label priorities at a time of limited pressing capacity.) And some of those younger fans who bought the Olivia Rodrigo album will grow into the kind of diehard music fans who prefer audiophile releases to colored vinyl and come to enjoy passing the afternoon digging through crates for obscure releases.