Vinyl Sales Overtake Digital Downloads: the Truth but not the Whole Truth

“Vinyl Sales Overtake Digital Downloads” was the headline in the Guardian this week “Tables turned as vinyl sales overtake digital sales for first time in UK”, £2.5 million for vinyl album sales in the first week of December 2016 as opposed to £2.1 million for digital downloads. So what is wrong with this story, why is it true, and why is it absolutely not true?

Firstly, why is the headline wrong? Well it is gross income from vinyl album sales that has gone to £2.5 million, so that is how much cash has come in from vinyl album sales. But of course vinyl albums are much more expensive than downloads, Kate Bush’s new live album coming in at an eye watering £60, the download is much cheaper. If you looked at the profit made on sales of albums it may be different, as the vinyl record requires manufacture, you have to play for the plastic; it needs a cover printing; it needs shipping; it needs people in shops to sell it and take a cut; whereas a digital download skips all of those costs, so may actually make more money for record companies.

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Next up is actual sales, not money made from sales. There were more digital downloads of albums than vinyl album sales in the last week, 120,000 albums were sold, whereas 295,000 digital albums were downloaded. So vinyl album sales have not overtaken digital downloads which are three times larger.

You will notice I keep saying vinyl albums. Of course many people no longer buy albums, it is increasingly common for people to buy individual tracks. You might argue that that is not the same thing, but then the vinyl album sales are boosted by compilation album sales, which are just collections of individual tracks, they are not an album in the conventional sense, and indeed things like Now That’s What I Call Music didn’t use to count in album charts. So if you include all sales of recordings, albums, singles, tracks, then you see a different picture.

Why is the headline right? Well it’s hard to love a download, it is “invisible music”, you can’t hold it, you often don’t have the artwork, and you have so many downloads your love is spread across them so thin you can’t really obsess over them. Vinyl records have many aspects that make them loveable. They are impermanent, they are fragile beauties that will break, scratch and hiss in time, start getting cranky like people do when they get older! The young people who are buying them don’t know that, as their parents had CDs, which are more robust. They might feel in 10 years when their precious vinyl is unlistenable that they wish they had cashed in the download codes. But you have to look after vinyl, you have to protect it, clean it, change your needles, have a record player. And you own it, you can hold it, touch it, and recognise it from the slightest glance at a small corner of the label or cover. It has a large piece of artwork on the front, it is artwork itself. It is something that can be fetishised, it is proper consumerism. It is also more expensive, so the mark of a proper music fan, who cares about their music, who wants a few, carefully selected pieces of music that excellent, not a million tracks on mp3.

This makes the vinyl record an increasingly popular item on santa’s wishlists, Christmas is the most important time of the year for the music industry as much as other types of shopping, and the inflated price of vinyl helps to feed the whole of the starving music industry. Vinyl sales however are still a small part of the music industry.

Even if you say “gross income from sales of vinyl albums have overtaken gross income from digital downloads of albums”, then there is another more important story here. That is that although vinyl sales are increasing, the bigger story is that digital downloads are decreasing quicker. It’s not so much that vinyl is up, but that digital downloads are down.

In fact downloads look to be on a straight line trajectory that would see them all but disappear in a few years. The real story is streaming.

There are several stories about streaming out there. You regularly hear about record companies complaining about streaming, that there is too much piracy and that they don’t get paid enough. Well when the music industry claimed that home taping is killing music (and yes, cassettes are making a lo-fi comeback too if you want to out-geek the vinyl collectors), they were wrong. They had no evidence and were just railing against new technology in a luddite fashion. In fact the evidence now shows that home taping boosted music sales, increased them. As we all knew, what happened was that a home tape meant your mates got to hear your music, and then liked it so much they ended up going out and buying it themselves. Well it seems that free streamed music and even illegal digital downloads have the same effect. Sales income from recordings has gone up, and it seems that piracy just gives people a taste for music, which they eventually buy. Even better, what seems to happen is that people hear music on a streaming service like Spotify or Apple Music and then collect their favourites on vinyl. So there’s the real story, increased vinyl sales are coming from streaming.

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And the industry stuff about “we are not making any money from streaming” seems to be another myth. The big big news is that streaming music sales income looks like it has outstripped digital downloads (in some territories), and of course downloads and streaming are together bigger than physical media (CDs and vinyl). Streaming is the future, if you are not listening to your music on Spotify and YouTube get with the programme. These two big players are dominating, and they control the incomes, one stream might pay about half a pence to an artist. And the usual cuts to record companies are reduced. Their profits are down, as they are no longer the distributer, and they can’t so easily control publishing rights. And sales are spreading, instead of their megastars selling most of the music, there are huge numbers of artists accounting for a little bit each, many of them completely independent of record companies. The big record companies don’t like upstarts like Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music raking in the money and controlling the industry. They like vinyl because it works for their business model, but they are fighting a losing battle.

Superfast broadband rolled out by the government, along with better cloud storage and wireless charging of iPhones are all coming soon, and will make streaming increasingly popular. 2.1 million vinyl albums were sold in 2015, there were 53.7 billion streams. So about 2500 times as many tracks were streamed as were bought on vinyl (assuming 10 tracks on a vinyl album). 2.1 million albums were sold in 2015, Adele sold 2.5 million copies of her album 25 in that year in just 6 weeks. That puts vinyl sales into perspective. Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” on its own was streamed 65 million times.

So you have a choice this Christmas, buy vinyl for your beard-growing would be hipster loved one, or get a Spotify gift card. Either way, we have access to so much more music today than 20 years ago, the music industry might not like it, but for music audiences, we have never had it so good.

Dr Rupert Till is Reader in Music and Director of International, in the School of Music, Humanities and Media at the University of Huddersfield, UK.

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