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.


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.


Dr Chill live @ Chillout Gardens Boom Festival 2016, Portugal

Dr Chill is performing at the Boom Festival in August 2016, where 30,000 trance fans will converge on a beautiful site in the Portuguese mountains. He is playing a set of largely new material written for the festival, in the Chillout Gardens, a haven of peace in the busyness of the festival. The set will feature 3D sound, but you can hear rough mixes in stereo of the music previewed and streamed from the link below.

Some of the music explores remixes of recordings of reconstructions of ancient archaeological musicals instruments, including Lyre, Aulos, Prehistoric Bone Flute, Lurs and Bagpipes, it is Music Archaeology. It also features sampled reverbs of archaeological sites.

Another group of tracks are the result of work recording Rafiki Jazz, a “World Music” group, and in particular work with Sufi singer Sarah Yaseem. Some of these tracks also feature Kora, Oud, Ney, Duduk and singer Avital Raz. The set finishes with some classic Dr Chill tracks.

David Bowie


David Bowie has been widely praised on the sad occasion of his death. Not since the death of John Lennon or Elvis Presley has the UK seen national radio stations dedicating whole periods of their airplay to an artist, or the almost universal love that has been poured out towards both Bowie and his music. But he went long periods of his career as a star with cult rather than mainstream success. So what is it that has made him such an influential figure?


Bowie’s first success, the song “Space Oddity“, came as something of an accident, when the BBC picked it up to back the moon landing, you could say he struck lucky to release a record at the right time with a space theme. He then found it somewhat difficult to repeat this success. He released a number of albums including Hunky Dory, which featured the songs “Life on Mars” and “Oh! You Pretty Things“. These tracks would go on to be significant sellers for Bowie, but at this point the album was a critical success but a commercial flop, and the single “Changes” peaked at number 66 (in the US only) at the time.

In the meantime Bowie joined a dance class that included avant-garde theatre and mime. Here he learned to develop characters. He turned into a performing artist. He also developed a taste for the avant-garde, for being ahead of the game, for being a leader rather than a follower, and for art that challenges audiences and breaks with traditions. He understood the value of newness and of becoming someone else onstage. To play a part you are willing to embrace influence, to find sources, to find other people, other stories and make them your own, mix them with yourself and your own experience.


In the USA, Bowie met two charismatic characters, proto-punks Lou Reed and most importantly Iggy Pop. Bowie came back inspired, and turned Iggy’s extremes into Ziggy. Also inspired by his wife Angie’s taste in clothes and style, this was to be an ensemble piece. Mick Ronson and the rest of the Spiders from Mars joined Bowie in outrageous costumes like a group of aliens who had landed on stage to beam the audience up. This anonymous band hired limos, turning up to early press events like they were already rock stars, presented an outrageous, sexual, provocative and theatrical show, and the press and audience lapped it up. The band told an onstage story, a complete performance that out-glammed the glitter rock of the day. Bowie could have made a long and rewarding career as Ziggy, but he quickly moved on. He created Alladin Sane, a variation of Ziggy, and then moved on, breaking up the band, immediately seeking a new approach.


When Bowie was competing with Marc Bolan to be the most outrageous thing in glitter, he was cutting edge, but he knew he needed to find a new direction. Bowie turned to (Young) American R’n’B and funk music, with an album featuring contributions from Sly Stone’s drummer and a young Luther Vandross. Soon he was on the move again though, and his next LP, Station to Station, offered up a new character, the Thin White Duke. This album saw him develop again musically. Brian Eno had discovered Krautrock bands Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk, and worked with Bowie to commence an era of experimental music that saw the music adopt minimalist, machine-like rhythms and synthesizers. Bowie understood the importance of finding edgey collaborators like Eno and King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, who could bring him new musical textures, and guide him to the edge of the musical map, often led by whatever was cutting edge in the recording studio. He grasped new technology wherever he came across it. Living in an apartment in Berlin with Iggy and Eno, his Low experimental soundscapes moved him further leftfield, exploring ambient techno at a time few had a clue what that meant.


Having been a key influence on punk, in the 1980s Bowie inspired a generation of New Romantic bands. Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army and Visage were almost Bowie clones, and Duran Duran, Culture Club, Wham and Spandau Ballet built their styles on various parts of their hero Bowie’s music. The man himself roared back into chart form with scary musical monster tracks, which put pop back in the centre of his electronic and funky sounds, with “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion“. He took this a step further when he recruited Nile Rodgers to produce and play guitar on his Let’s Dance album, which would be the high watermark of his commercial success, and see him fill stadiums with fans at his concerts. He had finally stepped out of the shadow of cult status to become a mainstream star. His had realised that his most powerful persona was David Bowie, that while David Jones was mortal, Bowie was a rock God, his single word name and handsome face instantly recognisable, much like Pele, Elvis, Picasso, Monroe, Kennedy, Hitler or Jesus. He had the critical and popular acclaim, as well as the financial independence, that showed iconic status.


He had created his mediapheme, his character and public image, to be somewhat hollow, allowing space for the public to identify with him. He never filled in all the pieces, leaving audiences to interpret his lyrics as they chose (they were often created using cut-up technique, drawing words out of a hat randomly). He did not give many interviews, keeping the public curious. By not specifying every detail of his life he allowed us to all consider that Bowie was essentially like me. Had we had a fly-on-the-wall-reality-series-Bowie, we might have twigged that actually we had no idea what Bowie was really like, we only knew his public persona, and he might actually be very different to what we expected. he know to give away so much detail made the star smaller. Gods need to be universal, not specific.

Actors play a part that is inherently false, we know they are acting, they are lying, pretending to be someone they are not, reading a script someone else had written. Bowie realised that unlike actors, people believed in the characters pop stars played, especially if they wrote their own music and lyrics, and performed them in real life at gigs, where we could see them in the flesh. We assume that rather than writing fiction, the lyrics, music and public characters in the pop world are at least mostly the personal stories of the authors, we suspend disbelief permanently and engage with authorial fallacy. Bowie understood the power of pop to create hollow icons, figures we could enter, fill, complete, live through vicariously, embracing fantasies that we would not have the courage to live out. He understood that such fantasies become jaded after a while. He knew that just as a new album needed new songs and music, it also needed new sounds, ideas, concepts and images, and he made the creation and development of new pop presentation an integrated part of his art form. His pop gesamtkunstwerks brought conceptual music theatre to the popular stage, integrating music and writing into a performance art whole dripping with experimentalism. He kept everything fresh, new, exciting and challenging.

Something of a futurist, Bowie’s beginnings were with space missions, he played the alien on film and onstage, he was the “Starman” waiting in the sky, the “Space Oddity” that kept us wondering if there was “Life on Mars”. He was homo superior, pointing to where humanity (or at least the music scene) was heading. He was metrosexual in the early seventies, he was tech-savvy before the computer, always one step ahead of the game. He went on to write increasingly technological music, always keeping us guessing. Having toured his greatest hits, and having had as much success as he needed, he formed Tin Machine, a band in which he was just one member, exploring a new format. He wrote great club music with the Pet Shop Boys on “Hello Spaceboy“, and chic drum’n’bass on songs like “Little Wonder“. He wrote music for a computer game, released the first single available for download by a major artist, and launched his own internet service provider, Bowienet.

Eventually his constant experimenting took him back to the cult status he perhaps preferred to the spotlight of media frenzy. His albums through the 1990s and into the new millenium all went top 10 in the UK charts, The Next Day in 2013 hitting number 1, but of the 53 singles he released in the 30 years since 1986, only two have crept into the UK top ten, and no single since his “Dancing in the Streets” Live Aid charity single with Mick Jagger has gone top 20 in the US. Bowie has continued to make music and his latest album, Blackstar contains some remarkable, stunning material, especially if you watch the videos for songs like “Lazarus“, the last single he released. Lyrically (“I know something is very wrong … Something happened on the day he died”) and visually it is gripping, particularly now we know how ill he was when he made it. Blackstar‘s title track is a 10 minute epic, showing a spacesuit with a jewelled skeleton, seeming to portray Colonel Tom finally meeting his end in the world beyond, a work of art as gripping as anything he produced in the seventies, and all available for free on Bowie’s YouTube channel. Perhaps his late period will in the long term be recognised as having as much quality as his early work.


Bowie started in space, on the cutting edge of technology, and his ability to keep sharp and new, his constant rebirth and recreation has made him a pop music legend. He has inspired punk’s Sex Pistol orange hair and Velvet Underground guitars; the New Romantics’ mix of funk and electronica; Madonna, Prince, Lady Gaga and every theatrical moment on X Factor; and novel guitar music from the Cure to the Happy Mondays, Radiohead, Pulp and Muse. His voice spans an astonishing range, he is a magnificent singer, a brilliant live performer, he invented the spectacular pop stadium tour, his studio production innovations live on, he was an astonishing songwriter, and managed to make songs that merged everything in a memorable popular sensibility rather than leaving the audience on the outside of an experimental cultural elite. Ultimately a man of his people, an original, he leaves behind a legacy few artists could equal. David Jones has left the building, but his life’s work, David Bowie will be there forever, the Starman, waiting in the sky.

Popular Music Studies in the 21st Century

I am a member of the editorial board of the IASPM Journal (the journal of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music). I recently acted as Guest Editor for a special issue focused on Popular Music Studies in the 21st century. As well as editing the volume I wrote an extended editorial. You can find it at:

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