In 2015, the music industry seemingly hit rock bottom from a sales perspective. Streaming, according to Nielsen, experienced a growth rate of nearly 93%, while CD sales hit another recent low. Artists, young and old are forced to tour continuously to maintain a standard of living befitting of their profession.
Despite these changes in the industry, another physical medium has seen sales continually bounce back, and exceed any reasonable expectations. In the first half of 2015 alone, the RIAA reported record sales of nearly 9 million. That statistic, was the highest in over 25 years, a time when Sony’s Discman was not yet a household name.
Some of the appeal for the vinyl market is clear. Just like throwback jerseys and classic cars, consumers yearn for the authentic in a world that is increasingly disconnected and dependent on the digital. A record sleeve is highly tangible and gives a more distinct feel for the story behind the album. In an era obsessed with artisan water, exposed brick walls and organic granola, the record isn’t an outlier, it is the latest in a search for authenticity. The warm, sometimes hazy sounds that emanate from vinyl have re-ignited a love for the old-school in many music fans tired of compressed MP3s and tiny computer speakers.
But the authenticity engendered by the vinyl resurgence doesn’t come without a cost. Iconic albums by top artists re-printed often cost $20-$30, a steep cost particularly for a generation of new vinyl lovers unaccustomed to paying for their music. Rare, out-of-print records fetch even higher prices, sometimes costing over $50.
Part of the allure of the record craze is the opportunity to collect and to discover the strange assortment of albums that were available in a pre-Spotify era. Although the internet simplifies the process of searching for records, it does not eliminate the rush of finding a special release at a dusty old shop. Much like the used book store, technology has transformed the way people interact with their media, but not entirely displaced the need to experience the tactile.
The rush of collecting vinyl is certainly a new high-profile hobby, but in the long-term the sustainability of the industry remains uncertain. Only 40 plants in the U.S. currently manufacture vinyl, currently lending a highly-collectible component to the business behind the music.
Time will tell if today’s 20-somethings tire of purchasing vinyl, but strong alternatives exist. Despite the stupidity of its initial public relations push, Neil Young’s Pono Music opened up the world to the possibility of streaming high quality FLAC files. Jay-Z and Kayne West followed suit with the much maligned Tidal Music, which charges $20 per month to access a library of on-demand hi-def music.
For the average consumer, the realm of hi-fi music can be confusing, and offer too many options to be streamlined. But for those interested in experiencing the music authentically, a new wave of strong bluetooth products (including Sonos, Ultimate Ears and Bose) make consuming music, whether it be the physical vinyl or high-quality streams a seamless experience.