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Setting Records: Is the Resurgence of Vinyl Driven by Nostalgia or Fad?

Vinyl is on pace to outsell CDs for the first time since 1986. What does the data tell us about this trend?

Robin Muccari

In February 2019, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported that vinyl sales accounted for more than a third of revenue coming from physical releases. Their midyear revenue report showed that record sales have enjoyed constant growth in recent years while CDs have declined three times as fast. What is causing this resurgence, and even more importantly, who? My first guess is nostalgia. Records are tangible and can incite an emotional connection to the music, performer, and the place it takes the listener. Here’s an excerpt from RJ Andrews’s book, Info We Trust.

On the evening of October 24, 1962, James Brown and the Famous Flames performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem … The concert recording was initially shelved. But, pressed by Brown’s manager, King Records yielded and produced the album. “Live at the Apollo” was released the following year … The album stayed on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart for over a year, helping launch James Brown to R&B superstardom.

Imagine the nostalgia this record can elicit for a loyal and dedicated fan of James Brown, one who rooted for him before his career took off in the 1960s. Maybe they were even at that groundbreaking concert. As Andrews stated in his book, “Today, we now know how music, and James Brown, soared through the 1960s. That knowledge makes the early influential show at the Apollo even more special.”

Live at the Apollo was released in 1963. It’s a live recording of James Brown and the Famous Flames performing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem about a year earlier. It was a brief show where they performed a dozen songs. The album sold incredibly well and stayed on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart for over a year.

The RIAA report definitely piques the interests of data and music lovers alike. The bar charts are a good choice for showing the revenue and volume trends over time. Representing each music format by a distinct color creates a region for each. You can see the orange CD region dominating the chart, peaking in the early 2000s, and slowly diminishing as time goes on. The deep blue sprinkles of hope to the right of the graph show vinyl’s resurrection. I recall reading the above passage from RJ Andrews and reaching out to both him and Ben Jones on their thoughts about this resurgence. They both concurred with what was mentioned in the Rolling Stones article — it’s a sexy cool product that creates an emotional connection. I decided to dig deeper into this trend by querying RIAA’s US sales database. I walk through the data and created the following visualizations below.

CDs Dominated the Market From 1991–2014

The US recorded music revenue trend from 1973–2018. The colored region tells a story of the rise and fall of several formats, including 8-Tracks and Cassettes. LP/EP also diminished in the late 1980s but has been making a resurgence in recent years. Data Source: RIAA

LPs are making a comeback and are on pace to outsell CDs. RIAA’s 2019 midyear report stated that vinyl records earned $224 million in the first half of 2019. This came very close to CD’s $248 million sales revenue for the same time frame. While revenue growth for CD’s has taken a nosedive, vinyl revenue grew by 12.8 percent in the second half of 2018 and 12.9 percent in the first half of 2019.

Although vinyl records made up 4 percent of total music revenues in the first half of 2019, this resurgence can not be overlooked. Like comic books, LPs are a sexy, cool product that represents an investment in an emotional medium. Looking at the diagram above, we can see cassettes died out in the early 2000s and are showing no signs of a comeback. This speaks to the unique nostalgia that LPs inspire.

“Albums are more than tangible and sentimentally linked to a music age where the concept of an album was more important. Vinyl puts you in physical contact with the medium.” — RJ Andrews, Author of Info We Trust

While CD’s Are Taking a Nose Dive, Vinyl Records Have Enjoyed Constant Growth in Recent Years

While revenue growth for CDs has been taking a nosedive, vinyl revenue grew by 12.8 percent in the second half of 2018 and 12.9 percent in the first half of 2019. Data Source: RIAA

In addition to nostalgic value, vinyl has a unique audio quality. This is most likely due to the fact that vinyl being an analog recording is not as precise as digital recordings such as CDs. There’s beauty in imperfection as it’s difficult to translate bass sounds to vinyl. Making the grooves of an LP the right size to accommodate bass requires a lot of processing. This changes the tone in a way that ends up aesthetically pleasing to audiophiles.

Vinyl’s resurgence has been a boom for some artists. The Beatles sold over 300,000 records in 2018. Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Queen all sold over 100,000 in the same year.

A New Generation Warms to an Old Music Format

Growth in LP sales (8%) has outstripped digital downloads (-25%). In addition to older generations having nostalgia for songs of their youth, the younger generation has grown a love for the LP format. Data Source:RIAA

In addition to music lovers reminiscing over their younger days, vinyl is drawing in a new generation of music aficionados. According to Music Watch, 56 percent of vinyl record purchasers are men and almost half of them are under 25.

Younger generations experience these records in a different way. Today, people come in and already know what they want to buy, having browsed through YouTube or Spotify. In the past, shoppers had to take a chance and confer with the record shop owner about whether a particular record was a good buy or not.

Millennials’ love for vinyl speaks volumes of the resurgence. LP’s growth rate of 8 percent year over year has outstripped digital downloads, which declined at a 25% clip. Living in a digital world where music can listen over mobile devices, convenience and portability are kings. So having to proactively buy equipment specifically for playing LPs is a concentrated effort. It speaks to the need to interact with music — lifting the needle and placing it on the wax disc, and watching the record spin at 33 rpm while it produces a unique sound that only an analog recording can emit.

“1978 was one of the last years where a kid could experience growing up with a record player.” — Ben Jones, CEO of Data Literacy, LLC.

Lifting that needle and placing it on the record can be therapeutic as you watch your stress spin away connecting to your favorite tunes.

Through data visualization, we’ve been able to see that although LP’s make up about 4 percent of total music revenue, it’s experiencing double-digit growth. I believe this comeback is driven in part by nostalgia and represents a growing trend. I believe it will remain a niche market of customers who appreciate this unique analog sound. This could also be an indication of the desire to unplug from the demands and pace of the digital world. Think about it, albums require attention. There is a physical component to selecting the album, taking it out of its sleeve, putting it on the player, and placing the needle on the record. You literally can stand there and watch the needle spin your stress away as you reap the rewards of analog sound. The listener may even choose to sit and look at the album artwork, read through the lyrics, and transport themselves farther away from the digital world. It allows us to show an extra appreciation and level of care for some of our favorite albums, perhaps? On the other hand, mobile streaming lends itself to a faster pace, is portable, and can be listened to either attentively or passively … but seems much less personal than the curated experience of good old-fashioned vinyl.


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