Sunday, June 16, 2024

Putting the ‘vinyl revival’ in proper perspective

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MBW Views is a series of exclusive op/eds from eminent music industry people… with something to say. The following comes from Eamonn Forde, a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig and Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates. UK-based Forde’s new book, 1999: The Year The Record Industry Lost Control, is out now via Omnibus Press.

“The report of my death was an exaggeration,” said Mark Twain in 1897 on hearing of the early publication of his obituary.

The inverse of that, arriving like clockwork every January dressed like the naked emperor in the invisible ermine of a “feel-good” story, is the repetitious news of the “vinyl revival” that, for a business not shy about exaggeration and self-aggrandisement, really takes the biscuit.

It is hard to keep count, but this must now be the vinyl re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-revival.

The spin this year is that “UK sales of vinyl LPs have hit their highest level since 1990”. They are up 11.7%! Unit sales topped 5.9 million units! One simply cannot move for people in the streets shouting about how much vinyl they have bought this week!

Without wishing to “dunk” too much on the jubilant numbers coming out from the BPI, one does worry that all sense of perspective has been badly lost here in the race to proffer a positive story with which to kick off the new year.

To put this purported renaissance in proper context, let us look at the many different things “LP” could stand for.

LP = Lacking Perspective

This 1990 benchmark desperately needs to be put into perspective. Yes, vinyl sales are at their “highest level” since then, but 1990 was far from a golden age for vinyl sales in the UK. In fact, in 1990, vinyl sales were rapidly going down the toilet.

Looking at the BPI’s own numbers from 1990, a total of 150.7 million albums were shipped in the UK that year. Vinyl, with “trade deliveries” (not sales) of 24.7 million, was, by some distance, the poor relation format. It made up just 16.4% of the total market. This was quite far behind the CD (50.9 million units, equalling 33.7% of the market). And miles behind the cassette (75.1 million units, equalling 49.8% of the market).

1990 was hardly a marquee year for vinyl sales. Those trade deliveries of 24.7 million were down from 37.9 million units in 1989 which were down from 50.2 million in 1988. For proper context, this was a vertiginous plummet from the 91.6 million units reported in 1975.

Vinyl’s market decommissioning accelerated rapidly after 1990, halving to 12.9 million units in 1991 and halving again to 6.7 million units in 1992.

Saying “vinyl sales are at their highest level since the format was properly in its death rattle phase” does not have the same heartwarming ring to it.

LP = Lawless Profiteering

The BPI is obviously pointing to the retail value of vinyl sales in 2023 versus 1990 rather than unit shipments (as 5.9 million units in 2023 is a quarter of the 24.7 million units in 1990).

And therein lies the dirty secret – a dirty secret that is also signing the format’s potential death warrant – of this vinyl “revival”. Vinyl pricing is utterly out of control and consumers are being roughly upended as all the money is shaken out of their pockets.

As I wrote in the Music Business UK Q4 report at the end of last year, the steadily ascending retail price of LPs is “constantly and industrially taking the piss”.

Based on HMV’s online pricing in late 2023 (which is typical of other retailers), a multitude of new and catalogue albums, often in standard black vinyl, were selling for £44.99, £49.99, £54.99, £59.99 and even £74.99 (hello, Steel Wheels Live: Atlantic City, New Jersey by The Rolling Stones).

Pricing is being pushed to breaking point. This so-called “revival” is really a commercial shakedown of the fan. The more brazen the industry becomes here with its ludicrous pricing policy, the quicker they will snuff out future growth for the format.

LP = Limited Popstars

In the BPI’s press release about the vinyl “revival” (apologies for always archly curling inverted commas around the word, but this is the only way to properly deal with it), the top 10 LP sales of the year exposes how a handful of megastars are drastically skewing the results.

Top of the pile was Taylor Swift with 1989 (Taylor’s Version), then The Rolling Stones with Hackney Diamonds, then Lana Del Rey with Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, then Taylor Swift (again) with Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), then Fleetwood Mac with Rumours, then Blur with The Ballad Of Darren, then Pink Floyd with The Dark Side Of The Moon, then Taylor Swift (again, again) with Midnights, then Olivia Rodrigo with Guts, and then Lewis Capaldi with Broken By Desire To Be Heavenly Sent.

Three albums by Taylor Swift (two of them re-records), two albums from the 1970s and all of the top 10 released by major labels. These are all important contextual markers.

It is telling there is no mention in the BPI’s press releases of any of the smaller acts or independent labels that kept vinyl plants in business during The Wilderness Years. It is simply looking at a handful of major releases and drawing universal (pun intended) conclusions from them.

The dominance of a few heavy hitting acts here – often using multiple vinyl variants to drive high first-week sales (see below) – badly skews the results and tells us nothing about what is happening further down the commercial pecking order.

It is like looking at the blockbusting gross from Taylor Swift’s Eras tour, over $1 billion and counting, and proclaiming that it is driving a revival in grassroots venues.

LP = Lifting Placements (in the chart)

This is another factor that is skipped over in the bloviation about vinyl’s “resurgence” (I thought it would make a refreshing change to not say “revival” here). In the streaming age, and with the complex conversions underpinning “streaming equivalent albums”, acts banging out multiple vinyl variants of an album can drastically game their first-week chart position.

For her release of Midnights, Taylor Swift was offering fans the “opportunity” to buy the same album over and over again in different colours of vinyl including “moonstone blue”, “jade green”, “blood moon”, “mahogany” and “lavender”.

Swift is far from an outlier here, with almost every major act creating a multitude of colour and picture disc versions of albums aimed squarely at their fanbase.

A few major acts getting fans to buy the same album multiple times does not constitute a “boom” for the vinyl format. It only constitutes a boom in their personal wealth.

LP = Lazarus Propaganda

By all means, talk about the growth in vinyl; but please, please, please stop hyping it up as something that it is not. Sales are growing and that’s clearly lovely. But that growth is marginal and it needs to be understood within its proper context, not devoid of context.

Because stripping things of their context to propagate a particular and highly conditional worldview is little more than propaganda.

This is all at risk of becoming a thin gruel retelling – a weak cosplay reenactment – of the story of Lazarus.

But the thing about Lazarus in the Bible is that he was brought fully back to life. He was not brought back to his “highest level of life since AD 20”.Music Business Worldwide

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