Vinyl indignity: record sales are up, but small labels don’t see the benefit
Earlier this week, it was widely reported that vinyl is outselling digital downloads in the UK for the first time since the iTunes store was launched here in 2004. Finally, some good news! After all the tragic losses from the world of music in 2016, here was some seasonal good cheer: the warm and wonderful crackle of vinyl was finally fighting back against cold, compressed MP3s. But, despite the discussions it generated on Newsnight and in these very pages, no one thought to point out that the premise of vinyl surging ahead of downloads is utter nonsense.
The real story is that sales of downloads are dropping not because vinyl is wooing back digital listeners but because streaming is becoming the default way of consuming digital music. Furthermore, the headlines were misleading because vinyl hadn’t outsold digital downloads at all, but rather had made more money for the music industry over the previous week – and no doubt a good proportion of that was thanks to Kate Bush’s new live album Before the Dawn, which sets you back well over £50 on vinyl, more than four times as much as the download.
Direct-to-consumer sales are fun. But would you have seen Tony Wilson flogging Blue Monday 12ins on a market stall?
The relentless spin on the so-called “vinyl revival” is getting ridiculous – as the Daily Mash pointed out in a piece about how vinyl has become more popular than food. The Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA) has been spinning this line for the last couple years, since taking over the reins of Record Store Day. But feelgood stories such as this week’s are like those backmasked records that may or may not have contained satanic messages: gibberish. The truth, for many labels and shops, seems to be the complete opposite.
This year has been the most difficult in the 12 years that I’ve been running my label, Sonic Cathedral. If you are releasing records by new artists, it is getting harder and harder to sell them. Unless you are reissuing Foo Fighters albums to be sold in the supermarket chains that have jumped on the vinyl-revival bandwagon, the situation is nowhere near as VG+ as ERA is suggesting. It’s not just me: Fortuna Pop! has sadly decided to call it a day after 20 years; another person who runs a well respected indie tells me its records sell in smaller and smaller numbers. I’ve never sold many copies, but when one of the major indies is shifting roughly the same amount – seemingly regardless of press and radio coverage or touring – then surely that’s cause for concern, not celebration?
Shops, too, are finding it increasingly difficult to sell new releases. “We do what we can to not just sell catalogue reissues,” says George Clift from Hot Salvation, which opened in Folkestone two years ago, but he admits it’s getting harder to keep a balance between old and new: “Particularly in the provinces, niche is really fucking niche.”
As a result, direct-to-consumer sales at gigs and events such as the Independent Label Market are now key income streams and, as fun as they are, they are less a sign of growth and more proof of how small scale the music industry has become. Would Tony Wilson have stood at a market stall flogging 12in singles of Blue Monday in 1983? Would Alan McGee, with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? in 1995?
We have to ask ourselves why people prefer to buy old records. Is it because vinyl is essentially a retro format, so people naturally look backwards instead of forwards? Is it because the whole culture of music – from the BBC 6Music playlist to festival lineups – is so focused on reliving past glories? Earlier this year, after 10 years of gentle persuasion, I released the second album by the Early Years. At the same time I licensed their 2006 debut from Beggars Banquet and repressed it on orange vinyl; the latter has outsold the former. I’m guessing it’s because these things are a known quantity, and that is what people want from their records: familiarity, nostalgia, a warm and cosy signifier that can be used in ads for banks, cars and clothes. Little wonder, then, that records have ended up on supermarket shelves alongside the Horlicks and the Werther’s Originals.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that people are still buying vinyl, and it’s no bad thing that it’s becoming more widely available. But it seems to have had very little impact on the industry at large, apart from making things even more difficult. In April 2015, when Sonic Cathedral joined forces with Bristol agent provocateurs Howling Owl to begin our Record Store Day Is Dying campaign, we flippantly suggested that every day should be a record store day. But now people really are buying expensive reissues all year round – and I don’t like it.