OnlineRock Blog

08 January 2012

Vinyl Record Sales Continue Upward Trend as Digital Format Polarize Music Consumers

By Tomi Mendel

The numbers are in on music sales for 2011, and they show that music fans may be more polarized than ever when it comes to how they make purchases. Vinyl records, once thought to be a totally obsolete, dead in the water format, are continuing their astounding recent revival, totaling 3,900,000 in units sold. This represents an eye-popping improvement of thirty-six percent over 2010’s tally. Additionally, it marks the sixth consecutive year of rising vinyl sales. Amazingly, for the fourth year in a row, this old-school record format has sold more than at any time since at least 1991, when Nielsen Soundscan started keeping track of music sales. In other words, the last time anyone was buying this much vinyl was very likely the 1980s, when it was still a fairly viable format. 

Break out your (parents’) record collection!

Before vinyl fans get too excited, it is important to note that these numbers represent less than two percent of total album sales, obviously an incredibly small number. However, the sales are improving significantly every year, with fans of both old and new music giving vinyl albums another chance. Current indie artists like Fleet Foxes and the Black Keys stand side by side with the Beatles, whose Abbey Road album leads all vinyl sales (for the third year in a row) with 41,000 units moved. Fascinatingly, Abbey Road also accounted for an astounding ninety-five percent of total Beatles vinyl sold, leading one to wonder what happened to all their other records. Not recorded in any of these totals is the vibrant market for used vinyl. Considering the nostalgia associated with the medium, purchases of older LPs likely account for a big chunk of the total vinyl sales in a given year. If these statistics were added to the current Nielsen numbers, the sales spike would be even more significant. 

No love for Magical Mystery Tour?

This rise of vinyl LPs is another symptom of today’s retro culture, a society that seems somewhat obsessed with its own past. Along with the vinyl revival, cassette-tape record labels are coming into vogue, and the reach of pervasive nostalgia stretches to endless movie and television show remakes, the pop-history-mining of meme culture and the vast archives on sites like Youtube, Netflix or Spotify. With the world moving so fast ahead, many long for the ways of the past, and a dusty, imperfect vinyl record serves as a wonderful reminder of the physicality and humanity of the analog life we are leaving behind. Boasting high-quality audio mixed with a clunky-yet-dignified inconvenience that breeds personal emotional attachment, vinyl albums are perhaps are the purest representation of musical fandom. 

The next big thing.

On the other hand, not everyone is on board with reviving bygone music formats. In fact, 2011 also happened to be the first year ever in which digital music downloads surpassed physical sales. So, while vinyl might be on the rise, MP3s are as well, and in much greater numbers. Though confusing at first glance, it is a trend that makes sense upon reflection, giving an indication of the extremes brought on by changing technology. A consistent rise in digital sales is no surprise, but the vinyl numbers seems to indicate a growing backlash. After all is said and done, it will surely be CDs that suffer the most, lacking either the convenience of MP3s or the nostalgic allure of vinyl LPs.

Could old-school records potentially outstrip compact disc sales in the foreseeable future? Unfortunately for vinyl enthusiasts, CDs accounted for 223,500,000 in sales in 2011, still miles ahead. However, the format is trending down, ending the year at close to six percent behind 2010’s pace. Still, although vinyl remains a niche market at the moment, the striking upward trend in sales cannot be ignored. As long as the world continues to move further and further down the digital tunnel, there will be an ever-stronger longing for a connection to music’s past. It must be an enormous surprise for anyone who was around in the music industry fifteen years ago, but the vinyl LP market looks sure to grow and thrive for years to come, representing the clear antithesis to the MP3.


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