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Why vinyl will never die

Del Cowie

Today is Black Friday, which also means that in addition to doorcrasher sales at large department stores, Record Store Day Black Friday releases are also available at independent record stores. Record Store Day gained prominence as a way to highlight independent record stores and, particularly, vinyl. It consists of special vinyl and promotional releases being made exclusively available for the day among other various events. After being started by a group of independent music stores meeting at a Baltimore convention, the first Record Store Day arrived in 2008, with Metallica eventually signing up to be Record Store Day ambassadors. The official Record Store Day actually takes place on the third Saturday in April, but the worldwide success of that day has also led to independent record stores getting exclusive releases for Black Friday, one of the biggest shopping days of the year.

“In the record industry, especially the vinyl industry and the retail industry, it’s like a major driver of sales and marketing and production,” says Toronto author David Sax, who writes about Record Store Day in his new book The Revenge of Analog.

Canadian record stores and labels have also been getting in on the Record Store Day act in recent years. For Black Friday, revered Toronto label Arts and Crafts have joined forces for an exclusive limited edition 12-inch vinyl release featuring music by emerging Canadian musical acts like the Darcys, Lowell, River Tiber, Tennyson and Charlotte Day Wilson. Additionally, several record stores in Canada are also participating in the Black Friday releases.

This resurgent interest in vinyl is tackled by Sax in The Revenge of Analog. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked on a vinyl presentation at the Toronto public library with Sax). In the book Sax looks at how people are reverting to analog items as digital technology continues to proliferate.

While The Revenge of Analog also looks at film, bookstores and board games, among many other things it starts with vinyl as its foundational case. The book starts with Sax reacquainting himself with vinyl by purchasing a record in Toronto’s June Records store a few years ago. Apparently, he was not alone in his rediscovered fetish for vinyl platters.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, as cited in The Revenge of Analog, vinyl album shipments have grown over 20 per cent every year from 2007 to 2015. In 200, there were from 990,000 vinyl shipments. In 2015, that number had grown to 12-million. Sax says there are three specific reasons for the recent vinyl revival. Firstly, he asserts vinyl was never dead. While sales were low, there was always a dedicated niche of vinyl consumers and the infrastructure to support the economy was never dismantled. Secondly, Sax also points out the digital realm ironically played a part. Not only did vinyl sales migrate online as brick and mortar stores closed, but the proliferation of music via digital files through Napster and other mechanisms reached its logical conclusion because of the easy acquisition of music. In short, it meant that actually owning the music in a physical form became a countercultural and appealing differentiating factor for 18-24 year olds for whom vinyl had never been a widely available music format. Sax also contends that Record Store Day is the third key catalyst in the vinyl revival.

“Vinyl hit its low point in 2006 and in 2008 when they launched [Record Store Day] there had been an uptick in demand for records and record pressing,” says Sax. “But what Record Store Day did was two significant things. One is it actually generates an excuse and a reason for new products. So it’s like now the labels were out there making specific products of the day with channels to promote and desires to promote. I think the other thing which was the original intent — and which was the most significant — is it gave people a very visible measurable kind of tactile symbol of what was going on. It gave the vinyl resurgence an actual concrete grounding in a day and a specific thing. And that original idea that they had to change the story about record stores dying to something that was actually doing OK. It was incredibly successful. So all of a sudden you have a day in stores where people are lining up and there’s events and there’s products and there’s things like newspapers and reporters and even music fans and passersby can see and they’re like, 'Oh, this vinyl thing is actually real.'”

But is the vinyl boom just a short-lived craze? Figures issued by the Recording Industry of America (RIAA) indicated that shipments of vinyl LPs and EPs are down nine per cent during the first half of 2016. Nielsen had also detected slower growth increases over the course of 2015, but Sax disputes this is due to the vinyl boom going bust. Vinyl, he says, is here to stay.

“It doesn’t mean that the sales are going down or cratering,” says Sax. “It’s just the fact that the growth pace of vinyl in the last decade has been increasing and increasing and increasing through the years, but it’s almost impossible to maintain that level of growth. So what seems to be happening in the last year is a levelling off. It’s not going to get to a point where the vinyl market grows to what it was in the 1970s. It’ll reach a point of maturity and it will likely stay there in a healthy sort of middle. I don’t think that we’re seeing the end of the vinyl revival in any way. All of the people who have bought turntables in the last decade aren’t getting rid of them and selling them. The capacity is still trying to catch up with the demand. So, if it was like 20 per cent growth last year and 14 per cent growth this year, I don’t think it’s a major warning sign.”

The full list of 2016 Record Store Day Black Friday releases can be found here.