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The Resurgence of Vinyl Records

A Backgrounder by Patrick Meloche

The current media landscape is being completely reshaped by the relatively recent arrival of digital media and illegal torrents. The media industry constantly lays the blame for their diminishing profits at the hands of pirates, and insists that its the ease of access to free media that is causing the problem. In order to slow or stop their losses, theyre pushing for heavy punishments on copyright infringements and actively pursuing individual offenders with penalties and fines that can be several thousand times more expensive than the original product. Media industry critics have pointed out that, in reality, the problem Figure 1: Picture taken from might lie with the industrys refusal to adapt to a changing market. The current revival of vinyl, and the independent label industry that supports it, is one of the first quantifiable indicators that its critics might be right, and the media industry is losing touch with its customers. This increase in sales of a physical format is inexplicable under the media industries logic, yet its happening none-the-less.

The 1980s: CDs and the Death of Vinyl

The original decline of vinyl sales can be traced back to the 80s and the appearance of commercially available compact discs. Although vinyl sales in Canada peaked in 1981 at 54.4 million units sold, by 1989 vinyl had shrunk to just 3.6 million units sold (a 93.3% drop in sales over just eight years). This wasnt due to any decline in music sales; Canadian vinyl sales for October 1990 were just 2000 units, while CDs sold 2.3 million. At the time, CDs were considered the future; they heralded an age of technological progress that would finally replace the antiquated technology of vinyl records. Industry pressure began to complicate the sale and production of vinyl records. Record companies started raising vinyl prices, while lowering those of CDs and cassettes, and delaying vinyl shipments until well after their CD counterparts. In the end, vinyls diminished market presence caused domestic vinyl pressing plants to close. Most believed it was just a matter of a few years before vinyl production stopped entirely.

The Late 1990s: Sustained by DJs

Around 1998, clubbing and DJ culture were renewing interest in vinyl records. At the time, DJs had to use vinyl records to perform, and because a DJs career could depend on whether or not he or she had the newest songs available, new dance music was being pressed primarily on vinyl records. While this culture wasnt new, its mainstream popularity was growing, which meant that more people than ever wanted to DJ and demand for records was growing. The passionate faithfulness of its consumer base was also a major factor in the records continued survival. Some Montreal shops reported that each of their regular clients would spend at least 125$ per week on records. That kind of strong, steady demand enabled record stores to clear

out almost all their weekly stock orders. Records might not have been turning into a thriving market, but it had proven its ability to be sustainable even in the face of ever-evolving technology.

The 2000s and Today: Carving a Growing Niche in the Changing World of Media
During the mid 2000s, the co-dependent relationship between DJs and vinyl records began to erode. Advances in digital technology made it easier and less costly for DJs to perform thanks to improvements in digital audio files. Instead of digging through endless crates of records looking for gems, DJs could now hop online and use Google to find and download songs in seconds. Songs began to come out on MP3 weeks before they came out on vinyl, if they came out at all. Vinyl DJs were now running behind the pack, and they were suffering for it. However, interest in vinyl has not died. Sales numbers are the best theyve been since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking them in 1991. Manufacturer shipments in North America rose by 36 per cent from 2006 to 2007 alone. By 2010, sales had reached 2.8 million units, which represented a 14 per cent increase over 2009. Vinyl has once again become a serious option for artists to consider. For example, of the 14,000 units of Panda Bears Tomboy album sold in its first week, 37% (the majority share) of those sales were made in vinyl; and when Dom launched their debut album in April of 2010, they did so strictly in vinyl and waited until February 2011 to offer a CD version. The rejection of infinitely simpler MP3 files in favour of this physical format runs counter to the direction that major record companies are headed, and it means they need to adjust if they wish to rectify their dwindling profits.

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