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What Nostalgia? Vinyl’s Biggest Boosts Are Coming From Pop Fans and Mass Merchants (Even if Indie Stores and Rock Still Rule)

Much of the audience that is driving vinyl sales to new peaks consists of fans who are experiencing LPs as their first and only physical format. Luminate data shows Harry Styles, Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo are selling the format as well as themselves.

What Nostalgia? Vinyl's Biggest Gains Coming

In the longtime parlance of music retail, the vinyl format’s biggest enthusiasts over the years are sometimes known as “crate diggers.” But it might be time to put that image to bed… unless you consider the display racks at Target to be crates, and the young women who are flipping through contemporary releases by Harry Styles, Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift to be diggers.

Data being collected on an ongoing basis by Luminate (formerly P-MRC Data and, before that, Nielsen) shows that huge growth for vinyl in the last couple of years has largely been driven by pop superstars and mass merchants — which doesn’t mean that rock ‘n’ roll, indie stores and the traditionalist music geeks who favor them are experiencing any declines at all. It’s just that generation gaps, genre gaps and point-of-purchase gaps have all but disappeared as vinyl has become the No. 1 way for fans to experience music outside of streaming subscriptions.

“Rock still controls the vinyl universe,” concedes Peter Krien, senior music analyst at Luminate. But with big surges for pop and country of late — not to mention the recent development of Tyler, the Creator’s album returning to No. 1 based almost entirely on a vinyl release — “it was just nice to see some increased diversity from a genre perspective over the past year.”

The preeminence of pop in the vinyl format isn’t about to end any time soon. Tuesday, it was announced that Harry Styles’ “Harry’s House” had broken the record for vinyl sales in a single week — and more than that, it’d done that in just its first three days out, with LP sales of more than 146,000 just in the first weekend.

Krien spoke about a study that Luminate put together on vinyl trends at the Music Biz conference in Nashville earlier this month, and Variety asked him to expound further on the company’s findings.

As was already established at the end of 2021, the vinyl format experienced an astonishing 52% increase last year, on top of a 12% rise that had been experienced the year before that. The growth this year has been a little slower: Krien says the figures for 2022 were up 4% over 2021 when he ran them after Record Store Day in April. That’s less explosive, but hardly the sound of a bubble bursting. And that time frame predated the release of the new Styles and Tyler, the Creator LPs that are creating their own turbo boost.

The trend toward increased pop sales for vinyl was already well evident at the end of 2021, when Luminate released a list of the year’s top sellers and noted that six out of 10 were from pop artists — Swift (who had three of the top 10), Styles, Rodrigo and Adele. Luminate counts Billie Eilish as an alternative artist, but most probably would probably feel comfortable seeing her labeled as pop, so throw her in with the other current superstars and that’s seven out of the vinyl top 10 — leaving catalog albums by the Beatles, Prince and Kendrick Lamar as the oldies-but-goodies outliers that might once have been assumed to be the format’s bread-and-butter.

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The five top-selling vinyl artists of last year were women, according to Luminate Courtesy Luminate

Perhaps the most startling statistic Luminate came up had to do with catalog consumption (designated as material 18 months or older) versus current releases. If most of us had to guess, intuition — based on the format’s nostalgic appeal — would tell us that vinyl is a format where catalog is king, and streaming is where newness is next to godliness. Yet some seriously counterintuitive data reveals trends that are quite the opposite.

In 2021, current-release sales were up by 67.8%, whereas catalog sales increased 45.4%. Either figure would be great news, but the vastly booming popularity of new albums was especially remarkable among LPs. But the news was different in literally every other format but CDs (which were close to flat on both counts from the year before): Current product took a tumble in all the digital formats.

In the most commercially significant realm, on-demand streaming, catalog growth was up 22.3%, while consumption of new releases was down 4.9%.

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Current-release growth significantly outpaced catalog growth for vinyl, defying the trend in all other formats, per Luminate Courtesy Luminate

Krien has a fairly philosophical explanation for that. “Just inherently due to our definition of catalog being anything older than 18 months, that universe is always going to increase at a faster rate than the current universe. However, what was so significant about this past year was that current activity actually declined, particularly around audio streaming. I think that was largely due to a gradual decline in higher-impacting new releases we’ve seen since the pandemic. In reviewing the Billboard top 200 chart, I remember having to go through 20, 25 new releases on that chart every week, and now, the number of new releases is anywhere between 5-15. So with less new material to stream, obviously that activity has to go somewhere.

“But put that alongside the vinyl story,” Krien adds, “where we see vinyl’s current growth not only be really significant, but even outpace its catalog growth, and that, I think, is a really significant story.”

The biggest gains by genre have been for pop, which increased its share of the overall pie by 2.4% last year, and country, which upped its share by 1.1%. The share that rock enjoys was down by 4.1%. And yet that doesn’t mean that rock actually lost any sales, just that other formats were crowding in a bit. Rock releases still make up just over half the pie.

Vinyl is not just a lily-white phenomenon, either, as the big sales for Lamar last year and Tyler this year would indicate. The combined R&B/hip-hop segment of the vinyl marketplace is actually ahead of pop, still, with a 17.4% share, second only to rock. If there’s a problem with diversity in the vinyl world, it may lie more with Latin music, which is seeing phenomenal streaming increases at present but had a barely perceptible 0/1% market share gain in vinyl last year.

One thing that is clear is that rock fans buy more vinyl units than any other type of fan, by far, but it’s spread out among releases that don’t become blockbusters.

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The majority of the top 10 selling LPs of 2021 were by pop artists, even though rock still has a slight majority of the entire vinyl pie, per Luminate Courtesy Luminate

“Just to be really clear on this, this is not saying that rock vinyl sales declined,” Krien said. “It’s just that pop and country in particular increased by more significant, more impressive margins. The rock vinyl market still increased by 41% over 2020… and rock still dominates the vinyl sales market with a majority share of 52%. The rock genre really over-performs when it comes to vinyl, with about 12% of its total consumption coming from the format in 2021.”

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Rock still commands most of the vinyl market, but pop has had the biggest recent growth, per Luminate Courtesy Luminate

On the other hand, the average pop fan may only buy a couple of releases in a year, but those are the albums that crowd the top 10.

“It was six of the top 10 selling vinyl albums last year that were pop albums, but those six albums were responsible for one-third of all pop albums,” Krien says. “They were certainly primary contributing factors to pop’s larger increase.” So you could surmise that if any particularly specific bubble is in danger of bursting, it’s the pop takeover. Except, along comes a new Styles album this month, with the promise of another “Taylor’s Version” almost certain to come in the near future, and suddenly that genre bubble looks heavily coated.

“There’s also an underlying trend taking place around younger demos, younger fans, getting into the vinyl collection game as well,” Krien says. “It’s not just older demos and fans who were used to buying CDs or cassettes or older formats.”

In other words, there is an entire generation arising in which the vinyl LP is essentially the only physical music format they have ever known. It’s the CD that garners the “Huh? What is this?” quizzical response from the core Olivia Rodrigo demo.

Speaking of CDs, Krien pointed out at Music Biz that that format was up, too… but cautioned a close look at the numbers before getting too excited about a significant resurgence there. “I think the CD increase from 2021 was more because CDs were just down so much during 2020.” So far this year, he says, we see “CDs declining slightly again, and vinyl still gradually increasing. Vinyl weekly sales are now consistently outpacing CDs.” That’s not a trend that’s likely to reverse itself, especially as mass merchants — which not so very many years ago carried no vinyl at all — are now devoting the vast majority of their physical-media aisle to LPs and leaving the barest token niche space for CDs.

“Mass merchants’ share just over the past three years has more than tripled,” Krien says. “And I think that’s because those retailers like Target and Walmart are starting to understand that there’s real money to be made with the vinyl format. And they’re releasing their own exclusive variants” — as indie bands and labels that have to wait in line at the pressing plants are well aware of and certainly not too shy to gripe about.

The increased share of the pie that mass merchants are commanding in vinyl doesn’t mean that they’re taking much business, if any, away from indie record shops, though.

“Indie’s share is still just as strong as it was pre-pandemic,” Krien says. “Indies are doing really quite well, especially with the increasing success of Record Store Day” — which, by its very indie-exclusive nature, doesn’t allow for Target or Walmart to horn in on the action, of which there surprisingly seems to be enough for everybody, corporate and ma-and-pa alike.

The figure for this year’s first and biggest Record Store Day event in mid-April represented the biggest overall sales week that vinyl has ever had that wasn’t during a holiday (i.e., Adele- and Taylor-centric) period.

“We can’t break out Record Store Day sales specifically, but you can obviously assume that the vast majority [during the week of the event] are going to be from Record Store Day. And that week in particular [this year] had 1.32 million vinyl sales, which is just a huge number — like, 10 times the size it was 10 years ago. And that’s with the second one still coming up in June.” For the last three years, Record Store Day’s traditional April mega-event has been broken up in to parts — in 2020-21, because of fears of too much new product in stores at once that would overcrowd retailers during the pandemic, but this year, because of supply shortages that pushed a significant chunk of the planned releases back to an additional June 18 “RSD Drop” date. But the record-breaking numbers for this year’s first RSD, even with a healthy portion of the release list postponed, indicates that an increased number of RSD dates leads to a significantly bigger number of annual sales.

Krien broke out the date for the two primary Record Store Day Drops in 2021 (not including the separate RSD Black Friday event that happens on a smaller scale in November), just to show what a significant impact it has on the industry. “The first RSD event that took place in June resulted in an 85% increase in vinyl sales over the prior week to reach about 1.3 million units. And during the second RSD event in July, very similar story with the vinyl sales increased by about 75% over the prior week to reach over 1.1 million.”

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LP sales are 33 times what they were two decades ago, with the most dramatic gains in the last two years, according to Luminate Courtesy Luminate

The bigger, maybe even biggest picture when it comes to vinyl? “In 2021 Luminate was able to report 41.7 million vinyl sales compared to just 1.2 million in 2001,” Krien told the Music Biz audience, “and that means the vinyl sales market is 33 times the size it was 20 years ago, and that’s obviously very, very impressive, very exponential growth.”

How close of a photo finish was it for LPs versus CDs last year? Vinyl was responsible for 38% of all album sales in 2021, followed by CD albums at 37% and digital albums at 24%. Yes, digital downloads are the big loser here — there’s a reason the iTunes Store becomes increasingly impossible to find with each new Apple software upgrade, versus the Apple Music streaming app.

And if there is one queen to rule them all in the vinyl world, it’s Swift. “About 15% of her total consumption in 2021 came from the vinyl format. This is a really big number and really impressive when you consider she’s also the second most streamed artist across the entire industry.”

Resistance may be futile, or at least ill-founded, among the artists who still haven’t gotten on board to release in or emphasize the format. “With that Tyler, the Creator story from a few weeks ago, where he released his most recent album, ‘Call Me if You Get Lost,’ on vinyl and it sold 50,000 copies and shot back up to No. 1 a good 10 months after its initial release” — and accomplished that despite it being exclusive to his webstore, and not available via mass merchants or indies — “we’re obviously getting to a point where artists can’t ignore the format anymore.”