I’m on the email list for the writer Ted Gioia, who maintains a Substack blog publication called The Honest Broker. Gioia’s list of accomplishments is long—he is a music historian whose many books, including The History of Jazz (in its third edition as of 2021) and Music: A Subversive History (2019), are well regarded. Gioia has also written many music reviews, and, for a time, owned a record label. His fiction reviews are also well worth reading, but they seem to have migrated to The Honest Broker, which is a pay site.
A few weeks ago I got an email from The Honest Broker that was guaranteed to grab my attention: it contained the text of an article Gioia had posted about vinyl sales figures for 2022. He made a few observations about the state of the vinyl market, based on data published by Luminate. Formerly known as Nielsen SoundScan, Nielsen Music Products, and MRC Data, Luminate provides information about trends in the music industry.
Vinyl sales began to rebound in 2007, and by 2010, annual increases in sales became more pronounced. It hasn’t been unusual for sales to double year-over-year since 2010, and even somewhat slow years have showed increases by at least a third over the previous year. In 2022, vinyl sales in the US increased by a mere 4.2%—the lowest increase by far since the vinyl revival began. However, sales were still a healthy 43.5 million, and other music sales, such as downloads and CDs, declined. Only cassettes showed a significant increase, up 33% to 440,000 units. I’d be tempted to scoff at the idea of cassettes gaining a big chunk of the marketplace, but many people said the same thing about vinyl.
CD sales have been falling for some time, but the drop in digital downloads must cause some concern for record companies. Particularly since the one area of significant growth for them—vinyl—has begun to stagnate for the first time in 15 years. Gioia has some theories about why vinyl seems to have plateaued; some valid, others worth challenging somewhat, but all worth exploring.
He has a few suggestions for how any business should manage things. “You add manufacturing capacity aggressively,” he says, “to make sure you have enough product to fuel growth.” As he points out later, record companies have neglected to follow this simple rule. “They hate running factories—which is hard work. So they tried to outsource manufacturing instead of building it themselves. Chronic shortages resulted.”
Gioia is onto something, at least in part. I thought supply-chain issues had led to some of the problems with getting vinyl to market, but plants have been working at capacity and are still unable to meet demand. Many releases have had to be pushed back because plants couldn’t get to them. Artists with clout, such as Taylor Swift, have seen their LPs released on time, but it hasn’t been unusual for other musicians to see a considerable gap between the digital release of an album and its appearance on physical media. CD manufacturing also seems to be falling short.
If pressing plants had been able to keep pace with the increased interest in their product, it’s quite possible that 2022 would have been another banner year for vinyl. Plants struggled, though, and rushing to fill orders caused quality control issues. I buy a lot of vinyl, and many of the pressings I bought last year were dished, warped, or had foreign matter pressed into them. More, in fact, than I’ve seen since the 1970s, when LPs pressed in the US were often so poor that I could count on one in five records having some issue.
Gioia is correct that record companies should have found a way to help vinyl manufacturers to continue growing. They don’t necessarily need to buy factories or establish their own, though. They could invest in existing plants, especially smaller ones that are eager to grow, or in companies ready to move into vinyl. Such investment would increase capacity, resulting in more availability, better quality control, and more flexibility and predictability in release dates.
The Viryl WarmTone is a good example of the industry creating an updated version of existing technology. Record companies should follow that example and invest in similar tech.
In his article, Gioia returns to a point he made in a piece he had posted about vinyl last year: “[Record companies] want easy money, so they kept prices extremely high. . . . They treated vinyl as a luxury product, even as they dreamed of it also becoming a mass market option.” Gioia uses Swift’s LPs as an example (“Well, if Taylor Swift fans are willing to pay forty bucks, it’s a perfectly fair price.”), but the title he’s talking about is a four-LP set of the singer’s 2021 re-release of Red—pretty cheap at $40 (all prices in USD). Most of Swift’s LPs list for $29.95 but can be picked up for less.
Actually, adjusted for inflation, vinyl prices have remained constant over the years. The average LP in 1985—the year CDs began to drive the format out of the average record store—cost about $10. That’s a little over $27 in today’s money. Most LPs come in at around that price. There are, of course, some LPs that are priced as luxury items. Mobile Fidelity’s One-Step LPs run to $125 or more, Analogue Productions’ UHQR pressings are $150 for some titles, and so on. I have some issues with that business model, but that’s a subject for another column.
Most LPs are more affordable, although some audiophile pressings are priced a bit higher. Blue Note’s Tone Poet Series and Verve’s Acoustic Sounds Series are priced at $38.98. They’re high-quality pressings in deluxe heavyweight covers. Blue Note’s Classic Vinyl and Verve’s By Request LPs, on the other hand, come in around $30, as do the Acoustic Sounds / Contemporary Records reissues. The LPs in those reissue series are reportedly all-analog—mastered and cut from the original tapes by top mastering engineers.
Verve Records / Acoustic Sounds reissue of Bill Evans at Town Hall
Gioia also asserts that record companies have not spent any money on R&D for vinyl. He’s right about the major record labels not investing in making better LPs, but a number of pressing plants have been working to improve their products. Record Technology Incorporated and Quality Record Pressings have developed better, quieter vinyl compounds and more advanced pressing methods. Other companies have similarly tried to find ways to make better vinyl. Records I buy today have much quieter vinyl than many of the LPs I bought in the ’70s, which were often pressed on recycled vinyl.
In addition, while it’s true that the majors haven’t built pressing plants, audiophile labels have. Analogue Productions established Quality Record Pressings in 2011, and both Vinyl Me, Please and Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab will be opening their own plants this year. All three companies have long aimed for the best possible vinyl, and other labels that have helped to keep vinyl alive, such as Classic Records, also worked with plants to improve the sound of their records.
Tone Poet reissue of Grant Green’s The Latin Bit
Gioia made a case in an article he posted last May for something he calls “Super Vinyl.” He offers a mixed bag of suggestions for improvements in the medium—some good, some not so good—but no practical details for achieving them. One sentence gave me pause: “The playback equipment should be cool and exciting, with both analog and digital capabilities—think of it as a turntable on steroids.”
Vinyl is fine in the form it has taken for more than 70 years. I’m all for finding ways to make vinyl better and quieter. I also hope turntable and cartridge manufacturers continue to innovate. But I don’t think we need a variation of the format or in the ways the music on it is reproduced. If you introduce a digital step, you might as well stream music or play it from CD. Analog is a needle tracing a groove or a tape head reproducing magnetic impulses.
Record companies and pressing plants can take two important steps to help vinyl continue to thrive. First, expand production facilities so they can make more records. Second, guarantee that every LP sold is quiet, flat, and centered. If consumers end up having to return records because they’re poorly made, then 2022 could end up being the beginning of a downward trend.
. . . Joseph Taylor