An Unlikely Savior

Can vinyl records save the music industry? A report from the front lines.

By Ben Porten

There’s a new epidemic that’s been creeping up the last couple years: black crack. You’ll want about 180 grams for a good rush and it will cost anywhere from a quarter to thousands of dollars. By the way, you don’t smoke, snort, shoot or eat it — you put it on your turntable.

Black crack is the affectionate nickname collectors have for vinyl records In spite of an entertainment industry-wide slump, vinyl sales have been steadily growing for the last couple years, with the rate of growth getting bigger each year.

Why is vinyl making a comeback? It’s bulky, more expensive than CDs or mp3s, and you can lose and break them, unlike mp3s. Common sense suggests that vinyl should have become less popular with the growth of alternatives and killed outright by digital music, but recent data shows that this is not be the case.

Until 2007, vinyl sales hovered around one million units per year, according to Nielsen reports. However, 2008 sales almost doubled, and by 2010, sales had reached 2.8 million records.

Last year (2010) was a rough year for the music industry; album sales dropped by 13%, with only a 13% increase in digital sales to compensate (digital sales are roughly a quarter of overall music sales) according to Rolling Stone. This makes the rapid growth of vinyl all the more remarkable — and perplexing.

Sales are continuing to rise — an Economist article reported that vinyl sales for 2011 were up 39% over the same period last year. Retail Gazette reported a 55% increase in UK.

Philadelphia record stores are feeling this bump, too.

Jesse Riggins, of The Marvelous, a record store on South 40th Street in West Philly, said that records have definitely been selling better. The clientele seems to be split between older people who grew up buying records (and possibly aren’t aware you no longer have to) and 20- to 30-somethings who budget for records.

Possibly because of the clientele, the records that are the most popular are overwhelmingly oldies or alternative rock. This matches a recent Nielsen report, which found that 93 out of the 100 best selling vinyl records of 2011 were either rock or alternative.

The Marvelous tries to tailor its selection for its customers, and the vast majority of their sales are in used records. New records are a gamble because the store eats the cost if they don’t sell, and they only turn about $3 in profit per record.

The store also carries musical equipment, such as guitar strings, which need to be replaced on a regular basis. Being one of the few stores in West Philly that carries music gear is a blessing, and Riggins admitted that the Marvelous probably wouldn’t be able to operate without the money made from equipment sales.

It helps that some of the people who work there are volunteers. Wriggins said it’s “not just a regular old job,” and that everybody who works there is really close knit.

Beautiful World Syndicate, located on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philly, is exclusively a record store. They have a single crate of VHS tapes, DVDs, and CDs, but everything else is vinyl. DJs around town, such as DJ Apt One of Philadelphyinz, and Jameszilla of Broadzilla, claim that it’s the best store in Philly.

Justin Nola, manager of Beautiful World, said that sales have been steady. They also push their records on Discogs (think eBay, but only music and without auctions), which always sell better. (Web address:

Dance and electronic records are their most popular records on Discogs, and rock records tend to sell best at their physical store front. This might be because a vinyl DJ would need a physical copy of a record before they could play it out during a set, so they might be willing to pay extra to get it immediately, while a rock fan might be content to browse and wait for their favorite records to appear in cheaper bins.

Beautiful World mostly carries used records because they sell a lot better. At Beautiful World, you can get a used record as cheaply as a dollar, while new records typically cost $15 to $20.

Nola orders all the new records, so they reflect his taste, but otherwise he tries to be as diverse as possible and doesn’t stock

Beautiful World

records just because he thinks they’ll sell.

But the question remains: why are these records selling so well? There’s definitely something to be said for “analog warmth.”

Riggins is convinced that vinyls sound better than CDs. Dan Scanlon, a 21-year-old vinyl DJ, agrees that records definitely sound better than CDs or mp3s. When a record is mixed down to a CD, or even worse, an mp3, it’s compressed to a point where a lot of frequencies are lost, which can kill the subtleties of a song.

But records don’t just sound better, they look better and feel better, too. “It’s something tangible, you know? I dig how physical it is,” Scanlon said. “It’s something your doing with your hands, instead of a click of the mouse.”

Vinyl sales might be undergoing an even bigger comeback than we think. SoundScan, the service Nielsen uses to track sales, only records sales with barcodes, according to the New York Times. This means that a large chunk of new sales, and the majority of used sales, are not detected because they lack bar codes. The article suggested that only 15% of vinyl sales were being reported.

If this figure is accurate, it means that vinyl sales could potentially clear 25 million units this year. Digital album sales totaled 83.6 million units last year. If the Times estimate is accurate, and industry heads took notice of this, it could lead to real change in the future of music distribution.

Will vinyl become the unlikely savior of the music biz?