The choice is yours. Pay upwards of £24.99 for a new vinyl consisting of ten tracks, or stick to the monthly £9.99 Apple Music and Spotify offer for unlimited plays/downloads. At just £4.99 for students and Spotify’s free option, it seems like a no-brainer for music lovers on a budget. So, this begs the question: how does the future look for physical copies of music?
The resurgence of vinyl has understandably raised some eyebrows, with the biggest debate highlighting its superficial nature. Take the popularity of Crosley’s kitsch ‘on-the-go’ record players, for example. Regardless of how good they look, many have stated that these products are of poor quality, do more harm than good to the records they play and are simply about aesthetics.
The recent Record Store Day celebrations also raised the same dilemma. Now in its eleventh year, 2018’s celebration of all things vinyl produced Record Store Day’s peak sales, with the most highly-demanded limited edition releases from the likes of David Bowie and new exclusive material from Florence + the Machine. Although a shot in the arm for independent record stores as most of the offerings are only available in-store on the day, some remain sceptical about the message it sends and whether it promotes genuine support for independent record shops, with some special edition copies likely to land on eBay at extortionate rates.
Nonetheless, figures are showing that this surge in vinyl is ultimately benefiting artists and independent outlets alike. Although the record costs are a stick in the throat of those keen to get their hands on releases old and new due to high manufacturing costs, America’s Nielsen Music revealed that without sales of albums in independent stores in the week of Record Store Day, overall figures would have been down by 2.5% – instead they were up by 17%.
A key contribution to record sales is also the changing ways music is being consumed. Younger listeners especially now, are able to find what they like via streaming and then invest in what they love on vinyl, often supporting smaller artists. However, that’s not to say bigger artists aren’t reaping the benefits. The 1975’s band manager, Jamie Oborne, in a piece with The Guardian admitted that “there’s been this cultural shift where people are willing to pay for music again which is brilliant….it is really a significant source of revenue for us”.
The quality of vinyl can’t be overlooked, either. Less compressed than CDs and digital files, they offer a rich, fuller-sounding result (provided the LPs are handled correctly and looked after). Music from other physical formats like cassettes, on the other hand, isn’t as polished, and therefore are a fraction of the price of a new record. Despite the lower cost, it’s currently unlikely that the cassette will make the comeback that vinyl has done, especially after selling only 22,000 units last year.
Meanwhile, what’s happening to CDs? Gone are the peak days of HMV’s ‘2 CDs for £10’ deal. Though still more popular than digital downloads of albums, reports showed that sales of CDs were down by over 10% last year. However, for artists, this is surely balanced out by increasing sales of records, so fluctuating physical music sales aren’t too detrimental to the careers of your favourites artists just yet.
So, this leads us back to streaming; according to data from the BPI and the Official Charts Company, 2017 was the first year that more than half the albums bought and listened to were streamed. This appears to be good news for the streaming giants, however, underneath the booming figures are the questions over to what extent streaming supports artists. The most famous example of this we’ve seen is from 2014, where Taylor Swift pulled her entire discography from Spotify in a dispute over artist royalties. A year later, Apple Music revealed that during the service’s three-month free trial, artists received were not actually receiving money for playbacks of their songs and albums.
Of course, with streaming services now a huge part of the lives of many, whether they help form the soundtrack to a commute to work, dog walk or cooking session, and with so many users, it’s only fair that the big names step up and recognise that more needs to be done to equate the support streaming offers creators compared to physical forms of media. Understandably, artists aren’t happy with the profit system and morality of streaming. To break even, a song needs roughly one million streams to earn money, so many artists feel their art is being devalued and that album sales are being quashed.
One response to the debate has resulted in the creation of Tidal, the world’s first artist-owned part of the streaming scene. Despite aiming to ‘restore the value of music’ and claiming to pay its artists more than any other streaming platform, debatably, it never really took off, partially due to negative reactions to its marketing campaign and cost.
With vinyl sales and streaming rates showing no sign of slowing down, it’s difficult to predict how the landscape of music consumption will look in a decade’s time. More artists could take the Taylor Swift approach and remove their music from platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music, yet if anything, this is counter-productive. Fewer listeners will be reached and introduced to their music, and then unlikely to purchase live tickets or physical copies of the music they love after hearing them on streaming platforms, possibly even through a ‘New Music for You’ playlist, which got them into the artist’s music in the first place.
These are all factors which contribute to the ongoing debate, one with (unusually) an ambiguous and unknown outcome for the artists affected. Maybe the drawbacks of streaming will reshape the platforms in the years to come, and vinyl sales may well be part of a fad – time will tell. For now, at least, the needle doesn’t seem to be lifting any time soon on physical sales or digital streams.
But why should it? Perhaps there doesn’t need to a definitive way to consume music. As a user of Apple Music and someone who loves the excitement of buying records of treasured albums, it seems to me that the more options listeners have, the better. There’s no one way to enjoy music, so having the choice to stream or spin works best for me. The past decades have shown us what works and what music lovers want, and if that involves having multiple platforms to choose from, it makes me confident for the future of physical music and the streaming revolution.