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Vinyl overtakes CDs for first time in 35 years

A new report on American music sales reveals a success story for the industry, but also for an ancient format, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

When last did you slip a CD into a music system or a computer drive? Don’t answer that if you’re a die-hard who has held onto ancient technology.

On the other hand, if you’ve held onto even older technology, you may be onto something. The latest report of the Recording Association of America (RIAA) reveals several astonishing trends in physical music formats.

The headline news of its “2022 Year End Music Industry Revenue Report”, released last week, is that recorded music revenues in the U.S. in 2022 grew for the seventh consecutive year, to reach a record high $15.9bn. Streaming music provided the biggest boost, with paid subscriptions also breaking records: they exceeded $10 billion for the first time. The revenue came from 92-million subscribers, up from 84-million the previous year.

The truly remarkable statistics in the report, however, come from physical music sales.

Aside from the fact that revenues from physical formats continued their “remarkable resurgence in 2021” – revenue of $1.7 billion was up 4% last year, the big story was in the continued growth of vinyl. And a massive landmark for the format:

“Revenues from vinyl records grew 17% to $1.2bn – the sixteenth consecutive year of growth – and accounted for 71% of physical format revenues. For the first time since 1987, vinyl albums outsold CDs in units.”

In hindsight it was inevitable, but a year ago it seemed as if CDs themselves were undergoing a revival, “thanks to a 2021 rebound versus the Covid impacted 2020”, says the RIAA.

Similar trends can be expected for the global market when the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) releases its 2022 report.  For 2021, it showed streaming up by 24.3% to US$16.9 billion, compared to a 19.1% rise in the year of Covid.

“Overall streaming accounted for 65.0% of total global recorded music revenues and was the leading revenue format in nearly all markets,” said the IFPI.

Internationally, 2021 was the breakthrough year for physical formats: for the first time in 20 years, the physical market saw growth, with revenue increasing by a huge 16.1% to US$5bn. As in the USA, this was partly driven by a recovery in physical retail following Covid lockdowns. And, similarly, it resulted in revenues from CDs growing for the first time this millennium.

Here, too, vinyl was the star: “The recent resurgence of interest in vinyl continued with very strong revenue growth in 2021 of 51.3% – up from 25.9% growth in 2020.

“The dominance of vinyl over CD doesn’t surprise me,” says Benjy Mudie, South African music industry veteran and owner of the Vinyl Junkie music store, one of many record shops in South Africa that have survived by specialising in the physical format.

“it’s been on the cards for the last five years. One of the fundamental reasons for this is that many young people, who have always been the taste-makers for the music industry, have embraced vinyl as the way that they consume their music. It’s about the whole visceral experience – putting the record on the turntable, studying the sometimes complicated artwork, reading the lyrics – something CD and digital can never do.

“My customer base has changed from 90% collectors to 80% people under 30.”

The list of top-selling artists on vinyl also tells this story: the top 3 globally in 2021 were Adele, Harry Styles and Fleetwood Mac, suggesting a mix of both old and young buyers, collectors and fans alike.

This is confirmed by the presence in the top 10 of the Beatles and Pink Floyd on the one hand, and Taylor Swift on the other. She has no less than two albums on the list, putting her just behind Adele in total vinyl sales. With this duo appealing largely to women, it also tears up the tradition of male enthusiasm for vinyl.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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