Thomas Cox: We Need To Talk About Vinyl
Vinyl sales are apparently on the up, but is the bubble in danger of bursting? Thomas Cox warns that dance music’s obsession with vinyl release gimmicks is a short-sighted approach.
Vinyl is back. At least, so we’re led to believe every time SoundScan or the BPI send out a press release. (The New York Times most recently reported on vinyl’s ‘small renaissance’ in April, having previously covered similar stories a couple of times a year since 2008.) Whether it’s a short-term bubble or a lasting trend, as a long-time vinyl buyer I find many of the current sales strategies worrying. The truth is that the methods which stores and record labels are using to promote vinyl as a medium are short-sighted. At best these methods are unsustainable, but at worst they’re potentially damaging to the long-term health of the format itself.
When I began DJing back in the dark ages of 1997, there really was no option other than vinyl. It would be years before the most basic CDJs were frequently seen at underground clubs and raves, and the idea of DJing with a computer probably would have made most people laugh out loud. In fact, I entered into DJing so easily at least partially because I was already buying most of the underground music I loved on vinyl for a few years by that time. It was nothing new to go to shops that had stacks of new releases delivered multiple times per week, nor was it odd for me to go to the plentiful used shops to find older music I loved.
So, having continued to buy music in much the same way for more than half my life, surely I should be pleased to see articles which detail how vinyl sales are steadily rising? It should make me happy to see so many new vinyl labels popping up, flying in the face of all the supposedly irreversible ‘progress’ made by digital music sales? The reality isn’t quite that simple. Even putting aside the fact that a large proportion of vinyl sales come from things like audiophile reissues of classic albums, Record Store Day novelties and collectors’ editions, dance music has its own issues to deal with.
The biggest of all is the limited edition craze. Obviously, unlike digital downloads, all vinyl pressings are limited. Duh. But it seems like many artists and labels exist almost exclusively based around the idea of exclusivity, to the point where they’re clearly not pressing as many units as they could, just to keep up the ‘limited’ hype. Combined with the fact that a great many people are now buying records online instead of in local shops, this leads to a rush of people buying supposedly ‘rare’ records from the jump-off, regardless of whether that record is even any good. It’s hard not to be taken in by the ‘limited edition, one per customer’ hype – this might be your only chance of owning it, since it probably won’t be sitting on the shelves to check out later.
“unlike digital downloads, all vinyl pressings are limited. Duh.”
The reseller issue relates directly to that limited edition trend. For any hyped release, a number of people will buy up as many copies as they can to flip on Discogs at an exorbitant price. It’s really not hard to do when the total number of copies of a record is 500 or even 300, as so many are these days – even with one-per-customer rules, it’s not hard for one reseller to buy up 10% of all copies of a release.
I’m not against the idea of a few special limited records, but there’s so much hype for damn near any limited edition release that it’s clear more and more labels are starting to rely on the strategy to drive sales.
On another note, never in my memory have re-presses, reissues and bootlegs been such a huge and divisive issue, and never have they made up such a large percentage of records available from distributors. I understand it’s especially frustrating to long-time vinyl heads who’ve done the work searching out these records only to see them made more widely available for a reasonable price. But as I’m a firm believer in music being made available, that isn’t even what really gets to me about this. The most annoying part is that it’s quite often being done for records that were readily available on the second-hand market. It’s a pretty ridiculous situation when people will buy old records at new prices in large amounts, but need to have new music be ‘limited’ in order to make a purchase. We’re inundated with old music being re-released to make money, while new music is sold to as few people as possible to make the hype machine spin.
“It's not about the exclusive rush to get the rarest record. It’s about having the best music in the best-sounding format.”
Deluxe box sets and hand-stamped white labels are two sides of the same coin. Some of these box sets are insanely expensive, including everything from an air freshener to a t-shirt to a poster to a book and more. This smacks of gimmickry, using something outside of the music to sell what is essentially product with a higher profit margin. I have no problem with merchandise, but if I want that stuff I’ll purchase it separately.
Hand-stamped white labels have basically the same aim, but go the opposite route to achieve it. Instead of the gimmick being all the added-on crap that doesn’t matter, their gimmick is that of it being “just about the music”. Most times this is tied in directly to the artificially limited pressings discussed earlier, with some of the most notable labels over the past few years having been almost completely ignored until taking this route. Artwork and any other information is really sacrificed here, yet the prices on these records don’t seem to be any less than records with regular sleeves and artwork. This alone should set off alarm bells in the minds of record buyers. With box sets you’re often forced to spend more than you want for way too much. With hand-stamped, plain-sleeved releases you’re usually paying regular prices for way too little.
In the end, as a long-time record buyer who hopes to continue doing so, these strategies all seem very short-sighted. We need more artists who love vinyl but also want to make their music available and sell it based on the merit of the music embedded in the grooves. Basic Channel are a great example. Despite their records being constantly in press for 20 years and just about every DJ hammering them in clubs, they’re still considered ‘cool’ and new record buyers can easily order the vinyl and enjoy it the way it was always meant to be.
Unfortunately there are way too few labels interested in taking this kind of long-term approach to selling their music. There are are a handful of notable exceptions. Theo Parrish will repress regularly, though not keeping his whole catalogue available. (This still doesn’t stop the resale mongers from trying to jack up the prices on his records – which have already been priced higher than normal with the idea of discouraging just that practice.) Omar-S also keeps his releases in print – and, even more distinctively, for sale at less than standard shop prices if you buy directly from him.
However, it seems most labels are caught chasing the short money to the detriment of the perceived timeless quality of the music being released. With records not being available, how many potential buyers are losing out on being able to have some of the best music, or are forced to prop up used record resellers at inflated prices if they choose to own the releases in their intended format?
“it seems most labels are caught chasing the short money to the detriment of the perceived timeless quality of the music”
That’s the essence of record collecting for me. It’s not about the exclusive rush to get the rarest record, nor all the other marketing that gets piled on top. It’s about having the best music in the best-sounding format. (“Best-sounding” may even be up for debate, but it likely doesn’t involve coloured vinyl or picture discs, both of which degrade quicker than regular black vinyl, or 180 gram pressings which really add only to the cost and to the weight of your record bag and not the sound quality.) Hopefully as the newer record buyers become more savvy, they’ll see past the gimmicks and we’ll have a vinyl culture that continues to grow and be meaningful. If the gimmicks win out, I guess there are always digital downloads.
Thomas Cox has been causing trouble on teh interwebs since 1996 and representing Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania since birth. You can argue with him on Twitter.