The album format is headed back to where it started: vinyl.
Last week, Luminate Data released its 2022 Year End Music Report, a summary of the past year in music consumption, demographics, and other data. Although much of the report focuses on demographic data oriented towards advertising and brand partnerships, it contains a few buried gold nuggets that suggest something unexpected: the album portion of the music market is returning to the state it was in decades ago—vinyl LPs.
Luminate (formerly Nielsen Music and then briefly MRC Data) has published year-end reports for the past few years. These have become one of a small group of landmark music industry barometers, along with the RIAA’s Music Revenue Reports, IFPI’s Global Music Report, and Edison Research’s Infinite Dial study.
Luminate’s data measures music consumption (streams, sales volumes, radio airplay) rather than revenue. Many of the statistics that the 2022 report shows are in line with what industry watchers have expected to see: continued growth in streaming music consumption; growth in video streams (YouTube, TikTok) outpacing growth in audio streams (Spotify, Apple Music); megastars like Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Bad Bunny taking increasingly disproportionate shares of listenership.
But the numbers also tell a hidden story about music albums and vinyl: namely that while the album is continuing its slow decline as a popular music release package, it’s also increasingly finding itself back where it came from: in vinyl LPs. The album as we know it today originated in its 20-minute-per-side configuration in the late 1940s; the data shows it going back to its roots after decades of variations, experimentation, and digitalization.
Music consumption data from Luminate’s 2022 Year-End Music Report.
This chart from Luminate’s report shows that total album sales continue to drop: they decreased 8.2% since 2021. But album sales are split across four formats: digital downloads, CDs, vinyl LPs, and cassettes. Not counting the latter, which are a rounding error on total sales, all categories of album sales are dropping except vinyl, which is the biggest of the four.
Although vinyl sales growth is slowing down, vinyl now represents 43% of all album sales by unit volume. Vinyl already represents more than half (54%) of physical album sales, and digital album sales are continuing to plummet. It’s likely that at least half of all album sales will be on vinyl by next year. And because prices of vinyl LPs are typically much higher than CDs and digital downloads, vinyl’s share of album revenue is likely already well over 50%.
Luminate’s data also shows that vinyl is helping to boost sales of older “catalog” music, which is increasing overall in proportion to current material. Of the ten top-selling albums of 2022 across all formats, two are catalog titles: Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (returning to the charts after more than 40 years thanks to Nathan Apodaca’s viral TikTok video in late 2020) and Michael Jackson’s perennial favorite Thriller. But on vinyl, in addition to those two titles, Taylor Swift’s 2020 release folklore sits at no. 7, and the Beatles’ immortal Abbey Road occupies the no. 10 slot. And the top-selling album of 2022, Taylor Swift’s Midnights, sold 52% on vinyl—945,000 copies, almost enough to go Platinum on vinyl sales alone.
Vinyl is now more than a billion-dollar business in the U.S. alone—more like $2 billion if you count small indie releases and used vinyl. The most curious part of this phenomenon is another piece of data that Luminate shows in its Year-End Music Report: 50% of vinyl buyers do not own turntables. This has led many to ask: in this age of ubiquitous music streaming, much of it free, why are so many people buying vinyl?
IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry), the worldwide umbrella trade organization whose members include the RIAA in the U.S., tried to answer that question recently through an online survey; it published the results last November in a report called Engaging with Music 2022.
The top six reasons music fans give for buying vinyl LPs.
As the figure from the report shows, the study found that the number one reason why people say they like vinyl is “I like physically owning my music.” This isn’t true of digital downloads. The number two reason was “I like having the physical records to look at,” and the number five reason was “I want to support my favourite artists by buying the physical album.” These could help explain why so many vinyl buyers don’t own turntables: for these people, LPs are like a form of merch; they are tokens of fandom. And none of IFPI’s top six reasons for buying vinyl have to do with the sound quality that some vinyl aficionados claim is superior.
The Luminate Year-End Music Report also tells us a few things about who vinyl buyers are and what kinds of music they like. In the early days of the vinyl revival, the best-selling albums (according to online vinyl marketplace Discogs.com) included classics like Rumours, Thriller, and various titles from the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin. In 2022, while most of the top-selling vinyl LPs were pop and rock, hip-hop was represented by three titles from Kendrick Lamar and Tyler the Creator; meanwhile, the overall album chart also spanned Latin (Bad Bunny), country (Morgan Wallen), and R&B (The Weeknd).
In other words, vinyl buyers still tilt towards rock music. Luminate’s data indicates that almost half (45.4%) of physical album sales were rock titles, a much higher percentage than for any other major genre. It also indicates that rock is the only genre whose fans are likelier than the average listener to listen on vinyl.
Vinyl buyers are also likely to be Gen Z. The born-digital generation, now teenagers and young adults, is 27% more likely to purchase vinyl than the average listener; yet it’s also much more likely to discover new music on short online video clips. That is, Gen Zers are likely to watch short clips of music on TikTok and then purchase the music they like on vinyl. And they spend more than twice as much as the average consumer on music.
The digital revolution of the 2000s disaggregated the album into individual tracks, and TikTok and its ilk are chopping music tracks up into bite-size clips. But all this data implies that record labels are likely to continue to invest in albums and album-oriented artists; the configuration that engineers at Columbia Records dreamt up after World War II continues to resonate with fans. It also implies that, once again, reports of the death of rock & roll have been greatly exaggerated.