The CD Is Dying, and Everyone's Going Back to Vinyl

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 6 2014 3:04 PM

The Hot New Audio Technology of 2014 Is ... Vinyl?

Record store in New York's West Village
The House of Oldies record store in New York's West Village.

Photo by Will Oremus / Instagram

For the first time since the iTunes Store launched in 2003, sales of digital tracks and albums declined last year, Billboard reports. Analysts blame the rise of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. Sales of CDs also took a big hit, as did album sales overall.

Meanwhile, one format quietly posted huge gains: vinyl records. LP sales were up an amazing 32 percent from 2012, continuing an improbable growth trend that began in the early 1990s and took off around 2007. In fact, as The Oregonian's David Greenwald points out, this was the sixth straight year in which vinyl long-players have recorded their highest sales mark since the advent of Soundscan in 1991. The absolute numbers are still small: 6 million units, or about 2 percent of all album sales in the United States. But the growth has been startling, as you can see in the chart below from Statista, my favorite German statistics portal. (Statista has a short post of its own on the trend.)

Statista: The LP is back

Illustration courtesy of Statista.com

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What's going on here? As my Slate colleague Forrest Wickman reminded me, the rise of vinyl is probably best understood against the backdrop of the simultaneous decline of the CD. (Wired's Eliot Van Buskirk predicted this as long as six years ago.) As digital music has migrated from compact discs onto hard drives—and, increasingly, the cloud—collectors interested in a physical copy of their favorite albums no longer see a reason to prefer CDs to LPs. In fact, many prefer the latter, whether for the sound quality, the nostalgic appeal, or simply the beauty of the vinyl record as a design object. CDs and cassettes had their virtues as media, but aesthetics was not among them.

More broadly, the vinyl boom can be seen as yet another manifestation of the societal fetishization of all things "vintage" and analog, which is pretty clearly a response to digitization, corporitization, globalization, and probably some other izations I'm not thinking of right now. Within the music industry, vinyl's renaissance is also tied to notions of "the album" as a cohesive artistic statement, usually by an actual band. Although 2013's top vinyl record belonged to Daft Punk, three out of every four LPs sold were rock albums, Billboard observes. And about 65 percent were sold at independent music stores.

Does this mean we can all go back to calling them record shops?

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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