How Vinyl Got Its Groove Back

The Limited-Edition Gold Rush

One of eight limited-edition colored variants of Taylor Swift's eighth studio album folklore
One of eight limited-edition colored variants in honor of Taylor Swift's eighth studio album 'folklore' released through her webstore. Courtesy of Universal Music Group

How exclusive vinyl has driven insatiable demand.

In 2018, as Blue Note Records prepared to celebrate its 80th anniversary, the staff of the iconic jazz label began exploring ways to commemorate its extensive legacy and approached Vinyl Me, Please, a subscription-driven online vinyl retailer that specializes in exclusive and limited-edition releases. The result was The Story of Blue Note Records, a numbered, limited-edition seven-LP box set curated by label president Don Was covering a half-dozen eras of the label’s history, accompanied by a booklet of liner notes and a four-episode podcast series. The 1,000 box sets — available for $230 to those who signed up with an email address ahead of time or $280 when they become available for sale — sold out within three hours, and Blue Note realized it had a hit. 

“We’ve done box sets in the past, but approaching them from a limited-edition standpoint is something we’ve seen be super successful,” says Blue Note GM Justin Seltzer. “It’s not always going to hit a wide consumer base — you’re talking about hardcore fans of some of these projects — but there is definitely an insatiable demand for these deep dives into some of these projects and the labels and legacies.” 

Since its launch in 2013, Vinyl Me, Please has grown from a small record club of friends and family to a business with a subscription base of 75,000 customers and an e-commerce operation that shipped 500,000 units to over 45 countries in 2020. Driving that growth are colored vinyl, exclusive pressings and limited-edition packages — the company tells Billboard that, at this point, almost 100% of its sales are colored or limited-edition releases.

At times, the markup on such releases can be significant: For Darkside’s forthcoming Spiral, for example — available in black vinyl at Matador’s online store for $22.49 or white marble vinyl for $24.74 — VMP secured an exclusive foil-stamped and numbered 2,000-copy run on “seaglass wave” vinyl, priced at $46, or $50 for nonmembers. (Most other VMP offerings are closer to the sale prices for black vinyl available elsewhere.) But VMP head of A&R Alexandra Berenson describes the company’s approach to vinyl as akin to a wristwatch: As technology has evolved beyond the exclusive need for such products, they’ve in turn evolved into products of value in different ways, which for VMP has meant providing versions of records and packaging that its customers can’t find anywhere else. “As the founders evolved the record of the month club,” she says, “they were like, ‘How can we make this a really special product that just the people who are part of this club are getting?’”

The comparison to a watch is instructive: limited-edition or colored pressings shifts vinyl from a listening experience to a collectible one. As vinyl has grown from a forgotten format into a significant revenue driver — up 74.3% to $619.6 million over the past five years in the United States, according to the RIAA — exclusivity has helped drive the boom, creating the same sort of demand that limited-edition merchandise does. And that demand has now moved beyond the confines of Record Store Day exclusives, which still drive headline-grabbing sales — RSD's Black Friday promotions helped move 1.3 million records in 2020, according to MRC Data, which at the time was just the second week that vinyl sales had passed 1 million since MRC Data began electronically tracking music sales in 1991 — but are also available elsewhere.

One example is Taylor Swift’s folklore, released last July through her webstore with eight limited-edition colored variants each priced at $26, available for just a week. The album sold 135,000 copies on vinyl alone in the United States, according to MRC Data, and a cursory glance through a Swift subreddit thread about the variants found dozens of fans who say they bought multiple copies for display, or bought one with the intent of buying a record player later, or bought all eight because they couldn’t choose which they liked best. 

“In music there are so few things left that are physical,” says Craig Rosen, executive vp A&R and label operations at Atlantic Records. “At a time when most music is consumed digitally, the closest thing to owning the music as a physical reflection of the art that you love is a piece of vinyl. Then when you introduce something like a special color, making it limited-edition, now it’s a collectible as well. If you’re that kind of artist with those kinds of fans, there’s tremendous demand for a collectible.”

Specialty vinyl has become a bigger focus not just for labels, artists and fans, but retailers — both online and brick-and-mortar — that can request exclusive variants from labels and bring in business after years of digital sales cutting into physical profits. (Though a few retailers have been frustrated by some of the limited-edition releases that, when they’re sold out of one color, are then rereleased in another.) 

“Exclusive vinyl is what our customers demand and love,” says Stephen Godfrey, director at indie retailer Rough Trade, who adds that continually updated offerings of limited pressings drive “a virtuous circle of repeat purchase, customer loyalty and social engagement,” as well as “sky-high” open rates on marketing emails and thus a real return on advertising spends. “As a result, the challenge for us is not demand but supply. Our sales growth is outpacing our committed quantities.” Godfrey says decisions on how many copies of a title to press that were made six months in advance often look ambitious and prove to be too cautious. “We’ve underestimated the demand and we sell out before we know it. Demand for exclusives through Rough Trade is going through the roof.” 

Urban Outfitters launched its exclusive vinyl program in 2010, with Best Coast’s Crazy for You, and has worked with artists and labels on hundreds of colored variants over the past decade. UO Exclusives “has been an integral part of growing the vinyl business” at the company, says global music curator Corbin Speir-Morrone, adding that Urban Outfitters generally identifies an upcoming release it finds exciting and works with the label on a colored variant, with the artist usually choosing the color. Stores will then work on artist performances, meet-and-greets (which have gone virtual during the pandemic), social videos and signed giveaways to promote the releases, as well as the retailer’s short-form video series, Open Up, that it initially launched to help market the exclusives. “We’ve seen successes in exclusives for titles from developing artists on their first or second album,” says Speir-Morrone, “as well as catalog releases from superstar acts that originally came out years ago.”

Variants can be one color or marbled, translucent or opaque, and manufacturers often will create color combinations on manual vinyl presses, not just to ensure that each record is unique, but also to produce swirls or other patterns that automatic presses can’t handle. “A lot of labels are looking at differentiating between different points of sale, whether it’s an Urban Outfitters or a direct-to-fan, by making color variants,” says Sarah Robertson, founder of vinyl pressing and manufacturing plant A to Z Media, which specializes in elaborate packaging. “It’s a very easy and not crazy-expensive way to differentiate and break your release up.”

Robertson’s company has dealt with all kinds of different requests, beyond just colored variants — Rhymesayers wanted to put custom crayons and an activity book into an Atmosphere package, which proved trickier to keep apart that one might think; Kamasi Washington hid a fifth record inside the packaging of a four-LP release, requiring the buyer to cut apart the packaging to find the secret record; for Matador, a Gang of Four box set included cassettes of unreleased outtakes, badges and a 100-page, full-color, hand-bound book of photos, flyers and essays. 

“People are trying to really deliver something that goes beyond just a piece of music — they may be streaming the music, but they want to own a beautiful product, and I think that’s where we’ve seen that real difference,” says Robertson. “The resurgence of vinyl in the last couple of years has spoken to not just create the most beautiful package that speaks to the fan, but certainly in the last year it has been a time where people have really tried to connect with that audience.”

And the last year — during which U.S. vinyl sales jumped 29.2% — has seen demand escalate. Carl Mello, purchasing director at Newbury Comics, says that vinyl sales across the board have exploded, and Newbury’s exclusives have been a growing part of its business for the past eight years. 

“Over the pandemic, collecting has sort of gone crazy,” says Mello. “All of a sudden everybody’s cooped up at home, nobody’s going on vacation or buying steaks or anything. So they’re like, ‘What do I do with my money, and how do I keep myself entertained?’ And it’s a fairly cost-effective way to do that. It’s a better pandemic habit than following QAnon.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 5, 2021, issue of Billboard.

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