How Vinyl Got Its Groove Back

What’s On Vinyl, And Why

What-Gets-the-Greenlight-deep-dive-2021-billboard-1548-1623084944
Courtesy Photos

Feeding the boom, from Tom Petty and Pearl Jam to Pop Smoke and Harry Styles.

For the past year, hallowed jazz label Blue Note Records has reissued dozens of titles on vinyl, from classics such as Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else to obscurities like Tina Brooks’ The Waiting GameAnd somehow, each one succeeds — the label’s Classic and Tone Poet audiophile series combined to sell 500,000 LPs in 2020. But as they look to build on this success, how do they choose which albums to press? 

In the age of big data, the answer varies wildly, for both reissues and new front-line titles. Some labels rely on metrics and formulas, checking every available data source from Spotify streaming numbers to resale prices on Discogs, and supplementing those numbers with calls to record stores to gather feedback from retailers. Others, like Blue Note, prefer to rely on gut instinct. “It’s primarily frivolous,” says label president Don Was, laughing deeply before crediting longtime Blue Note producer Joe Harley with the selections. “We’re just sitting around. There’s zero data involved.”

But as vinyl begins to matter more and more to the bottom line — it’s the No. 1-selling album format year to date, outpacing CD and download sales — a wrong answer could mean leaving money on the table or flushing it down the drain. Some of these decisions are obvious, like expansions of catalog classics such as Tom Petty’s Wildflowers and All the Rest and Prince’s Sign O’ the Times: Deluxe Edition. So are new releases from front-line artists like Pearl Jam and Eminem, whose dedicated audiences have already shown an interest in vinyl. Yet though music retailers have been asking for more vinyl on front-line pop and hip-hop releases, many titles don’t get vinyl pressings, at least at first. 

Take Pop Smoke’s posthumous debut studio album, Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the MoonIt came out in July 2020 and hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in its first week, eventually racking up 4.4 billion streams, according to MRC Data. Yet the vinyl lagged six months behind. That’s because “master clearances and various components were not available months in advance,” according to Kevin Lipson, Republic Records executive vp global commerce and digital strategy. In early 2021, Republic put out the vinyl version in response to what Lipson calls “insatiable consumer demand,” and Shoot for the Stars has sold 12,000 LPs through the week ending May 20, according to MRC Data. 

Music retailers have alerted labels to that demand over the last few years, begging for more front-line titles on vinyl. “It’s like trying to turn around the Titanic,” says Carl Mello, brand engagement director for New England retail chain Newbury Comics. “You have this big, lumbering machine.” But the requests are finally sinking in. Harry Styles’ Fine Line was the best-selling vinyl album of 2020, outstripping catalog mainstays like Abbey Road and Queen’s Greatest Hits to sell 231,000 copies. And K-pop has made inroads on vinyl as well: Although BTS doesn’t release vinyl in the United States, Blackpink put out a pink-vinyl version of The Album in January and has sold 9,000 copies as of June, according to MRC Data. “Vinyl TikTok is real, and it’s filled with young people super excited about vinyl,” says Mello. “Before you’re going to press the fifth-worst Eric Clapton from 1981, please press something that people alive today enjoy.” 

To determine which titles to release on vinyl, current or catalog, labels consult with Newbury and other retailers; analyze streaming, sales data and other statistics; and assess whether they have pristine-sounding master recordings or original artwork. “We’re a very data-driven label,” says Lyn Koppe, executive vp global catalog for Legacy Recordings/Sony Music, adding that data “doesn’t take away our gut and feel.” 

When Sony put out the first Stranger Things soundtrack in 2016, Koppe’s team figured the Netflix series would draw a younger audience and thus do better with streaming than on vinyl. They were wrong — it sold more vinyl copies than expected, prompting multicolor-vinyl releases for the soundtrack’s second volume, and then the series sequel a year later. Similarly, says Koppe, hip-hop releases are often assumed to be streaming-focused, but “suddenly a light goes on: Why are we not thinking about vinyl when it comes to hip-hop?” 

Certain rappers are especially vinyl-friendly, like Tyler, The Creator, whose latest album, 2019’s IGORsold 96,000 LPs last year, hitting the vinyl top 20. But hip-hop catalog tends to sell the best, like Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d cityTravis Scott’s 2018 Astroworld and the late Mac Miller’s 2018 Swimming. Labels haven’t fully cracked the genre’s vinyl code. “Hip-hop is the hardest one, for sure,” says Matt Sawin, GM of Virgin Music Label and Artist Services. "We have done some vinyl pieces, with Migos, that have been successful, but nothing like the more vinyl-centric world of alternative.” 

Indeed, alt-rockers have been vinyl-friendly since the beginning of the format’s resurgence, with Jack White’s Third Man Records opening two retail stores and a pressing plant and artists such as Josh Homme, St. Vincent and Pearl Jam serving as celebrity “ambassadors” for Record Store Day over the past decade or so. Indie rock labels are all-in on vinyl – Merge Records makes just about every release available on LP, from The Mountain Goats to Dawn Richard — but major labels sometimes have to make tough cost-benefit choices: They can reissue 3,000 units with a $13 wholesale price and make $3 or $4 in profit per release, but for just $9,000 to $12,000, Virgin’s Sawin asks: “Was it worth it?” 

To help make release decisions, labels turn to data: “first-week projections, historical sales, manufacturing and shipping needs, vinyl capacity and life-of-project expectations,” says Republic’s Lipson. In addition to streaming and sales metrics and internal label data, says Mark Pinkus, president of Rhino Records and Warner Music Group’s U.S. catalog, label employees consult Discogs, looking at used LP prices to determine demand. “There’s a variety of criteria we use," says Pinkus.

At Capitol Records, some artists build in vinyl decisions from the beginning of a campaign, like Paul McCartney, whose McCartney III came out with multicolored discs and alternate packages and wound up selling 35,000 copies in 2020. Others start out by emphasizing streaming, but, like Pop Smoke, end up doing big-time vinyl sales, too — often taking their labels by surprise. Capitol’s Maggie Rogers and Troye Sivan, for example, are unexpectedly strong on vinyl, as is Halsey, whose Manic sold 37,000 LPs last year, prompting a pink-and-blue disc campaign and beating McCartney III on the vinyl albums chart. “Sometimes vinyl after the fact is great,” says Capitol senior vp marketing Arjun Pulijal. "Often, we put something out digitally, and we add tracks to increase the value.”

For catalog titles, labels lean heavily on anniversaries and other cultural events to put out new vinyl versions. Jane Gowen, executive vp product development and marketing for Universal Music Enterprises, says Katy Perry’s 10-year-old Teenage Dream and Nelly’s 20-year-old Country Grammar received the deluxe-vinyl treatment for this reason in 2020, as did an elaborate Bob Marley 75th-anniversary box set this year. And at Universal Music Group's Verve/Impulse Records, label executives take care to keep classic albums like Billie Holiday's Body and Soul perpetually in print, but they reissued her Lady Sings the Blues because they had an idea for a new blue-and-pink cover. They also reissued the less-known Out of the Afternoon from drummer Roy Haynes because the international retailers they consulted told them "it was an important one to include, and there were no exceptions," says Jamie Krents, executive vp of Verve/Impulse.

Booming demand for vinyl has helped record stores and mail-order specialists like Vinyl Me, Please stay in business throughout the pandemic and allowed labels to experiment with unexpected releases. “The great news for us is the market will bear more and more and more,” says Krents. “It was dubious to do vinyl reissues even 10 years ago, but obviously we’re in a very different place now.” 

On rare occasions, major labels sell the rights to license a classic title from their catalog to a smaller, independent reissue specialist. Sundazed Music, for example, promotes five Sony-owned mono Bob Dylan LPs on its website, such as Bringing It All Back Home and Greatest Hitsfor $28.98 apiece. That was a rare score, says Jay Millar, the label’s A&R director, because Sony generally prefers to reissue its own titles, but the 32-year-old indie was able to persuade Dylan’s longtime label to sell the rights to a small LP run for a bit more money. It was worth it. “The profit margin is very thin when dealing with the majors,” says Millar. “It’s a form of advertising: Rather than ‘We’re going to make a bunch of money off these Bob Dylan records,’ it’s ‘These Bob Dylan records will bring us more attention to the deeper titles in our catalog.’” 

Instead of Dylan, Millar prefers to discuss a Sundazed passion project — a recent partnership with Something Weird Video, which owns the rights to songs and dialogue from a magic-and-horror carnival, The Ghost (or Spook) Show, which traveled the United States from the 1930s to the ’70s. The collaboration led to several LPs, including a green-vinyl compilation of surf-rock trailers, shrieking noises and dialogue snippets. “We get inspiration from everywhere," says Millar. "People will just call us and say, 'Hey, my uncle was in this band. He's got a bunch of reels in the attic.' These days, the unifying factor is always the vinyl. It starts with the vinyl, then goes as wide as we can get it from there."

THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.