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How Vinyl Got Its Groove Back: Its Dominance, Decline & Comeback

Record Player: Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images

The vinyl comeback isn't just spin. In 2020, records accounted for $626 million in U.S. sales — exceeding those of CDs and contributing 5.2% of industry revenue, according to the RIAA. And MRC Data shows vinyl sales have been rising for 15 years, to 27.5 million units last year, up a staggering 46.2% during the pandemic. “It’s the movie theater,” Jack White told Billboard about the format in a March 14, 2015, cover story, “compared [with] the iPhone.”

 

After World War II, a music-business format fight broke out when the then-dominant shellac 78 rpm records faced two challengers: Columbia Records’ 33 1/3 rpm vinyl LPs and RCA Victor’s shorter 45s. This “mark[ed] the beginning of a historic disk battle,” Billboard wrote in a Jan. 8, 1949, story, advising readers to “hold your hats, kids, and run for the storm cellars.” In the Feb. 19 issue, Columbia’s chairman of the board called out RCA, predicting that its LP would win a “record war ... which Columbia Records has not initiated and in which it cannot be defeated.”

 

The 45 quickly eighty-sixed the 78 as the leading singles format, but LPs brought in more money. The June 3, 1950, Billboard reported that during a 12-month period, U.S. labels produced 7.3 million 45s and 3.3 million LPs — but those 45s had a retail value of $5.6 million, compared with $12.5 million for the LPs. By the end of the year, RCA started making LPs, too.

 

By the late 1980s, CDs and cassettes were outselling records, and in 1989, Billboard tracked what an April 22 report called vinyl’s “inevitable phase-out.” That April issue also covered how the country’s largest independent record plant stopped making vinyl after “what was seen as a gradual decline in market demand turned into a ‘swift and precipitous tailspin.’ ” Vinyl’s extinction seemed inevitable. “It’s not a question of if,” said Tommy Boy chairman Tom Silverman in the May 27 issue. “It’s a question of when.”

 

Two decades later, a group of independent retailers organized the first Record Store Day on April 19, 2008. The Billboard that was published on that date asked, “Can Record Store Day Work?” The question was still open in the May 3 issue, when one record-store manager shrugged at a modest sales bump: “I don’t know if it’s because of the nice weather,” she said, “or Record Store Day.”

 

It was Record Store Day all along. After higher-profile annual events that included record store “Ambassadors” like Ozzy Osbourne, Chuck D and Metallica, an April 27, 2016, headline read, “Record Store Day Spurs 131 Percent Gain In Vinyl Album Sales In U.S.,” compared with the previous week. Many of those buyers wouldn’t remember the format’s decline. The April 3, 2021, Billboard reported that “during the pandemic, sales picked up, thanks to a new kind of customer: young people.”

This article originally appeared in the April 24, 2021, issue of Billboard.