Inside the Return of Record-Breaking Vinyl Sales
This story is part of Billboard's annual Year In Music package, which identifies and explores the major music trends and industry stories that defined 2022.
On Oct. 25, just four days after the release of Taylor Swift’s Midnights, Luminate reported that vinyl album sales for the set had surpassed a half-million copies. Days prior, Swift had already secured the single-largest sales week for a vinyl album since Luminate began tracking music sales over 30 years ago.
Such a feat is largely due to Swift’s star power — Midnights scored the biggest single-week album debut in seven years. But the staggering stat also indicates yet another new frontier for vinyl. After its first full tracking week, Midnights debuted atop the Billboard 200 with 575,000 first-week vinyl sales, besting the previous record set five months earlier by Harry Styles’ Harry’s House, which sold 372,000 copies in its first week. Beyoncé, too, enjoyed her largest single week in the format after Renaissance was released widely on vinyl on Oct. 7. In a year where music’s biggest stars returned with new projects, the already-resurgent format grew even bigger.
“A lot of the vinyl releases were a little more under the radar in the past, and now it’s the same music you’re hearing everywhere,” says Ryan Smith, senior mastering engineer at Sterling Sound, who has cut the master lacquers (used to mass-produce vinyl) for several of Swift’s albums, including her latest. “You can’t go out in the world for more than an hour, currently, without hearing something from Midnights on the radio or in the store or wherever, and it’s kind of cool that that’s now converged with my little vinyl world.”
Levi Seitz, owner and mastering engineer at Black Belt Mastering, who cut Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour last year and Renaissance this year, agrees that 2022 “has been great” for business. In November, he had already cut 800 records, an estimated 20% increase on average year over year.
Seitz stresses that, since expanding his mastering studio to offer lacquer cutting in 2015, most of the major releases he has worked on have been planned out well in advance and dispersed across multiple pressing plants to help lighten the load. Yet the combination of pandemic-induced supply shortages, the rise in reissue and live performance pressings (as a means to generate income while artists were unable to tour) and the renewed interest in the format from fans of all ages and genres naturally led to a logjam.
Often, blame is incorrectly placed on superstars for creating it. “It’s important for people to keep in mind that the manufacturing process for vinyl is still largely the same as it was in the 1950s,” he says. “For people who are hoping to release an album on vinyl, it pays to plan ahead. Research current lead times — most plants have that info up to date on their website. Working with a trusted and established cutting engineer can reduce delays by ensuring that the lacquer masters will receive proper treatment from the start.”
In the case of Renaissance, for which a limited run of vinyl was available on its release date, Seitz says, “Working with a team that really understands vinyl enabled me to get the most from the medium. There was a lot of time and consideration that went into the sequence and how the sides were split, so the album has a great flow.”
Having cut Adele’s 30, which required an unprecedented 27 master lacquer sets last year, Smith was well-prepared to cut both Midnights and Harry’s House this year. He cut 13 sets of lacquers for Swift and Styles, and both were done under tight timelines. For Harry’s House, he had a lead time of four months. For Midnights, it was six.
“We get a lot of questions like, ‘Hey, can we have all the parts cut by next Friday?’ And then we have to go back to them and be like, ‘Well, when are we going to actually get the material to cut?’ ” says Smith. “[Taylor has] got a guy in her camp who understands vinyl and can listen to a test pressing and know what’s an issue, what’s not an issue, that sort of thing. Plus, we’ve done several records with them now, so it’s a more familiar relationship.” At Columbia Records, which released Renaissance and Harry’s House this year, Smith says that “the A&R [executive] there has been around for a while, so she’s familiar with how things go and all the different kinds of pitfalls along the way. They’re easy to work with because they’re understanding of the process.”
Having vinyl available on release day isn’t only beneficial to artists and their first-week numbers, though. It can also largely help independent retailers — which have been fighting for the format’s staying power all along. “Having big-name vinyl releases is an important footfall driver for our New York City store,” says Stephen Godfroy, co-owner and director of Rough Trade. “ ‘Week of release’ is often the first opportunity for independent retailers to get a fair suck of the sauce bottle.”
But regardless of when a title may hit the shelves, Godfroy says the main takeaway from vinyl’s 2022 showing was that it not only remains resilient but increasingly relevant year after year. As for Swift moving so much of it? It’s a clear sign, he says, “the format has become the leading token of fandom in the digital age.”
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 10, 2022, issue of Billboard.