For the first time since 1986, U.S. vinyl record sales could reach $1 billion this year, which already has the top four biggest sales weeks for the format since MRC Data began tracking music sales in 1991: Taylor Swift’s evermore (102,000 sold), Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour (76,000), Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever (73,000) and Swift’s Fearless (Taylor’s Version) (67,000). Even more surprising, three of those four weeks happened months after the albums hit streaming services.
Partly as a result of the pandemic, which has kept music fans home and prevented them from spending money on concert tickets, vinyl sales have skyrocketed — unit sales in the United States grew 46.2% in 2020 and another 81% so far in 2021, according to MRC Data. But this growing demand has also caused delays in manufacturing, which have been exacerbated by global supply-chain problems and shortages of raw materials like PVC and paper products.
The same records that might have taken two or three months to press before the pandemic now take up to six months for big artists, while smaller acts and independent labels may have to wait eight months or longer. (Most pressing plants allot a certain amount of capacity to larger labels, which can prioritize big new releases over reissues or developing acts.) Some artists have tried to turn this problem to their advantage, though, by holding back other physical products in order to focus their early marketing on fans who will stream music on repeat, then months later promote vinyl and other physical products.
No one has been better at turning manufacturing delays into a sales opportunity than Swift, who had two albums this year debut atop the Billboard 200 before their vinyl was ready, only to return to No. 1 months later with marketing campaigns focused on physical products. In June, five months after evermore came out online, the album returned to No. 1 thanks to vinyl and signed CDs. (That round of marketing also yielded a 7% uptick in streaming.) In October, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) jumped back up the chart six months after its digital release, on the strength of physical products she had presold for months. (The week after its vinyl arrived, the album tumbled to No. 35 on the Billboard 200, the biggest fall from No. 1 in over a year, since May 2020 when Kenny Chesney’s Here and Now slid to No. 38 in its second week.)
Other stars are spinning sales the same way. After Lady Gaga put out Chromatica in May 2020, accompanied by color vinyl and limited-edition picture discs, she released a mass-market black vinyl version of the record that reentered the top 10 on the Top Album Sales chart and topped the Vinyl Albums chart (dated July 10) for the first time. In July, vinyl sales drove Paul McCartney’s McCartney III Imagined to No. 1 on Top Album Sales seven months after its initial release. And in August, three months after Rodrigo’s Sour had the then-best debut week of 2021, with 295,000 equivalent album sales, the album returned to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 thanks to vinyl.
Not every artist has employed this strategy: Eilish, Halsey and John Mayer all put out vinyl versions of their albums on release day, which further boosted their first-week sales. Other artists, including Rostam and James Blake, pushed back their release dates so they could put out vinyl that day. “I was just like, ‘I love vinyl, and I know loads of people buy vinyl,’” says Blake, whose album Friends That Break Your Heart was originally due Sept. 10 but instead came out Oct. 8. “I think fans are a bit disappointed when vinyl takes another three months to come.”
In the past, Run the Jewels has released albums online quickly so its music could address a moment — then made physical products available later. For the rap duo’s RTJ4, which arrived in June 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, its vinyl came out three months later and debuted at No. 2 on the Vinyl Albums chart. “It was an important record, and because we were already in the midst of dealing with supply-chain issues, we knew we were going to have to put [physical product] out after,” says Dan Gill, BMG executive vp recorded music, Los Angeles. “Fans will wait — and [Run the Jewels] pioneered that.”
Manufacturing delays won’t be solved soon: One plant that mostly serves indies is booked through next summer. Could a strategy that sprang from a shortage stick around?
“We have to have these very real conversations with management, saying, ‘What’s important to you?’” says Gill. “ ‘If you’re trying to line everything up, what does that chart position mean in the big scheme of things, and how does that affect everything else that you’re doing?’” In other words, he continues, “if we cannot make that vinyl release, how do we turn that negative into a positive?”