Vinyl Growth Slows — But Is That Bad?
After big jumps in 2020 and 2021, an overheated market may be finding a new normal.
In 2020, after years of steady growth, the vinyl market exploded. Sales climbed over 46% in the United States, according to Luminate. Then, remarkably, they jumped another 51% in 2021.
But in 2022, that growth plummeted to a rate that was far more pedestrian: Luminate reported that sales were up a little more than 4%. (Pull two juggernauts — Taylor Swift‘s Midnights and Harry Styles‘ Harry’s House — out of that number, and growth was less than 1%.) Year-over-year growth also fell in the United Kingdom from 23.2% to 2.9%, according to the British Phonographic Industry.
“Some labels report sales are down,” says Nick Gordon, chief partnership officer at Symphonic Distribution. And big retailers like Walmart offered some titles at a heavily discounted price around the holiday season, stoking fears among the smaller players that those stores had overbought — maybe an indication of slackening demand.
Despite these figures, Gordon believes the vinyl market remains “healthy.” And several of his peers — from distributors to indie-label heads, chain stores to independent retailers — also seem unruffled by the slower growth. “It corrected the market,” says Todd Oenbrink, sales director for All Media Supply, a Florida-based indie wholesaler.
“It feels like a welcomed return to normalcy,” agrees Terry Cole, founder and owner of Loveland, Ohio-based store Plaid Room Records and the label Colemine Records. “It feels way healthier. This industry is not set up for rapid growth.”
And according to Russ Crupnick, managing partner of the market research company MusicWatch, “core metrics” in the vinyl market are still “showing strength.” “Our initial look at the data from 2022 is indicating that the number of vinyl buyers is still holding up,” he continues. “And in early projections, it looks like the used vinyl market is going to be up by double digits.”
During the first two years of the pandemic, demand for vinyl grew like crazy, outpacing production capacity. But retailers, distributors and manufacturers consider those two years an aberration — from 2015 to 2019, year-over-year growth ranged from around 9% to 17%.
When few music fans were going to shows due to COVID-19, “vinyl took a far greater share of music fan spending than it would otherwise take,” says Stephen Godfroy, director and co-owner of Rough Trade, which saw 30% growth in vinyl sales in 2022. “We saw exuberance for all sorts of things during the peak COVID era — vinyl, Netflix, cooking lessons, home improvement,” Crupnick notes.
Now listeners “are spending money on other things — going out drinking, going out eating, going to gigs — whereas they couldn’t do that much in lockdown,” says Peter Quicke, chair of independent label Ninja Tune. (Vinyl sales for Ninja Tune rose over 25% in 2022.) Even so, vinyl sales still grew.
With higher prices for raw materials and labor, the cost of records has also increased, another potential growth dampener. Several independent store owners expect major-label prices to increase again in 2023. “We keep hearing there are more [price hikes] to come,” says John Kunz, owner of Waterloo Records in Austin. “I wonder how that 10- or 20-something shopper is going to be able to afford that.”
Price sensitivity, especially in an uncertain macroeconomic climate, is a chief worry in the independent record store owner and label community. Already “we see customers backing away from the high prices for new releases,” says Michael Kurtz, co-founder of Record Store Day.
But at the same time, the vinyl industry’s production capacity is expected to rise in 2023. Slower growth last year “was less about people suddenly not wanting to buy as many records and more about the amount of records available to purchase,” says Cameron Schaefer, CEO of Vinyl Me, Please. (VMP sales were up 15% in 2022.) “The biggest limiter on growth is just pressing.” “We could have sold much more vinyl in 2022 if only we could have gotten hold of more supply of the right product,” Godfroy agrees.
Independent labels are still struggling with long turnaround times, executives say, which leads to missed sales for their artists — especially when an album doesn’t hit stores and streaming services at the same time. But more plants are coming online — Vinyl Me, Please expects to have its own new plant operational this year, for example — and existing facilities are adding capacity.
There are other potentially positive signs. Crupnick published a study on “the vinyl revolution” in 2022 which found that the most common barrier to buying records was “I don’t have or want to buy a turntable;” similarly, Luminate’s year-end report noted that only 50% of vinyl buyers have a record player. But “when Harry Styles came out last year, we saw a spike in turntable sales,” says Crissi Bariatti, music buyer at Barnes & Noble. “We are converting a lot of new vinyl fans” who might purchase LPs for years to come. (The chain had an “amazing December” for vinyl sales, and “January numbers are great” as well.)
Fluctuation in growth isn’t uncommon, of course. “Ebb and flow in vinyl sales over short periods” is natural, according to Scott Hagen, CEO of Victrola, a product of “what the new releases are, what the availability is in that moment in time, and what the general traffic in retail is.” (That was down in the fourth quarter of 2022.) Schaefer from Vinyl Me, Please predicts that “the next two years will give a much better preview of what to expect from the vinyl industry in the long term.”
“People got excited by high numbers in the years prior,” he continues. “If we can get to 10% a year, stay there and do that well? That’s healthy.”