Early last year, executives at the New England music chain Newbury Comics were discussing pulling back on vinyl, thinking the format’s comeback might have run its course. Then, during the pandemic, sales picked up, thanks to a new kind of customer: young people.
“The pandemic totally remade who the vinyl customer was,” says Carl Mello, Newbury’s brand engagement director. “Teenagers who haven’t had to move yet don’t know the pain of moving vinyl, so they’re the perfect people to collect it.”
Increasingly, they seem to be collecting the kind of music they also listen to on streaming services: Last year’s best-selling vinyl albums were Harry Styles’ Fine Line (231,553 copies) and Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (195,679), according to MRC Data.
“We’re selling a lot more younger-demo and pop things on vinyl than we used to,” says Larry Mansdorf, Newbury’s senior buyer of digitized media. “There was a 10-year gap where pop things were not coming out on vinyl, or made a limited run. Now there’s a huge demand for it, and a customer base that was not being served is now being served.”
Overall, U.S. vinyl unit sales jumped 46.2% in 2020 — the format’s biggest year in three decades. (Vinyl now accounts for 5.2% of U.S. recorded-music revenue, according to the RIAA.) There’s no authoritative data on how many of these sales come from younger consumers, but there are clues: The number of 18- to 24-year-old music listeners who used a turntable increased from 12.4% in 2018 to 18.6% last year, according to a MusicWatch consumer survey, and the online marketplace Discogs reported that its percentage of users who are between 25 and 34 increased from 23% in May/June 2019 to 29% in the same period last year.
“We’re certainly seeing a growth in the format since COVID,” says Lyn Koppe, executive vp global catalog for Legacy Recordings, whose parent company Sony Music lists Fine Line and Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon as its best-selling 2020 vinyl LPs. “It used to be that audiophile market, but now it’s not limited to that consumer. It’s much more mass-market.”
Matt Harmon, president of the independent Beggars Group U.S., says the trend started before the pandemic, and there’s some evidence that’s true: MusicWatch data finds that turntable use actually decreased this year among the 13- to 17-year-old and 25- to 34-year-old demographics, and Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? did nearly as well in 2019, when it was the second-best-selling album, behind The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Harmon notes that his label’s artist Snail Mail has a “very female and very young” fan base and sells a “ton of vinyl.”
He adds: “The vinyl buyer is not just a 55-year-old white guy. You’ve got a 27-year-old female also listening to records — and that’s a good thing for us and the industry.”
Others in the industry are skeptical that a youth vinyl boom kicked in during the pandemic: “I don’t think it was a significantly higher lift than any of the years before,” says Matt Sawin, general manager of Virgin Music Label & Artist Services. “Everybody thinks the bubble’s going to pop.”
Record stores acknowledge the youth vinyl boom might dissipate once the vaccines kick and young people return to movies and concerts, but they’re hopeful about a permanent new customer base.
“We’re going to see our business drop off,” says Terry Currier, owner of 52-year-old Music Millennium in Portland. “But I really see this trend continuing to grow.” Adds Michael Tolle, operations director for indie Mello Music Group, whose vinyl-focused roster includes Open Mike Eagle and Quelle Chris, “I think it’ll hold – as we stayed home, and moved towards streaming, people craved the tangible and the real.”
Newbury’s Mello says he has begged labels for years to manufacture and ship more titles beyond the usual Beatles reissues and new Pearl Jam and Jack White releases. The suggestion may finally be kicking in — Capitol released Halsey’s Manic early last year as a limited-edition, pink-and-white-colored disc, and it sold 37,000 copies. Plus, it didn’t hurt that Styles’ Fine Line LP gatefold included an exclusive photo of the pop star wearing zero clothing.
“Halsey, Maggie Rogers, Troye Sivan — we know those fans want vinyl,” says Arjun Pulijal, Capitol Records’ senior vp marketing. “Streaming-friendly artists who are 25 and under — we see a huge opportunity for vinyl there.”