Are ‘millennials’ warping the vinyl record industry?

From the Economist


VINYL evokes another time. In “Call the Midwife”, a drama set in the late 1950s, the young women return from a day of delivering infants to enjoy a Horlicks and a Chordettes record. In “Mad Men”, Don Draper can often be seen nursing an Old Fashioned with some Big John Hamilton or Peggy Lee whirring on the turntable. But LPs remain a potent force in our current musical climate of streaming and digital downloads; 2015 marked the tenth straight year of growth in the American market. According to the most recent Nielsen music report, last year’s performance—12m units sold, grossing a total of $416m—is the best since 1988. Even more surprisingly, the biggest-selling audio device (aside from the iPhone) of that year was not hands-free headphones or Bluetooth speakers but the humble turntable.

Many consider nostalgia the driving force behind this uptick. Turntables are cheap and easy to get hold of (a Crosley costs less than $100 on Amazon) and so furnish baby boomers with a good excuse to dust off what remains of their collection, and expand it further. But data show that this isn’t a sufficient explanation: nearly 50% of vinyl customers are 35 or younger, according to ICM. Indeed, it is 25-35 year-olds who are the most voracious demographic, taking home 33% (by comparison, 45-54 year-olds are responsible for only 18% of sales). Millennials might like to carry their favourite songs around with them and discover new artists via streaming apps, but they also want to collect that music in album form.

As such, stores popular with millennials are increasingly stocking vinyl. In 2014, Urban Outfitters, a clothing retailer aimed at 18-28 year-olds, claimed to be the world’s number one vinyl seller (Billboard noted that they can claim an 8.1% share of the American market to Amazon’s 12.3%). They sell the sleek, vintage-inspired Crosley turntables in their stores; the partnership helped to shift more than 1m units in 2015. Calvin Hollinger, the chain’s chief administrative officer, explained this move by stating that “music is very, very important to the Urban customer” and feeds in to the store’s status as a purveyor of a forward-thinking, trendy lifestyle. Hot Topic, a retailer of “alternative culture-related clothing and accessories”, offers vinyl in stores and online. Target and Whole Foods are rolling out vinyl at locations across the country.

Independent record store owners are marketing to millennials, too. Steve Stevenson, owner of 1-2-3-4 Go!, a shop in San Francisco’s Mission District, states that Instagram plays a huge role in his business strategy. The photo and video-sharing social network is overwhelmingly populated by this demographic; over 90% of the app’s 150m users are under the age of 35.

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