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Vinyl and the fetishistic niche: why record sales are a poor guide for other media

Posted: October 7, 2010 at 12:11 pm 1 Comment »

Earlier this week, Robert Andrews at paidContent:UK declared that the “vinyl revival” had “skipped a beat” as he reported figures obtained from the BPI showing falling sales of 7″ and 12″ singles sales and flat album sales.

These numbers buck the recent trend for vinyl sales, which in the last couple of years has been one of the few causes for music industry optimism. Vinyl is a real long tail market, and still a huge format for club play – purists won’t touch CDs – though the BPI numbers suggest that the R&B/grime driver of UK single sales is waning, ironically, as the genre becomes more mainstream.

Even so, plenty of name rock bands still do vanity presses, keeping the high streets well stocked with new releases as well as classics. In an article published last year, at a time when US vinyl sales were still rising (albeit at a slowing rate), the the LA Times described the situation:

….vinyl appears to be a niche market that’s here to stay, and one that’s showing signs of expansion. Rock albums account for 70% of all vinyl sold, but country vinyl is enjoying a growth spurt.

Moreover, those who love music know that digital recordings are, at least for the moment, markedly inferior to analogue (see, for example, Neil Young’s challenge to Steve Jobs). But the real resilience of this niche market is routed in something more subtle. Note the tone of Stuart Smith, boss of Lemington Spa’s Seismic Records, speaking to the Guardian in 2007:

I’m still not sure about the MP3 generation. You can have a full hard drive and nothing to show for it. Record collections are very personal. You can view into a person’s soul really.

Attitudes toward vinyl are to a large extent shaped by the content it carries. In this sense, vinyl fans are, quite literally, fetishistic. In fetishism, physical objects assume powers that actually belong to something else, and it’s in this way that 12″ vinyl can supplement the content in a way downloads can’t.

This is why I think Andrew is misunderstanding the link between musical form and content when he concludes:

What are the lessons for other media in vinyl music, a medium that retains a small, loyal, paying following because it satisfies an un-digital penchant? One conclusion: go long…

The complex psychological relationship between fans of bands ranging from The Saturdays to Sonic Youth and the content they create is rarely replicated in other media. Literature, perhaps – but when looking at the size of the vinyl niche against digital sales, the tale looks like a cautionary one for book publishers.

Certainly mainstream news media can’t look to vinyl for advice. While there are people listening to Ralph McTell sing about “yesterday’s papers telling yesterday’s news” on an original 1975 pressing, nobody, super-niche researchers aside, is reading those papers, not even on the streets of London.

News content is, by its very nature, ephemeral. For news, always updating, the electronic form isn’t just acceptable – it’s essential.

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  1. Posted February 23, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

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