Vinyl Sales Beat CDs While Still Managing to Lose

Vinyl Sales Beat CDs While Still Managing to Lose
Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski, Getty Images

For a lot of folks, records (in the year of our dark lord 2020) are one of those things you either “get” or just don’t. While its resurgence has spawned its fair share of hate-fuelled rants asking why we’re falling for the greatest scam ever played on us at the hands of the music industry, there’s seemingly (no stopping those who champion the sound quality and vintage-y aesthetic that comes with the format.

According to a new report out from the Recording Industry Association of America, 2020 marks the first year that vinyl record sales have outpaced sales of their compact disc counterparts since the mid-1980's. Record sales accounted for just over $US232 ($319) million in music industry sales for the first half of 2020, compared to CD’s, which barely squeaked under roughly $US130 ($178) million.

If your first question here — like mine — is why the hell people are still buying more than $US100 ($137) million in CD’s at all, die-hards for the format will be quick to tell you all the reasons why it’s far superior to vinyl. As Reddit’s audiophile community points out, your average CD is just plain cheaper than most vinyl LP’s, not to mention more portable, and with comparable sound. Ultimately though, this audio format fanclub has been waning for years: as Rolling Stone reported back in 2019, the rates of CD sales were plunging roughly three times as quickly as vinyl sales were growing alongside. At the time, the RIAA predicted that if those numbers held fast, then record sales would come to outpace CD’s for the first time since 1986. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what happened.

The real money is still in streaming, of course. The more than $US200 ($275) million that vinyl sales made in the first half of this year didn’t hold a candle to the roughly $US4.8 ($7) billion that streaming services like Spotify and Pandora raked in over the same period. While these and other streaming services were primed to make big bucks in 2020, the nation’s lockdowns kicked those gains into high gear. Rifling through records at your favourite shop became pretty much impossible for the nation’s die-hard collectors for the past few months. Sales of all physical formats plunged overall, lopping off about a quarter of the profits they made last year. According to the RIAA’s numbers, sales of LP’s, cassettes, and CD’s dropped from just over $US485 ($666) million in the first half of 2019 to roughly $US376 ($516) million in the first half of 2020 — a dropoff of about 23%.

Does vinyl actually sound “richer” and “warmer”? Does it matter that it beat the go-to format of my childhood by going extinct at a less rapid pace? Eh. Either way, the loss of these sorts of physical mediums also means that bands are left with fewer options to make ends meet — what with venues around the world largely closed down and streaming services paying out legendarily pitiful returns. Unless we bring back the punk/pop/insert-your-genre-of-choice shows of yore, or the streaming giants actually start to take their talent seriously, it’s just going to be harder and harder for the hits to keep coming, whether we appreciate them or not.