Music

How Vinyl Can Harness the Influence of Superfans (Guest Column)

A time-tested revenue model in the theater and concert world is to price the front seats highest, and sell them early to the act’s dedicated followers, then fill out the house with cheap seats to optimize cash flow and lower risk. Recorded music does the opposite: when an album drops, an artist’s music is immediately available on all streaming services to every subscriber, leaving no room for passionate fans to self-select into pricier options.

In gaming, at least since the days of Minecraft, superfans have been given early access to titles prior to their publication, generating revenue, feedback and word of mouth.

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Movie studios use a similar model, charging for early access to cinema screenings of major films roughly 45 days before they are widely available to stream (typically first as a purchase, then as a rental). Apple used this windowed approach seeking to maximize revenue with Killers of the Flower Moon and Napoleon, as did Amazon Prime with Air.

The record industry seems to have missed the memo. Other than an early misfire trying out streaming exclusives on the artist-owned Tidal service, it doesn’t use a windowed approach. This is a huge missed opportunity.

One way for recorded music to open a more lucrative, superfan-based future is to turn to one of the icons of its past: vinyl records. Rapper Travis Scott figured this out, pressing 500,000 double-vinyl records of his Utopia album and making it available the same day he dropped it on streaming services. Scott has now sold the majority of them at $50 a pop, taking the risk, and reaping the reward. What if he had released those analog vinyl records before the album was launched digitally on streaming? If he had sold half the stock before the digital release, he would have grossed $12.5 million, perhaps banking $10 million of that as profit, all while supercharging his marketing machine as all those superfans paraded their prized product to their friends.

Market, Vinyl Op-Ed
A limited-edition package of Scott’s Utopia on red vinyl.

Like the boy who cried wolf, we’ve been told again and again that the resurgence in vinyl is a blip, not a trend. Yet for 18 straight years it has continued to surpass expectations. For the past three years, it’s made up over a tenth of all label revenues from the consumer and this year will see labels reap over a billion vinyl dollars, with no slowdown in sight.

Analog is surging in book publishing, too, as printed books are now outselling their digital counterparts 4-to-1 and bookstores are ascending. Not long ago that would have seemed inconceivable.

Now let’s look at where the vinyl meets the road: the math. While streaming is a music industry success story, it’s also a commoditization story – selling more and more for less and less. Back in 2001, Rhapsody charged $9.99 to access 15,000 catalog songs; today Spotify et al charge roughly the same for 120 million songs. Add the impact of family plan, where typically three people share a $15 per month account and the value of an account user has fallen by 10% and that’s before you adjust for inflation. Vinyl is bucking this trend. Since 2016, retail prices for the platters that matter have risen 30%.

Will Page, Market, Vinyl Op-Ed
Will Page

For a streamer to provide a record label the same amount of value from an album as a vinyl buyer, a customer would need to press play over 5,000 times — or stream for almost two weeks straight without sleep. Let’s be crystal clear on what this comparison really means: consumers are paying more for the same with vinyl but paying less to access more with streaming. So if you want to hedge your intellectual property bets, you’d better put some chips on black and spin the wheel at 33 1⁄3.

Management guru Peter Drucker once quipped that “the customer rarely buys what the company thinks it’s selling him.” In the case of vinyl, over half of buyers don’t even own a record player. So they’re not buying the music — they’re buying merchandise that gives them a sense of identity and connection to the artist. With streaming, you merely press your thumb on a piece of glass; owning, holding and displaying a curated vinyl record with unique artwork has much deeper meaning to a fan.

There are similar conundrums concerning vinyl’s relationship with the creator. Remember that streaming unbundled the album – so you could have nine filler songs on a killer Number One record yet not get paid for those songs. The book Pivot showed that Gotye’s 2011 debut Making Mirrors was the most streamed album of the year, but it was all down to one hit: Somebody I Used to Know. Strip that hit out and this record falls out of the Top 100.

Vinyl captures more in the unit value — no fan can realistically give your album $30 via streaming — and all songs receive the same payout. Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is arguably the greatest vinyl success story in history; yet the obscure Ralph MacDonald track “Calypso Breakdown” from that album earned the same as the Bee Gees signature track “Staying Alive” for every album sold. Investors in music catalogs should take note: supporting more vinyl releases stands to monetize the vast majority of songs currently owned that make almost no money from streaming.

Vinyl is not without its challenges. Measuring the size of its remarkable continued success story is just one. Recent changes by Luminate, the go-to source for industry data, wiped off 40% of the measured volume overnight, by flipping from extrapolating the size of the market to counting only those who opt in. That’s getting fixed, and will assuage the people it’s upset, but the point remains, there’s way more vinyl being purchased than Luminate measures.

Fred Goldring, Market, Vinyl Op-Ed
Fred Goldring

There are other challenges, too. If counting bricks & mortar retail is hard, what about tracking online physical retail that’s based anywhere yet serves everywhere? London-based Juno is a corner kick from Camden’s famous market and serves not just the UK and US, but Brazil and China in equal measure. Add the burgeoning second-hand platforms like Discogs and you get a sense that the true size of the market is a lot bigger than we give it credit for.

This brings us back to the potential of vinyl’s first mover advantage. Until the latter part of 2023, vinyl faced an enormous manufacturing backlog and demand far exceeded supply for even the biggest artists. Many vinyl albums were released many months after their initial streaming release.

A rise of small vinyl manufacturing plants have significantly decreased lag time and backlog. Travis Scott used the Poland-based team at Pressing Business to manufacture 500,000 double-disc, multi-cover, multi-colored Utopia albums in just five weeks, allowing for the highest vinyl debut for a hip-hop artist since records began in 1991. Combined with streaming, the album stayed at #1 for five weeks.

The record industry should start selling and delivering vinyl as an early access opportunity, not an afterthought. Pre-stream vinyl releases can create scarcity, exclusivity and therefore additional revenue from superfans who will jump at the chance to be the first to hear the music or own a limited edition version. Artists will benefit creatively as well, as superfans are the ones most likely to truly appreciate the album as a body of work, curated as the artist intended (and, many would argue, with better sound). Once music is thrown into the ocean of streaming, it often gets lost at sea, and all stakeholders lose something valuable. It’s time for the record industry to embrace the vinyl first mover advantage that is hiding in plain sight.

Will Page is the author of Pivot and former chief economist of Spotify, and Fred Goldring is an Entrepreneur, Entertainment Lawyer and co-founder of Pressing Business.

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