RETRO REPORT

Vinyl, the salvation of the music industry in the digital age—in charts, audio and some cats

Companies that connect consumers to their music have been struggling to find a business model since the internet made freemium a thing, so two bits of news this week are curious: SoundCloud is laying off 40% of its staff. And Sony Music is going to press records again after a 28-year hiatus.

In January, SoundCloud’s CEO told Fast Company he expected 2017 revenue to grow 137%. In March, SoundCloud received a $70 million round of debt-funding.

Sony was largely responsible for the demise of vinyl. It brought the Walkman to market in 1979, ignited the digital audio revolution in 1982 by making CD players, and followed up with portable CD players.

So wait. What’s going on with this rewind and replay? Is this latest round of company news a tipping point? At Quartz, we got curious and decided to look at buying data along with American listening habits to see what this history of music ‘n’ revenue would reveal.

QZ_Music_dane-deaner
(Unsplash/Dane Deaner)

Put the needle on the record 🎼

In 1978, when record sales were peaking, Saturday Night Fever had spent 24 weeks as Billboard’s number-one album. Go ahead, press play. We know you want to listen:

John Travolta looked like this:

Quartz_vinyl_Travolta_1978_colorcorrected
A 20-something Travolta (AP)

And many Americans were actually listening on this:

Quartz-Vinyl_Vintage_Panasonic_8_Track_
The Dynamite 8 (Wikimedia Commons)

On the chart below 👇🏽you can see that sales of 8-tracks and records peaked 🏔️ the same year.

A collection of hip-hop cassette tapes from the 1980's are displayed at the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016. Thanks to UMass, the world will soon have access to 300 unreleased demo tapes from the early days of Boston hip-hop. The university paired with Boston Public Library to form a new hip-hop archive that's the latest example of colleges treating hip-hop as a scholarly subject. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
(AP/Charles Krupa)

Mixtapes and CDs 💿

By 1984, cassette sales overtook records. That year kicked off with Thriller ruling Billboard’s top spot, and ended with Purple Rain.

FILE - In this Feb. 18, 1985 file photo, Prince performs at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. A pair of record labels announced Friday, April 28, 2017, that a remastered edition of Prince’s landmark 1984 album “Purple Rain” will be released on June 23, 2017. The labels say Prince oversaw the remastering process in 2015 and the “Purple Rain Deluxe” will include six previously unreleased songs by the late singer-songwriter, who died one year ago.
 (AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing, File)
The Artist, circa 1985 (AP/Liu Heung Shing)

CDs crossed over cassettes in 1990 (see 📉👆🏼 for Hammer time!) before exploding and peaking 🏔️ in 1999. Yes, that was the year of Backstreet Boys.👇🏻🎤

Immediately after their hit album, sales of physical music began to take a slide. 🤐 ❓

Actress Shailene Woodley listens to a question in Spanish through headphones during a news conference to promote the feature film Snowden at the San Sebastian Film Festival in San Sebastian, Spain September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Vincent West - RTSOXOJ
(Reuters/Vincent Wes)

Music to go 🎧

In 2004, when digital downloads began to gain traction, audiophiles had been mourning the loss of high-fidelity for more than a decade. This coincided with the Apple’s honey-I-shrunk-the-iPod moment—the release of the 4gb mini, available in 5 quasi-pastel colors.

Downloads took off. Ringtones? Peaked 🏔️ in 2007 with the Shop Boyz.

A vinyl record bearing the logo of label "His Master's Voice" are pictured at the Classic-Choice dealership of rare previously owned classical LP's in London January 15, 2013.  HMV, the 92-year-old British music retailer seeking protection from creditors, is unlikely to have much of a future beyond a rump of stores and the internet, if other recent retail failures are any guide. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor  (BRITAIN - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT BUSINESS) - RTR3CHJ5
(Reuters/Luke MacGregor)

Roots of revival 🗝️

So how did we get back where we started with vinyl? There must be more than nostalgia driving the flood of one million Crosley turntables that were sold in retailers like Urban Outfitters in 2015.

If you look at the data again, the chart📉 below👇🏽 tells the tale. See the dark blue line at the bottom that is rising into a smile? Records.

In the end, it’s not so much about the music after all. It’s about the money. Which may make music lovers 💔💔💔.

Fortunately, there is an antidote. According to Albert Schweitzer, the French philosopher, “There are two means of refuge from the misery of life—music and cats.” So here are a little of both.

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