The death knell of the compact disc has taken another inevitable step forward in 2020, as the once-dominant mode of purchasing music has fallen precipitously during quarantine as streaming as continued to surge. This is old news, of course—streaming has been the dominant force in the music industry more more than a decade. But one of the other familiar music industry stories has also achieved a new level of novelty in 2020: Vinyl records have finally re-surpassed CDs in terms of sales. This is a factor of both the continued decline of CDs, and a steady growth of vinyl even during the pandemic.
The latter is especially impressive, given the fact that quarantines throughout the U.S. have surely shut down many of the independent record stores that are the lifeblood of vinyl as a format. Despite that, the format was still up a bit in sales during the first half of 2020—a modest 4% rise, according to the RIAA. Contrast that with the utter freefall of CD revenue, which was down 48% in the same period, and you get an idea of just how much enthusiasm vinyl is able to generate, in comparison with CDs. It was that enthusiasm for collecting that helped vinyl completely surpass (and almost double) CDs in these 6 months: $232.1 million in music sales for vinyl, to only $129.9 million for CDs. It’s the first time that has happened since the 1980s.
The growth is nothing new for vinyl, of course, as a new generation of record collectors and a boom in portable record player sales has led to growth of the format in every year since 2005. Major physical retailers such as Urban Outfitters have played a key role in vinyl’s continued growth, while the older generation of record stores have seen a revitalization that has helped to somewhat offset the dwindling interest in CDs.
It should be noted, at the same time, that sales of physical music media are still falling overall despite vinyl’s popularity—in the first six months of 2020, total physical music sales decreased a steep 23%, to $376 million. That’s really no surprise, given that stores have been closed and concerts something of an impossibility. Much of the music industry’s physical CD sales presumably happen at concert merch tables in particular, to the pandemic has no doubt played a major role here.
Music streaming, unsurprisingly, has been taking up the slack in terms of revenue—most of which is sadly denied to the artists. Overall revenue of paid streaming, ad-supported streaming and streaming radio was up 12% to more than $4.8 billion in the first half of 2020, as listeners stuck at home have been making use of these services more than ever. Streaming now accounts for more than 85% of the total revenue of the entire music industry, illustrating its near total dominance at this point.
Still, it’s a good time to be a neophyte record collector as well.