After growing at a steady clip for the past few years, vinyl sales hit a milestone last week, crossing the three-million mark for the first time since Nielsen SoundScan started keeping track in 1991, according to numbers the company released to Seattle Weekly. With six weeks left in the year, that's easily enough to beat last year's previous best of 2.8 million vinyl LPs sold.
Leading the pack is the Beatles' perennial vinyl seller Abbey Road and Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, which has sold more vinyl LPs in a single year than any other new release in the SoundScan era. The Seattle band's sophomore album has sold 26,000 LPs since its May release, compared to 31,000 for Abbey Road and 22,000 for Bon Iver's self-titled release from June.
The three million LPs sold is still a very small part of total album sales—just over 1 percent of the 255 million albums sold so far this year. And album sales are in no danger of reaching the 785-million mark they reached in 2000, before piracy took off. But album sales are up 3 percent, the largest year-over-year gain since 2004; digital album sales have climbed 20 percent; and CD sales, which had fallen off between 18 and 21 percent annually each of the previous four years, are down just 4 percent in 2011 from the 2010 mark. Even cassettes have seen an uptick: SoundScan says year-to-date sales have risen from 16,000 to 25,000 tapes.
"I think we're starting to see some settling," says music-industry analyst Mike McGuire. "I think some people who were casually using file trading and torrents are realizing the online side is maturing, there's more and more content available, and many times it's easier to pay for it than hunt it down for free. For the industry, that's some progress."
Russ Crupnick, an analyst with market-research firm The NPD Group, says that the quality of music is having an effect on sales. While piracy took a chunk out of the industry's bottom line over the past decade, Crupnick says a lack of musical innovation took a large toll too ("It's been the first time in my life that there hasn't been a new kind of genre in at least a decade," he says). But new, quality records from artists like Adele, Lady Gaga, and Eminem, Crupnick says, are ones that people want to own physical copies of—to which he attributes the slower dip in CD sales, even as digital sales continue to climb.
"I think the repertoire has an awful lot to do at least with maintaining physical [sales]," Crupnick says. "If the repertoire . . . gets weak, you could see some slippage again."