How do we really listen to music?

The music industry’s state of flux seems to show no signs of settling down, with release formats appearing to wax and wane on an almost annual basis. The growth of vinyl, though, seems to be a trend that simply won’t go away. Sales of vinyl hit a low point in 2007, when a mere 205,000 units were shifted in the UK – but since then the only way is up.

Reports suggest that the figures for 2016 will find vinyl out-stripping digital downloads, with vinyl sales accounting for some £2.4 million last week thus far in comparison to a relatively meagre £2.1 million from downloads. It’s a certainly a sign of ongoing trends. The vinyl resurgence has reached new heights in 2016, with huge retailers such as Tesco and Sainburys putting their gargantuan weight behind the format.

In less than a decade vinyl has gone from the niche concern of hipsters and earnest middle-aged collectors to becoming a checkout aisle success story, with Sainburys even somewhat erroneously claiming to be the biggest vinyl retailer in the land.

Vinyl sales are undoubtedly rising, but what helps this tally eclipse digital downloads is its ‘value gap’ – put simply, they cost a lot more for fans to purchase. A standard album download on iTunes might cost £7.99, for example, whereas a vinyl release might easily set you back £20 and above. Clearly, digital downloads face a handicap when measured like this, needing to sell almost two units for every vinyl pick-up.

A great example of this split is the manner in which Radiohead approached the release of ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ earlier this year. A band with a dedicated audience – but also able to communicate beyond that - the release was made immediately available on web services at £9 per download alongside orders for a lavish vinyl edition.

And it was certainly lavish. The standard £20 edition featured two 12 inch record bound in a gatefold sleeve, while the £60 special edition boasted 78RPM shellac records, 32 pages of artwork, and a pair of compact discs.

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In addition to this, casual observers were also catered for. The famously stream-phobic band made ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ available on TIDAL and Apple Music, meaning that everyone from the mildly curious to hardcore fans had their needs met resulting in one of the year’s most successful indie releases.

But even this doesn’t quite reveal the way fans actually listen to music. A poll for the BBC earlier this year found that almost half of all vinyl purchases never actually found their way to a record player, with fans frequently making the choice to utilise the download code inside and keep the disc (and it’s attendant artwork) as an ornament or decoration.

Furthermore, the music industry itself has shifted the definition of a ‘sale’. The growth of streaming has created the ‘album equivalent sale’ to incorporate streaming data, and it’s this that fully details the manner in which fans absorb new releases.

The retail value of music streams in the UK last year grew to some £251 million, a total that renders any debate around vinyl vs. download rather redundant. Indeed, it could be claimed that both vinyl and digital downloads are financially beneficent outliers, rather than central players. As an example, when The Weeknd released his opening trilogy of downloads each release was nine tracks long, a succinct demonstration of artistic ability. The gargantuan ‘Starboy’ meanwhile is some 18 tracks long, echoing a growing trend in high profile commercial releases. The reason? Well, partly because longer albums rack up more streams, and will hence chart higher.

The growth of streaming reflects another trend within tech, which is the decline of the standalone music player. iPod sales have been falling as its components are absorbed by the iPhone, with Apple quietly shelving the volume of iPod sales from its reports. The simple question fans are asking is: why download music to your iPod when you can simply stream via your phone?

The managed decline of the digital download is being matched by the continued growth of the vinyl release, a purchase that carries much more weight than individual sales might suggest. It’s remarkable, then, that almost two decades after Napster first went live the industry has yet to settle into a coherent release pattern. A time of instability, perhaps, but also – for those who get it right – a time of rare opportunity.

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Related: What Do The Vinyl Charts Mean, Anyway?

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