The U.S. Copyright Act requires that in order for a work to be entitled to copyright protection, it must be “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”1 With the rise of the digital age, one might argue that the majority of musical works that are consumed today are not quite “tangible” in the general sense of the word because they are embodied in computer files or streamed via websites. Today’s most popular form of music cannot be held, flipped through, opened, or closed. A digital download cannot be visually admired or showcased in a collection on a bookcase. Recent statistics reflect that a group of unique consumers are gravitating towards purchasing music, in what some might call, an antiquated and primitive medium – vinyl records.
Global Internet piracy has changed the recorded music industry.2 As overall sales continue to decline, most record companies have slowly begun to revise their sales and marketing strategies in an effort to adapt to the rise of freely distributed digital music.3 Despite a major plunge in global CD sales, global digital sales increased in 2011 by eight percent.4 This has led to speculation that conventional modes of retail are no longer profitable in the music industry.5 However, recent market statistics have revealed that vinyl record sales have surprisingly surged over the past five years in both the US and the UK.6 Moreover, this sales boom could only be the tip of the iceberg, as major distributors such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart have only recently begun to carry vinyl.7 In addition, vinyl’s recent top sellers have ranged across a variety of artists from different genres and time periods, including Radiohead, The Beatles, Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, Beady Eye, Pink Floyd, Metallica, The National, and Pavement.8 This suggests that a younger demographic of high school and college students who grew up in the digital age are choosing to buy vinyl records.
While it is true that vinyl sales represent a small fraction of the overall global marketplace,9 these puzzling numbers raise an important implication about today’s ever-changing music industry. What is it about vinyl records that appeals to consumers who are now accustomed to spending less time, energy, and money by downloading music? There may still be profit to gain by selling music as a fixed and tangible medium.
A recent study at BYU University reveals a growing movement among the student body that has gravitated towards vinyl records.10 In a series of interviews, students revealed that there are some qualities about vinyl records that simply cannot be enjoyed when downloading music.11 One student said that listening to a vinyl LP provides a richer listening experience than listening to mp3s: “With the digital medium, it’s not so much an experience thing as it is a convenience thing.”12 Another local musician added that vinyl, “forces someone to sit down and listen rather than have a soundtrack going on while they’re doing other stuff… it creates more value.”13 Finally, a record store owner simply stated, “everyone knows that vinyl sounds better.”14 While these individuals do not represent all music consumers, many believe that the only redeeming characteristic of the digital market is the convenience and ease with which music can be obtained.
Further, these individuals are still willing to pay for music if doing so will provide them with a superior listening experience. This suggests that if record companies could provide a superior listening experience to that of an mp3 from Amazon, iTunes, or The Pirate Bay, a base of consumers who truly value the experience of listening to music would likely pay for it. The interviews above reflect that selling a product that delivers a higher sound quality and level of interactivity could sway at least some consumers into legally obtaining and paying for their music.
Similarly, an LP’s album artwork might be more enjoyable in a tangible form than in a digital one. Last year, the vinyl edition of Radiohead’s “The King of Limbs” was advertised as the world’s first newspaper album. The package featured two clear plastic 45 records, a series of artistic inserts, a copy of the CD, and a full-length newspaper filled with lyrics, additional artwork, and various writing pieces.15 Needless to say, the artwork gave consumers an artistic experience that had never before been coupled with the purchase of a record. These additions were only available to those who purchased a vinyl copy of the album, evoking a sense of exclusivity for those who bought it.16 Those who paid the extra money for a vinyl copy of the album in the end received a substantial addition that others did not get to experience. Not surprisingly, “The King of Limbs” was the top grossing vinyl record of 2011.17 This demonstrates how artwork can be used as a powerful marketing tool in luring consumers to pay for music. It also suggests that superior and exclusive benefits can be used as a powerful marketing tool to sell hard copies of albums.
One of vinyl’s major shortcomings in the modern era is its lack of portability. Consumers have grown used to having all of their music on the go with portable mp3 players, phones, tablets, and the like. In an effort to work around this inherent deficiency, Universal Records has launched a new initiative called “Back to Black,” which aims to provide consumers with the best of both vinyl and digital music.18 Universal now inserts a slip of paper with a unique code in every vinyl record that it presses. Consumers who buy the record redeem their code online and receive a free digital copy of the album, allowing them to enjoy the experience of having the album on vinyl without sacrificing the portability of modern music.19 In addition, Universal has created a unique brand to promote this effort, advertising the Back to Black campaign with the slogan, “Vinyl is Back.”20 The success of the campaign, as reflected in the recent surge of vinyl sales, demonstrates that providing consumers with this kind of validation and flexibility is a successful adaptation to the digital evolution of recorded music without completely abandoning the conventional model of selling it. As a result, combining the convenience of the mp3 with a hard copy of an album could be another step in the right direction in reviving the conventional music market.
While these tweaked marketing methods might not be the quick fix to the music industry’s declining sales, vinyl’s re-emergence suggests that there are ways for record companies to reclaim a portion of their lost market. It appears that many music fans want tangible objects of art, an impression of exclusivity and better sound. Even if vinyl’s resurrection is gradual, it produced positive sales over the past five years. The recent successes of creative marketing strategies that provide consumers with enriched and interactive experiences demonstrates that the traditional method of selling music is not quite dead – it just needs a facelift.
By Bernard Mantel
1 17 U.S.C. § 102 (2011).
2 See David Goldman, Music’s Lost Decade: Sales Cut in Half, CNNMoney (Feb. 3, 2010), http://money.cnn.com/2010/02/02/news/companies/napster_music_industry/; see also Piracy Impact Studies, RIAA, http://www.riaa.com/keystatistics.php?content_selector=research-report-journal-academic (last visited Mar. 7, 2012).
3 See, e.g., Paul McGinness, How to Save the Music Business, Rolling Stone, Sept. 30, 2010, at 43; see also Nico Maddox, Record Companies Rethink Strategies as Music Sales Fall, Yahoo! Voices (Mar. 4, 2011), http://voices.yahoo.com/record-companies-rethink-strategies-7983132.html?cat=33.
4 Mark Sweney, Digital sales boost ailing music industry, The Guardian (Jan. 23, 2012), http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/jan/23/digital-sales-boost-music-industry.
5 See, e.g., CD-format to be abandoned by major labels by the end of 2012, Side-Line Music Mag. (Oct. 23, 2011), http://www.side-line.com/news_comments.php?id=46980_0_2_0_C.
6 Digital Music News, Vinyl Projected to Grow More Than 25 Percent In 2011…, (May 17, 2011), http://www.digitalmusicnews.com/stories/051711vinyl.
7 Digital Music News, Uh-Oh: Are Vinyl Sales Slowing Down, Already?, (Dec. 1, 2011), http://digitalmusicnews.com/permalink/2011/111201vinyl.
8 Matthew Perpetua, Vinyl Sales Increase Despite Industry Slump, Rolling Stone (Jan. 6, 2011), http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/vinyl-sales-increase-despite-industry-slump-20110106.
9 Digital Music News, Vinyl Sales Already Up 41% On the Year…, (Jul. 8, 2011), http://www.digitalmusicnews.com/stories/070811vinyl.
10 Charles Beacham, With vinyl’s resurgence, what goes around comes around, The Universe, (Feb. 23, 2012), http://universe.byu.edu/index.php/2012/02/23/with-vinyls-resurgence-what-goes-around-comes-around.
15 Caleb Garling, Radiohead Readies King of Limbs, the ‘World’s First Newspaper Album’, Wired (Feb 14, 2011), http://www.wired.com/underwire/2011/02/radiohead-king-of-limbs/.
17 Richard Smirke, Radiohead Drive 55% Rise in U.K. Vinyl Sales, Billboard (Jul. 27, 2011), http://www.billboard.biz/bbbiz/industry/retail/radiohead-drive-55-rise-in-u-k-vinyl-sales-1005295802.story.
18 Back to Black Vinyl, http://www.backtoblackvinyl.com/ (last visited, Mar. 7, 2012)