· 10 min read
Vinyl Resurgence: Obsolescent Tech or Welcome Alternative in the Age of Streaming?
Written by Edwin Fairbrother
Should we think of vinyl’s revived popularity as paving the way to a fairer and more wholesome relationship with music in the digital era? Klang Mag speaks with DJs, producers and label managers to find out.
Unless you're a collector or DJ, it’s likely you use a streaming platform instead of heading to your local record store to buy or listen to music. But even though streaming is the dominant form of music consumption in the world today, vinyl sales have been steadily increasing since the mid-2010s. For many, this is a welcome change, and while it’s hard to say whether this long-standing music repository actually brings in more money for artists on the whole, there are certainly benefits for all parties that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Prominent DJs in the UK drum and bass scene Katalyst and Sweetpea both speak of the appeal that physically owning music has in the digital age. Although Katalyst only plays her sets with digital, mainly due to the fact that the range of music released on vinyl is often limited, she mentions the sentimental value that comes with owning a physical record.
“There aren't as many new releases available on vinyl so it's hard to get the tunes you would want for a set all the time. I like to have a vinyl copy more for a keepsake and to play at home” - Katalyst
Katalyst also speaks of the added credibility that comes with mixing vinyl for the more traditional music fan: “If I did DJ out on vinyl more, I’d have more respect from the people who seem to be annoyed by the modern DJ. Some people seem to think you are a 'real' DJ when they find out you can mix vinyl.”
While new DJs and producers coming up these days would opt for convenience when it comes to their sets, veteran DJ Sweetpea highlights the extra benefits vinyl brings to scenes and the industry as a whole. Whether it’s the cover art, the feel when mixing, or even the sense of community that comes with going to your local record shop, trading off some of that streaming convenience can really go a long way to benefit your music experience as well as the industry supply chain that supports it. Sweetpea emphasizes this community aspect: “...the networking and meeting of people over records and merch is so important for scenes, the fans and general wellbeing. The small communities and friendships that form through 'just popping down the record shop' for a browse and a beer are fundamentally important for humans.”
She also explains the benefits of vinyl production over digital in regards to the industry supply chain as a whole: “When buying vinyl records, this is supporting a wider range of people — the label, the vinyl pressing plants, the distributor, record shops and communities.”
“When I have played vinyl sets, I feel more accomplished with my set, the tactile feel that goes with it adds to the energy and vibe.” - Sweetpea
We still can’t ignore the obvious advantages streaming provides for the listener, and although US vinyl revenues hit $1.2 billion in 2022 (over double that of CDs), streaming revenues hitting $13.3 billion in the same period highlights the high demand for this format among consumers. Even Chris Parkinson, manager of drum and bass artist Calibre and Signature Records, understands that with streaming, “Millions of people can discover and enjoy Calibre’s music with no great financial barrier via platforms like Spotify and YouTube.”
Parkinson still points to many of the same advantages alluded to earlier: “Vinyl record stores can bring people together unlike any playlist” – pointing to Hard Wax in Berlin and Sound Advice in Belfast as two shining examples. He also shares his artist’s perspective: “...the ‘work of art’ [vinyl] presented as the artist intended. When Calibre releases music, vinyl is still the first and foremost format he considers as the true release.”
With digital MP3 making playing and listening to music more convenient for both the average listener and DJs playing frequent sets, it’s hard to see physical music ever making a comeback to pre-millennial times. With instant access to libraries containing almost the entirety of recorded music, it can be hard to view vinyl as anything other than a sentimental artifact. In our increasingly digitized world, perhaps physical offerings of auditory art and entertainment just don’t make as much sense. But for anyone who likes their music consumption to be more than just an audible experience, it’s clear that “owning and collecting [records] is a deeper experience than just listening.” According to Parkinson, vinyl provides “...a physical multi-sensory experience” by placing more importance on the artwork. He says, “The artwork becomes truly part of the release, not just a tiny jpeg!”
With all this talk of benefits to listeners, artists and the industry as a whole, we shouldn’t forget that for many grassroots level artists distributing music at a small scale, vinyl sales go much further than a few streams do. Acknowledging these financial perks, it's important to remember that dance music artists will always start out on a small scale, and if we want to support them as fans we have to understand how our consumption habits can have an impact.
“Streaming only really works financially at scale, in the millions. Whereas vinyl can still work if say 300 people buy the record directly via a platform like Bandcamp.” - Chris Parkinson
So, keep that in mind next time you’re wondering whether to spend $20 on this retro yet alluring music repository that — let's face it, has stood the test of time! For more thoughts on the usage of vinyl in contemporary DJ spaces, read more thoughts from the artists featured below:
Katalyst DnB (Run Tings Records):
1. What exactly encourages you to buy vinyl records instead of just digital copies of tracks?
I generally only buy vinyl now for special releases that I am really excited about. There aren't as many new releases available on vinyl so it's hard to get the tunes you would want for a set all the time. I like to have a vinyl copy more for a keepsake and to play at home.
2. What was the first track or album you bought on vinyl, and what does it mean to you?
The first record I remember buying was DJ Die - Special Treat on V Recordings. It's such a classic tune! I have lots of good memories of raving in the early 2000s to that song and will always cherish the record.
3. What are the benefits of vinyl records for you as a DJ? Do they improve your sets, do the crowd notice etc?
To be honest, I don't buy them for DJing as I use digital for djing out, but I imagine if I did DJ out on vinyl more I would have more respect from the people who seem to be annoyed by the modern DJ haha! People seem to think you are a 'real' DJ when they find out you can mix vinyl!
4. As a producer, how do direct sales of your records benefit you more, compared with streams on streaming platforms?
I haven't had a release on vinyl before, but I imagine the profit margins are more flexible and it would hopefully bring in more income for the artist and label if done right.
5. How do you think buying 1 record would benefit the whole industry supply chain, from producer to buyer, compared with 100 streams of the same track?
I honestly don't know. I guess if it is going directly from the producer to the buyer, it would cut out the percentage anyone else would be getting? But I haven't really looked into this too much.
6. Lastly, what suggestions from within the dance music industry would you give to listeners outside of that scene?
I feel like as long as music is reaching people, that's the most important thing. Whether it's streamed or a hard copy bought, listen to it however you prefer and keep supporting the artists you love.
7. How long do you think vinyl will be around for?
Chris Parkinson (Signature Records):
1. As a label and artist manager, would you rather people streamed or bought physical copies of Calibre's music? And why?
Don’t mind as ultimately it’s the choice of the listener the format they prefer and what they can afford.
The great historical fact of ownership of a vinyl and CD copy, means the owner not only owns a physical artifact / work of art, It’s a physical multi sensory experience.
In your hand the ‘work of art’ presented as the artist intended. When Calibre releases music, Vinyl is still the first & foremost format he considers as the true release.
The sleeve artwork and the sleeves paper type and texture, the running order, the rpm, vinyl mastering, the vinyl weight, are elements that are considered, when creating. Owning and collecting is a deeper experience than just listening.
2. Does the label make more money from streaming revenue or record sales? Why do you think this is? Has anything changed over the last several years?
Over the last 15 years most electronic music labels vinyl sales have declined as downloads & streaming have become the mainstream formats of choice. Though Income from streaming. / downloads has grown steadily replacing the vinyl income alone.
These days I think it’s fair to say only hardcore fans and record collectors/ sellers buy/trade vinyl. This has a limit to the number of people passionate enough to spend say £20plus on Vinyl. On the other hand millions of people can discover and enjoy Calibre’s music with no great financial barrier via platforms like Spotify and YouTube.
The biggest difference is now via platforms like Bandcamp. Artists like Calibre can ‘sell direct to fan’ without Spotify/Apple etc taking a major % cut or gatekeepers in the way. Steaming financially really only works at scale, with numbers in the millions… where as Vinyl can still work if say 300 people buy the record directly via a platform like Bandcamp.
3. What benefits do vinyl records have for producers, DJs, distributors and listeners?
It’s Reseller-able asset
The artwork becomes truly part of the release, not just a tiny jpeg !
The Vinyl format sounds unlike any other format. It’s the format that is close to most artist's hearts.
Community - vinyl Record Stores can bring people together unlike any playlist - just two examples
Hardwax in Berlin & Sound Advice in Belfast
4. What are the pros and cons of streaming vs vinyl for Calibre, and producers like him? / 5. What is your general opinion of Spotify?
Calibre is not really considered a big act with commercial music. Calibre’s contribution to the music culture means little in the wider context.
From our experience the Spotify editorial playlists tend to promote the music getting billions & millions of streams rather than the music getting thousands of streams. Increasingly they focus editorial on music that's getting traction on TikTok and algorithmic data.
The great thing about Spotify is cost & user experience for the listener. Spotify works on all devices all the time.
We try to keep our focus on releasing the music as best we can - and making it available on all formats and platforms and then fans can choose how they want to listen, stream, buy / collect. As an indie label we’re grateful for every fan that supports any way they can.
1. What exactly encourages you to buy vinyl records instead of just digital copies of tracks?
What attracts me to it, is the feeling of a physical copy of a song in such a digital age. The presentation of the vinyl is important, I love good artwork. I only buy vinyl copies of albums that I REALLY like, there is also a part of me that is thinking - if I am going to spend this amount of money it may well be on something I am going to treasure forever. I can't say that I buy vinyl for DJing anymore, but I do regularly buy vinyl of non-electronic music - mostly soul and jazz artists I like.
2. What are the benefits of vinyl records for you as a DJ? Do they improve your sets, do the crowd notice etc?
When I have played vinyl sets, I feel more accomplished with my set, the tactile feel that goes with it adds to the energy and vibe. I feel that mixes can and do roll out for longer, as you're not constantly looking at the waveform or worrying about cue points in Rekordbox. I definitely feel the visual aspect of DJing nowadays has taken away from the intuitive vibe and spontaneity of sets that you get with vinyl. I think certain crowds appreciate a vinyl set, but I do feel the masses aren't bothered by it.
3. As a producer, how do direct sales of your records benefit you more, compared with streams on streaming platforms? What are the pros and cons to both processes?
Streams have the capability to get yourself as an artist out there to a bigger range of people: thinking in terms of being added to different playlists etc. But we all know the ridiculous lack of money in streaming. With streaming sites, you can be recommended artists if you listen to others who are similar. Also, most people have a streaming site with mixes and releases, it's easy to send a Soundcloud or Spotify profile to a friend to 'have a quick listen'
I am a big advocator of Bandcamp, you buy directly from the label or artist without any middlemen taking their cut as well. Imagine if the 50k of streams that listened to your track on Spotify, brought that from Bandcamp. When buying vinyl records, we also have to consider this is supporting a wider range of people - the label, the vinyl pressing plants, the distributor, record shops and communities.
4. How does buying 1 record benefit the whole supply chain, from producer to buyer, compared with 100 streams of the same track?
As mentioned above, it affects a lot of people. There is a long line involved with vinyl distribution. I'll re-mention the community aspect: Imagine there was no record store day, the networking and meeting of people over records and merch is so important for scenes, fans and general wellbeing. There is no face to face with streaming. The small communities and friendships that form through 'just popping down the Record shop' for a browse and a beer are fundamentally important for humans.
5. Lastly, what suggestions from within the dance music industry would you give to listeners outside of that sector, regarding the way they should listen to/consume music....
People should listen how they want, things like Spotify are good because it is right there on your fingertips on your phone on the go whenever you need. There's been plenty of times it has saved me long journeys late at night. But it is also very important if you are digging for an artist or label, show your support for them also - go buy their merch, buy their release, join their patreon, send them a donation, share comments and like their posts. It all helps.
The biggest no no is ripping music from Soundcloud and YouTube. Not only is it majorly cringe but it sounds ridiculously awful in the mix. Seeing other DJs triple drops video audio being mixed into other tracks is wrong on all levels, but more importantly the people doing this see no problem with it either. This part of the music business is a result of music being SO readily available.
Edwin Fairbrother is a freelance writer, music management postgraduate and founder of SoundSight, a startup helping independent artists find sponsorships.