"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on the phone or instant messenger or whatever with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
Many independent labels are engaged in a hearts and minds approach to getting young listeners to embrace it amidst the well-publicized vinyl resurgence. It's a murky task for record companies — figuring out what they can do to tap into the purchasing power of a generation unaccustomed to paying for music, especially in physical formats.
In anticipation of Record Store Day's Black Friday event, Ducker spoke with representatives from three labels about how their companies steer listeners to vinyl. Light in the Attic is reissue-focused and best known for making Rodriguez's music more accessible. Sub Pop helped lead both the grunge explosion of the 1990s and the mainstreaming of indie rock.Kompakt is the long-running Cologne, Germany dance music outfit that's been essential in the global house and techno communities. Each has a long history of embracing the format, and a distinct, well-informed perspective on how to help the next generation embrace turntables.
MATT SULLIVAN, CO-OWNER & FOUNDER AT LIGHT IN THE ATTIC
In developing the This Record Belongs To______ project, why was it essential that vinyl be a central part of it?
I feel it's the best way to listen to music. It's where you're focused. It's where it's about the music and not background music. It just takes it so much deeper, regardless if it's techno music or pop music or folk music. For me, there's something about the vinyl experience that's by far the most rewarding experience in terms of format. I don't think anything comes close. I like CDs and I like digital music, but it just doesn't have the longevity or timeless that vinyl does.
What do you make of young listeners, who don't have the nostalgia for their parents' or older siblings' record collections, getting into buying music on vinyl?
It is a response to the internet. The internet can feel very soulless, especially when dealing with music. There are kids who are online, in their teens and twenties, they are intrigued by something that has a little bit more life to it and longevity and isn't perfect. There's something really nice about that, it's warm and it's natural. That would be my guess. Often people will send us ideas to reissue something and usually it starts with "Here's an mp3 ..." Or it's a Dropbox link or a YouTube link. A number of times I'll click it and I'll listen to it and I'm usually listening to it on headphones while I'm working. There have been occasions where I'll write back, "It was okay, but I don't think it's really great for us," then maybe a year later or five years later or a day later, I'm in a record store and I see a copy, and if it's reasonably priced, I might just buy the record. Then I bring it home and start listening to it on vinyl, and it's just a different thing. I know how ridiculous that sounds. I want to put the record on and I want to be transfixed. It's like walls go up and you're really listening to this thing and it sucks you in. It's such a beautiful thing to me.
As someone who runs a record label and makes a living off this, how do you cultivate in a new generation of young music consumers the desire to buy music on vinyl so they can hopefully have similar experiences?
A lot of it is giving context to it. We really try hard to reissue things that to our ears are timeless. Maybe it's a record made 10 years ago, maybe it's a record made 50 years ago, but it's something that we feel isn't about some current trend and it's something that people are going to care about, and it's going to hold up in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, or 100 hundreds. That to me is important.
It's explaining that the Big Boys were one of the first skate-punk bands, or that Donnie is an incredible songwriter and vocalist and the record is such a genuine piece of music regardless of what genre of music you like. That stuff is really hard. Sometimes the general public doesn't get it, and other times they do. Sometimes we're really surprised that people got it even better than we thought. Day to day, it's not about reaching the collector. We feel these records or music files or whatever it is, have significance now, so people should give it a chance, listen to it.
What percentage of your sales is vinyl?
It depends on the release. If we have something like Rodriguez or Black Angels, it's a little different, because those projects might have more CDs or might have more digital. As a whole, I would say for sales of this year, vinyl's got to be 60 to 70 percent. We also distribute over 50 other record labels, primarily reissue labels, and that stuff is primarily all vinyl. I wouldn't be surprised if our non-Light in the Attic distributing catalog sales are 90 percent vinyl.
Are those numbers still going up right now?
Sadly the vinyl market it totally oversaturated, and primarily with crap. You got all these major labels printing dollar records and they're $23.99 in the stores. And they have no extra stuff; there's no bonus tracks, there's not even nice gatefold jackets, there's no liner notes, there's no involving the artist. It's just a quick buck off of what they see as a fad. I mean, I love Billy Joel, but I can go buy a Billy Joel record for a dollar, two dollars, three dollars used that's nicer than the reissue. Unfortunately, that's making it really difficult for people like us. Eventually things will shift back to maybe what they were years ago is my guess.
How does that trend affect you?
Say Amoeba, or any independent record store, only has so much money to buy product, only has so much stock they can have on hand, and they only have so much space. The sad exploitation of Record Store Day, of people just throwing out crap, is another unfortunate piece of the puzzle. It's becoming a very oversaturated market. It's really a shame. The worst part is that it's made the production of vinyl a nightmare. We used to be able to get a record out quick. We've had records in the last year where a reprint has taken nine months. It's insane. You work so hard to get this out there and build up interest on it, and then they sell out and you go for a reprint, but by the time you get those records, can you even sell them? And that's all because the plants are printing these one-dollar records. There are plants starting up now who don't even want to take accounts from major labels, because they don't want to deal with it. We work with a lot of major labels and license stuff, and they're trying to make a living too, but it's quickly suffocating the entire system.
In 2015 it's hard being an artist, it's hard being a record label, it's hard being a record store, it's hard being a music writer. People just devalue music so much, it's kind of amazing that vinyl is one of the last formats where at least most people care.
So what do you do when this trend dies out and things re-equalize?
We'll be fine. In 2002 when I started the label, I co-released with Vampi Soul a reissue of the Last Poets' second album. We probably printed a thousand or two thousand. We'll survive. We are also widening our reach. We do a lot of film and TV licensing, working with outside composers on creating music for ads for TV and film stuff. There are other revenue streams out there, we just have to get more creative in finding them.
Would you suggest that other labels not put too much stock in their vinyl sales?
Yeah. You've got to take it as it comes. I would say eight months, definitely 12 months ago, it didn't feel like the market was so oversaturated. So who knows where it's going to be in a year.
Do you feel like consumers are frustrated?
I mean, I'm a consumer, I'm frustrated.
This is a huge problem that people are spending million of dollars trying to figure out. What is your company doing to try to make that emotional switch and get people to see a monetary value in music?
It might sound naive or cliché, but it's not releasing a hundred records a year and hoping that one hits. It's spending more time on things and putting quality into the world. If someone's 12, 13, 14, 20, whatever, 50, 70 years old, that person may not know who Lewis is, or what Cubist Blues is, or Alan Vega, or Alex Chilton. It's our job and responsibility to educate people about who these artists are, why they're important, why anyone should care. It's getting creative with it and trying not to preach to people and scream at people. It's a constant struggle for anyone these days trying to do something creative and with some backbone.
CHRIS JACOBS, GENERAL MANAGER AT SUB POP
How does Sub Pop develop its approach to the vinyl market?
We try to be responsive or attentive to how things are selling and not make silly decisions so we're not sitting on a ton of vinyl, or of any format. But in terms of market analysis, we don't really do that. Our commitment or continued long-term participation to putting out vinyl records is largely based on our own emotional connection. Many of us who have been here for a while came of age listening to records even before the resurgence of vinyl that has happened over the course of the past five or six years. I talk to a lot of people I work with about this, but vinyl is freighted with this memory of the way you would listen to music. It's less about what people talk about with the warmth or audio qualities of vinyl. It's just about attention. If you can only fit 22 minutes of music of a side of vinyl, you're doing little else during that time, and that's kind of nice. So it's definitely an emotional connection.
You talked about the people who work with you that grew up listening to vinyl, but what about your interns or the younger people you hire? Are you doing anything to actively cultivate an interest in vinyl for people like them?
We definitely have an interest in encouraging that and paying attention to what is happening with younger people now. We spend some time talking to those folks about how they're participating or listening to music, and it's super encouraging that kids who are in our office are getting together and listening to records together.
Where does their emotional connection come from? Is it just because they've heard enough through the years people our age and older fetishizing vinyl?
Some of it might be that, a signed nostalgia. But the talks that I've had with those kids, it's kind of what you'd expected. They're stoked about having a big, palpable, demonstrable connection to the bands that they really give a s*** about. They're listening to music primarily through all the means that you would expect — streaming music, YouTube, or whatever — but the stuff they buy on vinyl, they have a bigger fan connection to. It's the same way that you keep books around that you've read. It's less because you might read it again, and more because it's a demonstration of who you are. And I think kids are doing that with our records as well.
It's an affirmation to themselves and to others of what they care about.
When I was growing up, mainly buying music in the 1990s, it was more about how many CDs you owned — especially to show that I really cared about a certain artist. So it's interesting that now to show you really care about music, you carefully select which vinyl albums to represent it.
Yeah, you used to show you're so invested in music that you're willing to make moving a really terrible inconvenience. That's how much I love music, it's going to be awful every time I move.
Do you think younger listeners still think about their devotion in terms of quantity?
My sense is that it doesn't seem to be that way. The notion of having an exhaustive music collection on CD or vinyl, I'm not getting that hint off of those kids. Because [digital] is so convenient. You can pretty much listen to anything you want from the history of recorded music, so the necessity to have everything at a room in your house or apartment isn't there. I get the sense that's less important than to be like, "I have this version of the Father John Misty album." It seems like it's more analogous to T-shirts, or whatever.
With Sub Pop's take on selling vinyl, is it like, "Well, I guess this is selling, so I guess we're going to make more of it," or are you doing anything to push people in the direction of vinyl?
Sure. If there are enough people who are interested in buying some elaborate vinyl version of the record, like the Beach House record we did with the red velvet sleeve, and we do enough of those, it allows us certain indulgences. It appeals to our aesthetics, which I think are pretty common. You play to the strengths of the format, and what people like about it is its physicality and its bigness and it's realness. It's an opportunity to do more with those attributes.
When you do something like a Beach House velvet sleeve, do you get a sense that it's Beach House fans who are buying it, or is it vinyl collectors who are on the lookout for anything rare or different?
It's a mix. There are definitely vinyl collectors in there. We do this thing called the Loser Edition — which is the first pressing that is available through our online store, the record stores we sell directly to, and through the band — that is a different color. Our intent with that is that it's all sold out on release day. We're playing to people's interest in those short runs and trying to encourage that participation. When I was in college before I ever got a job at Sub Pop, I was a subscriber to the Sub Pop Singles Club and one of the cool things about that was these limited runs of colored vinyl singles. Some of it is feeding this collector mentality, or this minor OCD that goes along with any form of collecting. Some of it is just because that was super cool to us when we were first buying records.
Are you doing vinyl for every Sub Pop release these days?
Now we do. Ten years ago we'd have to have a conversation about every record and figure out if it was going to be viable on vinyl, which is such a bulls*** tea leaf reading kind of process. That was when LPs were less expensive to buy in a record store than CDs, even though they were more expensive to make. It took a little while for us to get to the point where we were like, "Oh wait, we should probably make sure we're not losing money on these records now that sales are picking up."
Was there one release that turned it around and you realized what the potential was with this format?
I don't remember any one particular release. It's been a gradual shift. The stuff that led was the stuff that you expect, which was selling well in other formats anyway — the early Shins records and Iron & Wine records. A lot of that stuff was doing well on LP, even back then. It's crazy now, our pre-order sales on our online store, the vast majority are on vinyl for any release. It used to be that during that pre-release period, we'd sell 30 percent LPs and the rest were CDs. Then it got to be half and half, and now 95 to 98 percent of the pre-release sales are LPs. And that's across the board, for every release.
So you don't do any market analysis, it's all feeling?
There's no reliable, scientific market analysis. It's more anecdotal. You talk to people at record stores and see where their heads are at. A real good indicator to me about how that stuff is going is a chain like Newbury Comics, where we continue to do exclusive color vinyl runs for those guys, because they'll buy enough to make it viable. Those guys are pretty smart about what they're willing to go out on a limb for, and they're continuing to do that.
Do you think it's important for people to listen to music on vinyl? Is that something worth cultivating?
I'm hopeful that people will, and not because of any inherent sound quality stuff, but because it's carving out a space where you're only paying attention to music. I think that's important, obviously for self-interested reasons because I work for a record label, but because my relationship with music has been really valuable to me and I hope that people who are interested in it now have that same type of relationship.
JON BERRY, ARTIST/LABEL MANAGER AT KOMPAKT
Over the years Kompakt has maintained a commitment to vinyl, but right now, what percentage of your sales comes from that format?
Vinyl still remains a primary focus of our day-to-day business. We still feel like it's a deeply intrinsic part of what we do. Of course the margins have dropped significantly. Vinyl sales account for approximately 20 to 30 percent of our annual sales turnover as a label, and also as a distributor. As a distributor we handle about 80 labels worldwide, and much of that is vinyl distribution.
Is that number going up or down?
It's been stable through the last few years. I've been with the company for about 10 years. There was a steady decline happening due to piracy, there were also issues surrounding too much product in the market with a lot of distributors being irresponsible and signing on too many labels. So what we saw was this over-influx of vinyl in the market around 2006, which led to a few distribution bankruptcies, unfortunately. We made it through it, thankfully, and what we saw was a severe drop in sales. People, including ourselves, were used to selling between 2000 and 5000 copies [of a single] — now we'll be happy if we do 500.
Does everything on Kompakt get a vinyl release or are you selective about that?
I'd say 90 percent of our releases come out on vinyl. We try to put as much as we can out on vinyl. Keep in mind that the foundation of Kompakt was built from a record store and we still have a record store in Cologne. So it's really important to us that when we have a record, it is released on vinyl. A lot of the artists we work with demand that. It's just one of those fundamental policies that we have, in a sense. Since plants are running at capacity, there are huge delays happening now with manufacturing vinyl. We have to think three, four or five months ahead at times about releases, and with the spontaneity of dance music, a house or techno producer typically doesn't want to be waiting four to six weeks for a release to come out. We'll have records come that we'll just have to get out there, so they'll be released digitally.
You mentioned that Kompakt's history as an actual record store and the importance to the artists to have the music available through vinyl. Is that a purely emotional decision? Are there situations where you know that financially it might not make sense to put something out on vinyl, but you do it because it's something you stand for as a label and it becomes almost a philosophical issue?
There's many ways to look at that. Bear in mind that Kompakt's four owners are all musicians and they all come from making techno and house music. There is this ingrained, fundamental necessity with a lot of producers out there that they need to have their records not just available digitally, but also on vinyl. It's a real contradiction, because when you look at the market itself, 98% of the DJs that play out there today do not play on vinyl. So what is the reasoning behind this? It's not a very easy question to answer. But even with the newer producers that are coming up, there is something ingrained in their minds that no matter even if it's going to be a money loss, that we do need to have it available on that format.
Do you foresee that ever changing?
As long as there is demand, we'll continue to do it. Fortunately, touch wood, it seems that there is a continued demand for the format. There's many different layers to look at with the demand for dance music vinyl in the market today. You do have labels out there, such as Perlon, which have maintained a strict policy of not releasing their music digitally, ever. That means that they sell a lot more vinyl. Their records are anticipated in record shops much more and cherished much more, because they are only available on that format. Coming more from the business side in the company, I say to the guys, "Look, it really doesn't make any f***ing sense to put this on vinyl." And they just look at me like blankly, like, "Of course we're doing it."
You mentioned the demand factor, and as you've said, the vinyl market has currently stabilized, but there's always a possibility that another major change will happen and the market could go into a downturn again. Is there anything you guys are doing to try to cultivate in fans the idea that vinyl is the ideal format to listen to dance music?
There was an interesting fact that came out that MusicWatch reported, that 54 percent of vinyl consumers in America are 35 years old and younger. I live in Berlin and I'm surrounded by a wealth of record shops. The market here is very strong with vinyl, it's remarkable. Record shops like Hard Wax and Spacehall are just excelling in the format. We share a similar strategy in how we try to drive our fans and our customers to come by the record shops, and that's by offering exclusive releases. Wolfgang Voigt has been quite prolific over the past couple years releasing a lot of records under his Profan imprint and also his Protest imprint as vinyl only that we only sell in our record shop and through our mail order or to select record shops that demand it. We focus on projects and releases that you'll only be able to get through our record shops, which is driving our fans and other newcomers and younger audiences to come buy records from us.
What are your personal feelings on this? Do you still mainly buy vinyl or are you mainly digital?
I go up and down with it. I've had my fair share of moving and I've moved my record collection around a lot. I've sworn and kicked and cried at my record collection a number of times, so I've reduced my record collection down considerably. I'm much more selective in what I buy on vinyl. There's this record shop in Berlin, Spacehall, I go there every two weeks, I go through the bins, I pick up a few records still. A lot of the records are records that I won't be able to buy digitally, because they're not available that way, or records that I know just belong on vinyl, because of how they were produced.
— via NPR