Will vinyl survive the pandemic?
Insiders in the vinyl record business are expressing cautious optimism that the industry will weather its latest crisis. But it could be a hard road ahead.
Records were thought to be doomed as far back as the 1920s, when the introduction of radio first threatened the format’s dominance. Almost a century later, they're more popular than they’ve been in decades, having survived cassettes, CDs, iTunes, and (at least for now) streaming. Perhaps that’s why many in the industry — all of the insiders who spoke to EW for this story, in fact — express optimism that independent record stores, labels, and manufacturers will be able to weather the coronavirus pandemic, as they’ve weathered so many existential threats before.
“This is easily the most difficult thing that any of us have been through in our lifetime,” says Andrea Paschal, executive director of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, a collective of 40 such stores across the country. “But I think these guys have endured their share of challenges through the years. They’re a very creative and resourceful group of business owners.”
“For the music industry, [optimism] is kind of built into your DNA,” adds Melanie Sheehan, U.S. label manager for the U.K.-based Rough Trade Records and a record store veteran herself. “Especially in the independent world, the odds are stacked against you a lot of the time. Optimism is necessary for survival.”
There’s also been reason for optimism in recent years. LP sales rose for the fourteenth consecutive year in 2019, with 18.8 million sold in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music. (Those numbers don’t even factor in the sale of used records, for which no complete stats are available.) Store and label representatives say vinyl’s upward trend was poised to continue in 2020; indeed, before the pandemic hit, sales were up 45 percent year-to-date from 2019, according to Billboard.
However, at that point, the industry was already facing two immense crises. In 2019, Direct Shot Distributing became the sole company handling physical music distribution for all three major labels, which led to pervasive problems for retailers that persisted into the new year, including lost or delayed shipments, unfilled orders, and simply bizarre errors: “Things like an entire pallet being delivered with one padded envelope on it,” says Record Store Day co-founder Carrie Colliton. On top of that, a February fire completely destroyed California’s Apollo Masters plant, which produced an estimated 75 to 80 percent of the world’s supply of lacquer discs (the blank canvases, essentially, needed to press new records).
Then came the pandemic, which pushed these not-insignificant problems almost entirely out of mind.
“When we started 2020 off, a lot of the attention was on working with all of our distribution partners to try to figure the supply chain issues out, and continue to push for improvements to be made on that front,” Paschal says. By mid-March, she continues, “All of our attention and focus went to the pandemic.”
Every level of the vinyl industry soon felt the virus’s impact. Tours, a major source of record sales for artists and labels, were canceled. New album releases were postponed. Pressing plants shut down, or found themselves with nothing to press.
“Ninety percent of our business went away overnight,” says Dustin Blocker, Chief Creative Officer of Dallas-based label and pressing company Hand Drawn Records, though he notes it has recovered slightly in recent weeks. “We're pretty hopeful that it's starting to make a turnaround, but we just don't know yet.”
Though the situation seemed especially grim for record stores, with retailers nationwide forced to close their doors for the foreseeable future, owners quickly sprang into action to adapt to the new status quo. Many stores began offering curbside pickup or local delivery options, and touting their wares on Instagram, through their websites, or on online marketplace Discogs. One store, Poughkeepsie’s Darkside Records, even lets customers make appointments to browse the store virtually through Facebook, Instagram, or FaceTime.
“Store owners have either been around long enough to have seen ups and downs, or are new and young enough that they're very flexible,” Colliton says. “It's never gonna be the same amount of revenue, but they're learning quickly how to become masters of the things they’re doing now.”
“Right after we shut down, we rifled through our 'rainy day' stacks in the backrooms of both of our stores and hit selling directly through Instagram,” says Cory Feierman, a buyer for New York’s Academy Records. “We moved a lot of really rare records, like some crazy s--- we've been holding onto for a while.”
Jonathan Blanchard, owner of JB’s Record Lounge in Atlanta, notes that while business overall is down, “skyrocketing” online sales and the current lack of overhead costs are more than enough to keep the store afloat. “I’m doing at least 10 times the amount of business that I was doing online [before the pandemic],” Blanchard says. “I’m sending out more records in a week than I would typically send out in months.”
While sources say these measures could be enough to sustain most stores, at least for the next few months, online sales are providing just a fraction of the business retailers would typically be doing. In March, Billboard reported that weekly physical album sales had fallen below 1 million units, estimated to be the lowest since the mid-1960s. At least one prominent store — Seattle’s Bop Street Records, which the Wall Street Journal named one of the best in the country — has announced it will close down for good.
“Prior to this, we didn’t have a solid online store. Every day I have to be there to upload more and more and more and more,” Phillip Rollins, owner of OffBeat Records in Jackson, Miss., says with a sigh. “It’s a daunting, arduous task to keep doing this, especially when I have a bunch of used records in the shop that people want to look at.” He hopes a new system offering in-store shopping by appointment will help sustain the business.
“The good thing is that these stores are such a big part of the community,” Paschal notes. “I think this has kind of enhanced people wanting to keep that sense of community, that sense of small business that makes communities unique. I think it's more important than ever to people to help support that.”
Indeed, the tight-knit indie community has mobilized to help rally support for stores. After initially postponing Record Store Day 2020, the organizers settled on a plan to spread the event, and its usual slate of exclusive releases, over three dates (Aug. 29, Sept. 26, and Oct. 24).
“Having stores come out of three or four months of really reduced revenue and hitting them with a day of 300, 400 titles to bring in, that didn't make any sense,” explains Colliton. “At the same time, they need the new product. So stretching it out over that time period felt like the most logical thing to do.”
Labels and artists, too, have offered what help they can amid their own struggles. Jason Isbell released his new album to indie stores a week early, and some indie labels are offering exclusive colored vinyl editions to stores.
“Merge was built by independent record stores, and we are not forgetting that, and neither are our artists,” says Merge Records label manager Christina Rentz. “It's just a constant discussion of, ‘What can we do for stores to help them, and point people to them as much as possible?’”
Slowly, a semblance of normalcy is returning. There’s been a steady stream of new releases flowing to stores in recent weeks, with presses almost entirely up and running again. Jack White’s Third Man Records reopened its Detroit pressing plant in mid-May after a two-month shutdown, with new measures in place to observe social distancing and protect employees.
“Prior to all of this, everyone was pretty much trained in everything. You could ping-pong between any number of different stations,” such as operating the actual record press, or checking records for defects, Third Man co-founder Ben Blackwell says. “That’s now seen as possibly a bad thing.” Employees are now restricted to one station, wear face masks, and have to eat lunch in their cars.
“It just sounds so dystopian when you say it out loud,” Blackwell says, laughing, “but our employees were super excited to get back to work. People want to work, and that’s the great part about all this.”
As shutdown orders have begun to ease in many states, more stores are exploring options to allow customers back in, such as limiting store capacity or the by-appointment shopping OffBeat offers. “They’re starting to talk about, research, and try things to open their doors to foot traffic, and more and more of them are doing that every week,” Colliton says.
Yet uncertainty remains rampant. It’s still unclear how long many states’ restrictions will remain in effect, and medical experts have repeatedly warned that reopening too soon will set off a surge in infections, which could potentially lead to a second mass shutdown. Even if that situation is averted, the experience of browsing a record store may never be the same.
“What if we can only let five people in at a time, and none of those five people buy anything? I wouldn't begrudge someone who spends a few hours in the shop and only buys three $1 records usually, but I don't know if that would be feasible if we had to limit customer access,” admits Academy’s Feierman.
Still, he fervently hopes this most tactile of industries can one day do in-person business again. “Anyone could just grab a stack of records and list them on Discogs or eBay, but it’s so passionless!” he says. “I think that’s such a dark path for something as special, unique, and taste-driven as a record store could be.”