Vinyl: On Repeat - Digital vs. Analog Week on BTR


Third Man Records store front in Nashville, TN. Photo by Sean Russell. Feature photo © 2004 by Tomasz Sienicki.

Jack White may be onto something.

Most remarkable for his artistic accomplishments with The White Stripes, in recent years, the musician has turned his professional attention to the preservation of music’s revered artifact: the vinyl record. In 2001, he founded Third Man Records in Detroit, establishing it as a physical store in Nashville in 2009. Not only does it serve as his personal label, he also produces music within its walls, hosts live performances and sells all releases on vinyl along with the gadgets and gismos needed to enjoy them.  Every artist and record released by Third Man is produced by White, and in addition, he recently launched a mobile version of the flagship. Third Man Records Rolling Record Store, a large yellow truck moving around the country, debuted this year at SXSW.

The slogan for White’s characteristically exceptional venture is “Your turntable is not dead,” and while the store’s online counterpart does offer links to iTunes, onsite the vendor sells music exclusively on vinyl. White’s penchant for the old-fashioned may strike some as overzealous nostalgia – to quote a recent article in Billboard, “Ah, Jack White — a one-man campaign to save vinyl” – but according to recent sales figures, he may not be far off the beaten path. At the annual NARM convention held last month in Los Angeles, Nielsen Media projected vinyl record sales would see a gain of more than 25% this year in the US, a rather astounding figure considering music sales as a whole have been so dismal.

“Year over year, vinyl sales are up 26%, and up 37% year to date,” explains Dave Bakula, Senior Vice President of Nielsen Entertainment. “It’s still a small percentage of the overall whole, but, given the record industry’s contraction, it’s pretty good news.”

Good news indeed, albeit bizarre. Nielsen has only been tracking sales of music since 1993, far past the golden era of vinyl, so a positive sloping curve is certainly novel. After an overall decline in large format retail from 2004-2006, Bakula indicates that vinyl has seen steady growth since 2007. He attributes the rise to a variety of factors, including increased product demand, as a result of clever packaging and marketing techniques.

“Artists are making smart moves by offering exclusive vinyl releases,” observes Bakula, citing Foo Fighters as an example of shrewd promotional efforts. For Record Store Day in April, the rock band put out Medium Rare, a limited edition compilation of cover tracks, issued only on vinyl, including “Band on the Run,” “I Feel Free,” “Have a Cigar,” “Danny Says,” and “This Will Be Our Year,” among others. “This was the fourth year of Record Store Day, and the most successful yet. Just getting people out to the record stores, with all the exclusive deals and performances…Sales of vinyl that week accounted for 5% of the entire year.”

This year’s Record Story Day, a celebration spread across 700 music retail outlets in the U.S, inspired in-store appearances by the likes of Duran Duran, My Chemical Romance, Wiz Khalifa, TV on the Radio, and Chuck D, as well as over 150 exclusive releases. Billboard reports 182,000 vinyl units were moved that week, a 697% increase from usual totals.

Bakula also suggests the declining value of sound recordings may be responsible for the movement, that perhaps those who’ve grown up in the digital age are intrigued by the superior tone of 12” LPs.

He adds, “I saw a record player for sale in Target the other day…I can’t remember the last time that’s happened.”