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The Lessons of Vinyl
by Paul Resnikoff, Publisher Digital Music News, August 4, 2008
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It won't save the recording industry.  And it won't bring back the booming, CD-fueled 90s.  But the recent resurgence in vinyl is happening for a reason.

The numbers aren't jaw-dropping, but they are difficult to ignore.  Just recently, Boston-based Newbury Comics pointed to monthly vinyl sales of more than $100,000, and other independent stores are also reporting gains.

Majors are also taking notice.  That includes EMI, which recently started offering vinyl versions on a select number of titles.  The major pointed to an 80 percent jump in vinyl sales last year.  And the RIAA pegged 2007 sales at 1.3 million, a 36.6 percent increase from 2006.

Part of the increase comes from simple nostalgia.  Buyers either experienced vinyl the first time around, or caught the tail end of the format through their parents.  And we all like to fantasize about a simpler, earlier era, whether it maps to reality or not.

Others simply prefer the warmer sound of vinyl, which is arguably richer than newer, digitized formats.  Perhaps the crackle-and-hiss also adds an antique element to the experience.  And decades later, this is still a nice format to hold, spin, and put on the shelf.

But outside of those factors, vinyl actually offers a few things that modern-day formats lack.  The platter demands far more real estate, and that is the perfect canvas for great artwork, magazine-style inserts, lyrics, and plenty of photos.

Sure, downloads offer far more convenience, portability, immediacy and durability than the age-old vinyl predecessor.  But jump onto the iTunes Store, and 99-cents basically buys an audio download and some accompanying cover art.  And an album is really just a collection of a-la-carte songs.

That's it?  Sure, iTunes offers some context around the song during playback, including tour dates and related releases, but the bundled, vinyl experience is so much more satisfying.

Is it just a physical thing?  Consumers sometimes like to hold something, but this is no CD.  Price tags on a disc are frequently in the teens, with minimal trimmings.  And the wow-factor on discs ended more than ten years ago.

And any wow-factor on paid downloads is also dimming.  Why?  Instead of getting a package of audio, lyrics, ringtones, artwork, and rich metadata for 99-cents, users basically get a file - one that never updates, and one that can just as easily be downloaded for free.

A number of label executives want better bundling, though the licensing, bureaucracy and negotiations involved are almost insurmountable.  This is a business famous for its disharmony, and for that matter, total stubbornness.

But from the quick-shot consumer perspective, 99-cents just feels expensive, just like the CD.  And when it comes to stuffing an iPod, the cost structure is simply unworkable.

Against that consumer frame of mind, can a letter-writing campaign save the British industry?  Can the RIAA frighten music fans back to legal playing fields?  Not when competing media industries are stuffing their products, and playing a super-competitive pricing game.  Grand Theft Auto IV offers an entire world for $60, and Warner Home Video is now wholesaling select Blu-ray discs for $11.  And the most rabid demographic, younger buyers, are almost always playing with a limited amount of disposable income.

Of course, a well-bundled download is easy bait for file-swapping networks, though a well-priced, legal version could attract some surprisingly-strong revenues - especially if it feels like a good deal. 

And the pricing on vinyl seems right.  Jump onto newburycomics.com, and you'll find titles starting at $9.99, ramping upward into the low-teens - and higher for imports and rarer titles.  And somehow, that feels okay - worth the money, worth the trip, and worth the special experience that a well-packaged product offers.

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Paul Resnikoff is the founder and publisher of Digital Music News (www.digitalmusicnews.com), a premier industry source for news, information, and analysis. Digital Music News has quickly grown from its humble roots as a small, executive news service to the most widely read information source in the field.


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