When the CBS Records factory in Carrollton, Georgia, opened its doors in 1981, it was the largest record-pressing plant in the world. It employed 1,400 workers on round-the-clock shifts to satisfy consumer demand for vinyl records. By 1990, CBS Records had shipped its billionth record. And by 1991, it closed forever.
With the advent of the CD in the late 1980s, both vinyl record and tape cassette sales plummeted. Vinyl was relegated to an analog hobby for old-timers and record-store nerds. The future was digital. By the early 2000s, the CD became the new endangered species, nearly killed off by the rise of the MP3 and peer-to-peer file-sharing networks like Napster.
It was then that we started reading the first obituaries for the album. File-sharing made it easy to download your favorite individual tracks, upload them to your iPod, hit shuffle and enjoy. But gone was the concept of the album-listening experience, sitting back and appreciating a musical work of art from beginning to end.
As we moved into the era of legal digital downloads from services like iTunes and Google Play, things didn't look much better for the album. Singles dominated the download charts and some artists began ditching the traditional album format altogether by simply "dropping" new tracks online one by one.
But two fascinating consumer trends have emerged over the past couple of years that may conspire to save the beleaguered album. First is the dramatic rise in popularity of subscription music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. And the second is the unexpected comeback of vinyl.
The Resurgence of Vinyl
Ryan Lewis runs Kindercore Vinyl in Athens, Georgia, the only record-pressing plant in the very same state where CBS Records once ruled the industry. Lewis's operation is tiny compared to CBS Records, but the brand-new record factory and its state-of-the-art machinery is a sign of just how popular vinyl has become. The Kindercore Vinyl plant in Athens can press 3,000 records a day using new Warm Tone pressing machines from Viryl Technologies, the first fully computerized and robotic record-manufacturing equipment.
In 2016, vinyl sales topped $435 million in the U.S. and grabbed nearly 6 percent of total music sales, the highest market share for records since 1988. While the vinyl comeback may have originally been fueled by urban hipsters, Lewis says that it's absolutely gone mainstream, with vinyl records and turntables for sale at big box stores and vinyl references showing up in TV commercials and movies.
Lewis credit's vinyl's resurgence to the attractive physicality of records and a collective desire for a more personal connection with music. A few Christmases ago, he noticed a lot of his friends buying vinyl records as gifts for their teenage and twenty-something nieces and nephews. They wanted to share albums that meant something to them, and an iTunes gift card just didn't cut it. Lewis's friends weren't alone. Vinyl sales have been growing by 10 percent each year and 2017 vinyl sales are already up 2 percent over the same period in 2016.
But vinyl's numbers are a drop in the bucket compared to the explosive growth of streaming music. In 2016, on-demand music streaming from services like Spotify and Apple Music overtook digital music sales as the single most popular way to listen to music, capturing 38 percent of total audio consumption. And it's gotten even bigger in 2017, with Nielsen reporting a 62.4 percent year-over-year increase in on-demand music streaming compared to the same period in 2016.
At first glance, the increasing dominance of streaming audio looks like another strike against the traditional album. After all, Nielsen reports that in the first six months of 2017, album sales were down nearly 20 percent across all formats, including full digital albums, individual digital tracks and physical albums like CDs.
How Streaming and Vinyl Complement Each Other
But there's also evidence that at least some streaming music listeners are attracted to the format precisely because it allows the kind of immersive, old-school listening experience that was missing from the digital download era. Lewis, for example, uses Apple Music to sample new artists, and because he's paying $10 a month for unlimited access, he's much more likely to listen to full albums. And if he likes what he hears, he'll fork over the $20 to $40 for the vinyl version.
"That's a way that digital and analog coexist really nicely together," says Lewis. "As we move toward streaming, it's made it easier to reconnect with music as a whole and easier to listen to longer-form music. It's like you're buying the keys to this enormous record collection."
If you need proof that streaming can actually be a good thing for albums, look at one of the biggest releases of 2016, Kendrick Lamar's "DAMN." When the album dropped in May of last year, it immediately dominated streaming audio, with a record-breaking nine songs from the album appearing in the top ten slots on Billboard's On-Demand Streaming Chart (another "DAMN" track grabbed the 11th spot, too).
What that means is that streaming listeners weren't just playing the hit single on repeat, but were actually listening to the whole album. And Lamar's streaming streak wasn't a fluke. Earlier in 2016, both J. Cole and Drake (twice) took over the top eight spots on the Billboard streaming chart when they released new albums. And Frank Ocean's "Blonde" made the biggest splash, grabbing 17 of the top 20 spots on Apple Music's "top songs" chart a week after it came out.
Yes, hit singles still get the most streams overall, but there's also a clear desire to listen to full albums from important artists. Lewis sees a direct connection between the rebirth of vinyl and at least some of the wild popularity of streaming.
"I think the rebirth of vinyl has positive repercussions for the music industry. Even for people who aren't buying vinyl or don't have turntables, it's still positively affected the way people view albums, music and artists," says Lewis. "Whether people are playing music on vinyl or streaming it, there's this renewed cultural sense of an album as an individual thing. It's gotten back into our psyche."