"All Things Must Pass"

Buying vinyl is a sign of true fandom and Taylor Swift knows it

The Econ Extra Credit Team Oct 21, 2022
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The internet chipped away at CD, cassette and record sales for two straight decades. First, Napster and other illegal piracy sites gutted sales, then iTunes let consumers skip the album and buy their favorite track for a buck. Finally, streaming eliminated the need to own a music collection altogether. Why buy only 12 CDs a year when you can effectively rent infinite albums for the same price?

In 1999, 100% of revenues came from the sales of physical albums. In 2021, streaming music made up the majority of sales. (IFPI: Global Music Report 2022)

But last year, revenue from physical music made modest gains thanks to renewed interest in vinyl. More than half of all physical album sales in the U.S. were on vinyl, a total of 41.7 million in 2021, more than nine times the amount sold in 2011. It was also the first time in 30 years that vinyl sales surpassed sales of other physical formats, most notably the CD.

Here’s where we talk about Taylor Swift, physical media queen. The singer-songwriter’s music accounted for one in every 50 albums sold in the U.S. in 2021. Four of the top 10 physical albums sold last year were put out by Swift and included re-recordings of older albums.

The top 10 records sold in the U.S. in 2021, based on sales of physical albums. (MCR)

Her new LP “Midnights” has more than 20 versions, including a variety of exclusive vinyl releases, deluxe CDs and even an audio cassette. If you buy all four versions on vinyl at $29.99 apiece, you can put them together to form a clock  —  the necessary hardware will set you back another $50. The only difference between each is the sleeve art and the color of the vinyl. (We’re partial to the “jade green” version.)

No one needs four copies of the same album, but the calculus here is that superfans will splash out to prove their Swiftie™️ bona fides. If they do, Swift may even dethrone Harry Styles as the top vinyl seller of the year.

There’s a whole history there that we’ll leave others to parse, but the point is that fandom has reshaped how artists and record labels think about physical media. They’re increasingly catering first to die-hard followers, the ones who are most likely to spend big on merch, concert tickets and other experiences. (Global K-pop phenomenon BTS has been expertly deploying this same strategy for years.)

One music industry analysis found superfans were behind more than two-thirds of all vinyl records sold in the U.K.

People buy vinyl because “they want a physical representation of their emotional connection with an artist,” Paul Pacifico, CEO of the Association of Independent Music, told the BBC. How deep can artists dig into their superfans’ pocketbooks before they stop buying? We don’t know yet, and the cost of “proving” superfan status has only gone up.

How bad is your streaming music taste?

Used to be, you might snoop on a prospective romantic partner’s record collection to test your compatibility. Give or take a $170 “Midnights” clock, those days are over. But many apps let users connect their streaming history to their dating profile. Tinder has a mode where you swipe right or left based solely on musical taste. For the most ardent music lovers there’s even a dating app called Power of Music that exclusively relies on Spotify or Apple Music listening histories to make a match.

If you aren’t looking for love, there’s a fun tool created by the folks at Pudding that will compare what you listen to with what tastemakers deem to be “good.” Disclaimer: Don’t let an artificially intelligent bot or a snobby date tell you your musical taste sucks. To quote Taylor Swift, “Haters gonna hate… just shake it off.”

How to watch this month’s film

“All Things Must Pass” is available to watch for free on YouTube. It’s also streaming on several platforms, including Kanopy and Hoopla for some library card holders, and on Peacock, PlutoTV and Popcornflix, for free. A digital streaming copy can be rented or bought on several platforms, and if you want a physical copy, you can purchase the film as a DVD and Blu-ray too. Want other recommendations? Check out all the films selected for Econ Extra Credit on our website.

What was the first album or single you remember buying?

As the Econ Extra Credit team brainstormed about this month’s documentary, we reminisced about the first physical piece of music we remember purchasing. We’d love to know what your first album or single was. Share the name and artist with us, along with any additional details about it (like your favorite track or where you purchased it) by replying to this email or sending a note to extracredit@marketplace.org. In next week’s newsletter, we’ll share a playlist of those submissions. And we’ll share the Econ Extra Credit team’s albums, as well.

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