This past week there was a significant milestone in how we consume music.
The total combined sales of vinyl records and Compact Discs has now passed digital purchases on iTunes. That’s a major change, because digital downloads had been dominating physical sales in recent years. CD sales are still greater than Vinyl, but are on a downward trend, while record album sales continue to rise. (update: Vinyl sales passed CD’s in 2020, and continued the trend in 2021.) Together…Vinyl, CD’s and digital downloads make up a little less than 25% of music sales. Of course there are plenty of people listening to the music they’ve already purchased in those forms.
Digital sales are being replaced by streaming, with services like Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube. Streaming now accounts for 75% of all music revenue. It grew 30% last year. Subscribing to streaming services appears to be the present and future of music listening, but let’s look at the past and how we got to this point.
Recorded music for the public started in the late 18-hundreds with Edison-style phonographs using playable cylinders. Above is a single-play coin-operated Columbia Gramophone owned by friend and collector David O’Hanlon.
Next came the 10-inch 78 revolutions-per-minute (rpm) discs played on phonographs. Each record held only one song per side due to time constraints of the large groove.
The above Vogue picture record from 1946 is one of the first 78 rpm records available to the public that was actually made from vinyl. Vinyl was a great improvement in sound over the old shellac 78’s.
It was two years later, 1948, when vinyl 33 & 1/3 rpm music albums were introduced by Columbia Records. Similar technology had been tried for years, but it was Columbia that made it successful. The trick was to make smaller grooves and a more sophisticated needle & cartridge. This allowed 22-and-a-half minutes per side, so longer classical pieces or multiple popular songs could be put on one disc. They called it a Long Playing Microgroove, and it became LP for short.
A year later, 1949, RCA Victor introduced 45 rpm singles. Stereo followed in the ’50’s, and became popular in the ’60’s.
Stereo components like those shown above were standard in the ’70’s & ’80’s, when album sales peaked. Cassettes were very popular for awhile (for their portability), but both records and cassettes lost the battle to digital Compact Discs in 1986. (Update: Vinyl retook the lead from CD’s in 2020 album sales.)
One of the first all-digital recordings and most popular CD’s was this 1985 album by Dire Straits…Brothers In Arms. It was also released on vinyl, but the time limitations forced the band to edit some of the songs into shorter versions. CD’s can hold 80 minutes of music, compared with about 45 minutes on record albums.
Compact Discs dominated over the next two decades, but then on April 28th, 2003 Apple opened its iTunes store. You could now buy songs for 99-cents each, and also load-in your own CD’s. The songs would be on your computer, or a little portable player called an iPod.
Although a Classic iPod is about the size of one cassette, it can hold over 20,000 songs at the highest digital quality. For nearly 15 years there were huge digital sales of albums and singles. Now, digital sales have plunged, and as mentioned at the beginning of the article, the total combined physical sales of CD’s and Vinyl records surpasses download sales.
Our old friend the vinyl album started it’s resurgence in about 2009. It makes me think I shouldn’t have sold my thousands of vinyl albums and CD’s (most anyway). But, then I remember how much space they took up, and how hard it was to move all of them.
It’s cool to have some vinyl albums to enjoy, and a decent stereo isn’t real expensive. However, each new album of about 12 songs costs $25. To duplicate the nearly 20,000 digital songs I own with a vinyl collection (and not garage-sale worn-out records) would cost more than $40,000! The reality is it would be impossible to duplicate a serious digital collection on vinyl, because not all songs are available in that form. Digital downloads brought back a lot of songs and albums that are otherwise discontinued.
It makes a lot more sense to pay the $10 a month for streaming and instantly choose from over 50-million tracks.
Like my friend Jodi Gehr told me…she found a new female artist she likes, and already “owns” everything she’s recorded. Too bad streaming wasn’t available in the 1960’s!
Vinyl, CD’s, streaming…enjoy music in whatever way makes you happy. Life is better with music.