Why do people buy records?

I’ve been quizzed a lot recently about the so-called vinyl revival. Sales of indie rock records, of rock records in general, are up on vinyl. I respond with the standard litany of answers: people want to connect with an artifact, something real and physical, and something that doesn’t feel as worthless and disposable as a CD… something that sounds better than an MP3. The inclusion of MP3 download coupons in vinyl LPs also caused a big spike in sales, since people no longer had to choose between CDs and LPs.

But in some ways the whole question misses the point, because it implies that people buy records only because they want to hear the music. The real question could be: why do people still buy CDs? And this gets into the reason why we’re still called Matador Records, not Matador Music or Matador Entertainment. We’re not a music company: we’re a record label.

I think that many people buy records not just to hear the music, and in some cases not to hear the music at all. There’s an employee here who actually pays money to buy secondhand CDs on eBay of his favorite ’80s artists like Annie Lennox. He has all the music already – he just wants to put the CD on a shelf. When I was 12 or 13 and first started haunting used record stores in Boston, I wanted to smell and feel and touch the vinyl, the cardboard jackets, the musty smell of the carpets. This wasn’t just nostalgia: I’ve always been a collector of things – stamps, coins, books. I like to amass stuff and display it. Of course I love to handle, read and listen them too. But owning and listening aren’t unconnected. The whole thing is interconnected and intertwined.

That some people like to pay for, collect and own records (and this includes downloads from iTunes as well as LPs and CDs) is not meant to suggest that the music business isn’t in trouble or that the sales of recorded music are not in decline. But the media have not gotten the whole story here, which is why I’m talking to puzzled journalists at Time, Wired, Rolling Stone and other publications every couple of weeks. It’s just that the focus on vinyl sales is only part of the picture.

I don’t believe that downloading and competition from other formats like games and DVDs are the only cause of the decline in record sales. It’s also simple availability. Tower Records was actually profitable on a store-by-store basis. The chain went under because their bank would no longer finance their revolving line of credit. Of course, Tower shouldn’t have accumulated as much debt as it did, but in other industries, in the economy as it existed 2 years ago, credit was not a problem. The problem was that Wall Street no longer believed that selling records had a future. In other words, Tower didn’t go under because its record sales were down: it went under because the banks, under the influence of the media and popular memes believed that record sales were going to go down.

Of course, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent. If Towers go under and there are fewer places to buy records, then record sales will go down. Ironically, this is one of the things that killed vinyl in the late ’80s. Everyone said: get vinyl out of there, convert your retail racks to CDs, or you’re going to get stuck with a dead format and dead inventory that you can’t sell. Now this same meme is killing record retail (or at least chain retail, and the indies who aren’t moving with the times).

This same meme affects people on an individual level. People who would go on buying records out of love of owning records, or even just out of habit, stop doing so because they are told that it’s stupid and a waste of money to buy records. And they can no longer do it easily anyway, because their favorite record store is out of business. Only the portion of the record buyers who really care about owning records will still go out there and do it… and of course, a good percentage of those are people who want to buy vinyl, not CDs or digital downloads. But even the latter two types of buyer (and there’s plenty of overlap) buy because they want to buy and own records in whatever format, and they will continue to buck popular perceptions. For a while anyway.

So my challenge to all the media outlets asking me about the vinyl revival is to say: are you really looking at the full complexity of the story? Why do people buy records, and to what extent are you, the media, complicit in making it difficult or uncool for them to do so?

13 thoughts on “Why do people buy records?”

  1. Great post.

    I do agree with lots of it, especially the role the media plays in making people and stores think they’re losing something before they actually make themselves lose it.

    The great thing about this post is really the fact that it sheds light on mostly overlooked reasons for decline in music sales and the so-called vinyl revival. BUT, the “downloading and competition from other formats like games and DVDs” ARE responsible, in part, to this decline. The availability of MP3s was huge even in 2002, before the media and stores went nuts with the conception that the CD is a dead format. So, I think, the effects of the media and the other reasons you stated here is really quite small. It exists, but it’s much smaller than the sheer power of illegal downloading and the availability of MP3 players.

    ALSO, I’d really like to translate this post into hebrew and post it on my record label site. I’ll be glad if you can email me with an answer about it.

    Thanks for the informative post!

    Hiss Records, Israel

  2. quote: “Of course, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent. If Towers go under and there are fewer places to buy records, then record sales will go down. Ironically, this is one of the things that killed vinyl in the late ’80s. Everyone said: get vinyl out of there, convert your retail racks to CDs, or you’re going to get stuck with a dead format and dead inventory that you can’t sell.”

    I rarely see this excellent point made in discussions such as this one. With regard to “the full complexity of the story,” it’s worth mentioning the pressures that were put on stores to stop carrying vinyl in the late 80s. The big distributors stopped accepting returns on vinyl, and smaller distributors soon followed suit, so stores were less likely to stock vinyl on titles they weren’t certain would sell because they were afraid they’d get stuck with them. Add in the fact that CDs are cheaper to manufacture and distribute than vinyl but were being sold at nearly double the price as LPs and cassettes, and were hyped well enough that people were not only buying all new releases on CD but also re-buying old titles they already owned on other formats as quickly as labels could issue them, and there was even more incentive for “record” stores to focus on CDs and largely stop carrying vinyl.

    Of course, at this time what I’m most concerned with is when I’ll be able to pre-order the Jay Reatard single. On vinyl.

  3. well said patrick, one of the few insightful retorts i’ve seen to the whole “death of the industry” bs

  4. This article hits the nail squarely on the head. Thanks for such an insightful and well written piece. Good luck with your press coverage.

  5. you hit on an interesting angle in a well written and thought out manner. i agree with the points you raise about the tangible connection to music and the notion that most writers–particularily those who focus on tech, i’ll add–miss the mark more often than not. however, while your logic is fresh and valid, i’m wondering how true one of your main points really is. i mean, if writers focused extensively on the extols of vinyl and CDs, while completely ignoring the state of legal and illegal digital file distribution, would the towers of the world really still be in business? perhaps you could argue that tower itself could have coughed and wheezed its way along for another 12-24 months, but i’m doubtful they could have survived on the continued sales of CDs or by investors sinking money into a beseiged and dying distribution model. if anything, perhaps what’s been written, has just accelerated the inevitable–as sad as that may be.

  6. 9000, thanks for your comment. I can’t speak to whether Tower would have continued to thrive over the past 24 months, but I am certain that CD sales would have been higher than they have been. How many records sold 10 years ago were impulse buys? How likely is an impulse buy to happen now that there so many fewer record stores? Much less likely, I think. And it really struck me as unfair at the time that Tower was profitable on a per-store basis… it was their accumulation of historical debt, and the banks’ refusal to continue financing that debt, that led to their closing. You can be critical of their business model, and other aspects (their pricing structure, the condition of the stores, the unfriendly staff), but to say that a profitable business model can’t work because of what’s gonna supposedly happen in 24 months is to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy. The only question is how self-fulfilling, and on that we can probably debate till the cows come home.

  7. yeah, i agree that we could debate what-if scenarios ad nauseum. only tarot cards hold the truth.

    interesting. i didn’t know that tower was profitable on a per store basis. were they overall unprofitable because of debt and corp overhead? i’d have to think the situation was pretty dire if NO ONE wanted to salvage the company. even if the store was profitable, the fact that they couldn’t find investors, probably means that the overall sentiment was that there was no chance of a positive return on investment because financial diaster–perceived or real–was looming on the horizon. man, where’s a fed bailout when you really need one..?

    re: impluse buys. yes, the fact that stores are gone contributes here, but i’d say that online availability is the overwhelming reason why impulse purchases are done. i can’t say i lament the days of forking over $15 only to quickly come to the realization that i’m only going to play a disc one time in my life. on the flipside, i’m totally excited about how many new acts i can “impulsively” hear now whenever i’m online. there’s no way i’d ever have such exposure in the past. i see this as overall good for the industry. this could be debated to death too though.

    so, maybe we should focus on the positives of what you’re saying? i’m guessing more people establish a direct relationship with matador by buying from you online. enterprising individuals will open very cool and niche vinyl shops. matador has a healthly sustainable vinyl business in the future. not to mention all the other “new online business models” stuff that will eventually work itself out in your favor.

    i gotta get some coffee now.

  8. I think it will be interesting to see how the Rasputin’s that acquired a number of closed Towers in the SF bay area will fare. They sell new and used LPs, CDs, DVDs, video games, etc. No idea how they’re financed, but it stuck me as odd at the time of their opening that it was so easy for Rasputin to do whatever they needed to do to get these stores up and running immediately after Tower was in such trouble. Even odder now that I’ve read that Tower was actually doing OK in a per-store basis.

    Thanks for writing this.

  9. I buy vinyl. I really do it as a collector and a music fan. I like the liner notes, the producer, the engineers, stuff like that. I don’t know if vinyl is better than CD. but oi have franz ferdinand’s first record, done in protools, and it certainly has more kick in vinyl. But to be tru i don’t know. I also download. I dowloaded 50 records this year but i only go back regularly to 10 at most. And i have bought them. Also having the first Television record in vinyl is like holding a piece of history, and that is priceless. MP3’s are just 0 and 1’s, and they too will be over soon when another format comes along.

  10. I BUY vinyl because i like the bass sound its more noticeable as a bass player if i waqnt to listen to an album ill listen to vinyl if iwant tracks ill pop in a cd if im on a bus i use mp3 i never NEVER buy mp3 everything on it are vinyl and cd rips. And to the media who make it uncool to own and buy cd and mp3why are AC/DC having A RUNAWAY OF SUCCESS to the bank with black ice. AN Album recorded Only for Cd and Vinyl no legal mp3 sales and look at how many units the band has shipped. MODERN PROOF CD AND VINYL SALES ARENT DEAD and anyway when i buy most new vinyl albums i get FREE mp3 downloads of the whole album anyway its like buying a vinyl and getting a copy for free which can be put on cd.

  11. i have a VERY extensive record collection with MANY MANY rarities and holy grails…. i prefer to dload music but only if i own it on vinyl…. i feel that it is a very GREAT way to support the artist….with cds i find myself constandly scratching/unintentially wrecking them….with vinyl it feels like i cannot break them i give them a “baby-ing” like treatment… i acutally recently purchased a new cd player in my car (96 jimmy) and the deck has a “aux in” jack…. i purchased a power amp for regualer house hold plug in (via cigarette jack) and a preamp…. so now when i go camping i take some records with me and spin them in my vehicle… very chillin!!!

  12. @dafe
    you take vinyls camping? you’re kind of my hero.

    Also, this has to be the most mature and thoughtful comment section on the entire internet. Gives me hope in humanity…

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