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?