E very few years during the past decade, the cultural trumpet has sounded to herald the "reemergence" of the vinyl LP. Combined with the glaring oversight of the fact that vinyl, even in the CD-crazed years of the late '80s and '90s, never really went away, such repeated declarations have always been weak with the dominance of digital media.
But this time, the vinyl resurgence is very real—with a little help from its digital friend, the mp3. In fact, nearly every prominent independent record label in the country—Merge, Sub Pop, Epitaph, Matador, Saddle Creek and many more—are now applying what's becoming a familiar sticker on LP versions of their releases: "Includes coupon for free mp3 download of entire album."
And it's helping vinyl sell like crazy.
Stores, bands and record labels all praise the combined accessibility of LPs with enclosed mp3 download cards, but no one has responded more favorably than the customers themselves. After all, it's a sleek and hip way of cutting out what's becoming an increasingly maligned middleman for music consumers: the CD. It's not infeasible that record stores, as the "real" format of vinyl becomes suavely marketable to a digital generation, could very well start becoming record stores again—mp3 download included.
Brian Davis, a buyer at San Francisco's Amoeba Music, has seen the phenomenon's impact firsthand. "Vinyl sales have noticeably increased in the last six to nine months," he says, noting that the enclosed mp3 download card is so widespread for vinyl releases that it's rarely even mentioned as a selling point anymore. "It seems to be the standard," he says. "We just assume it now."
Not only has Davis noticed regular customers switching from CDs to LPs lately, but he's seen completely new customers buying LPs for the convenience of the enclosed download card. "It just makes it easier," Davis speculates, or—hinting at the beleaguered conscience of the illegal downloader—"maybe they feel better about themselves." And in some cases, as with Beach House's recent Devotion album, he explains, the LP/mp3 version of a band's album has nearly outsold the CD format at Amoeba.
The pioneer of this marketing practice is indie heavyweight Merge Records, home of acclaimed acts like the Arcade Fire, Spoon and M. Ward. Merge's founders Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance approached their digital assets manager Wilson Fuller with the LP/mp3 idea in 2005, and shortly thereafter, the label released the Clientele's Strange Geometry with an enclosed download card. The public response was immediate: hell yes!
"People love it!" Fuller enthuses, adding that vinyl sales have quadrupled since 2004. "It's boosted vinyl sales, and its versatility makes labels more likely to put out vinyl. You can tell by just looking at the amount of vinyl we're putting out now versus the last few years."
Chad Pry, a website programmer who developed the PHP/MySQL web application for Merge, Polyvinyl, Matador, Touch & Go, Epitaph and many other labels, goes even further in his praise of the idea. "I do feel that vinyl will surely outlast CDs," he says. "The compact disc is a total drag and will hopefully be out of our lives before too long.
"For some reason, vinyl demands my respect," the digital-savvy Pry adds. "Maybe it's the large album cover and format size or the great feeling of finding a cool old LP at a second hand store for a buck, or just that magical transducer, the needle in the groove."
The download cards themselves reinforce the superiority of vinyl: "Like you, we love vinyl," states a card inside Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga LP; "Your good taste has been rewarded," says Okkervil River's The Stage Names LP; "Thank you for purchasing vinyl," declares Headlights' Some Racing, Some Stopping LP.
On the card is printed a website and a randomly generated password to enter online to download the entire album, and sometimes bonus tracks, in mp3 format. Most download cards are good for one digital download, after which they expire, and the tracks are fully importable into any iPod or portable music player. Fuller says there've been few, if any, technical problems.
"We have had times where the pressing plant has forgotten to put the download cards into the actual records during the pressing process," he laughs, but that's all. Since the passwords are one-use-only, there's no concern about piracy.
As the head of publicity over at Polyvinyl Records, Seth Hubbard is a "big believer" in the LP/mp3 format. "It's boosted our vinyl sales significantly," he says, "and it's the way a lot of people buy records nowadays—it eliminates the need for the CD." Their first LP release to include an mp3 card was Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and customer response, he says, was and continues to be "overwhelmingly positive."
Hubbard also points out that the downloadable mp3s are available at a near-CD-quality standard of 320kps, and that any potential losses accrued by the LP/mp3 from digital or CD sales are negligible. "The younger kids who are very tech-savvy don't really need to buy CDs," Hubbard says. "We're just lucky that they'll pay to download instead of steal it somewhere."
All of which points to the demise of the disc. "If CD sales continue to decrease, I don't think we'll keep putting them out if it doesn't make sense to keep putting them out," Hubbard predicts, pointing out the label's obvious allegiance to continuing to make vinyl. "We're not stuck on the CD. I mean, we're called Polyvinyl."
With such great success, the LP/mp3 combo provides a rare beacon of hope for a faltering music industry. But as usual, major labels from the Warner Music Group, EMI, Sony BMG and Universal Music Group are late to the party. Although a hugely increased number of new major-label releases from the past five years have been pressed on vinyl—Amy Winehouse, Bruce Springsteen, Alicia Keys and the Foo Fighters, to name only the most high-profile examples—there's been no evidence of the majors embracing the LP/mp3 offer. (One exception: MGMT, a psychedelic scenester band from Brooklyn signed to Columbia Records, who no doubt goaded a reluctant Sony into offering the mp3 download for their LP, Oracular Spectacular .)
"To get a major label to change how they do business, they've got this giant, massive entity to try and fix to adapt to this rapidly changing market," Hubbard says. "Since Polyvinyl's so small, we can adapt quickly. I feel like we'll be able to stay on the cutting edge of trends."
For their part, major labels have been faltering with sometimes altogether goofy ideas. "Ringles," which attempted to combine a CD single with downloadable ring tones and wallpaper for cell phones, died a quick death due to compatibility issues. Similarly, albums packaged on USB drives, released for bands like the White Stripes, Matchbox 20, the Mars Volta and Ringo Starr, have experienced slow to nonexistent sales. Sometimes costing three times as much as a CD and often containing few bonuses, the USB drive serves to draw attention to an artist but generally fails to sell well, especially in the case of Ringo Starr.
"Everything always starts with the underground in the independent music scene," says Jon Collins at Dropcards, a company that offers credit-card-style download cards for labels and bands. "Once the major labels catch on that Sub Pop has been doing it, Touch & Go has been doing it, Def Jux has been doing it, it's only a matter of time before they start doing it as well."
For as little as 20 cents per card, Dropcards hosts mp3 files and prints high-quality, glossy cards to include in vinyl pressings, instead of the more common photocopied coupon. A benefit is that many bands order overruns of the cards to sell at their merchandise table on tour, Collins says.
Dropcards does big business, and has printed literally millions of consumer-brand media cards for Red Bull, Disney, Vitamin Water and iTunes, designed to be given away for free. Independent labels, too, order promotional cards ("This month we're getting slammed with South by Southwest," Collins says), but 20 percent of the company's business is in cards designed for inclusion in LPs, including albums by Aesop Rock and the Polyphonic Spree. As that number keeps growing significantly, Collins says, LPs with mp3 cards aren't necessarily taking over so much as they're starting to fill what could one day be a void of physical media.
"CDs," he dryly observes, "seem to be making themselves pretty obsolete on their own."