The only real area of growth was digital streaming, which grew 32 percent to hit a record 118 billion total streams, thanks to Spotify, Pandora, Rdio, and other streaming services. Oh, and there was one more musical medium that grew: Vinyl records.
Sales of vinyl LPs shot up 33 percent, to 6.1 million albums, the highest level since SoundScan started counting in 1991. Statista plots vinyl's rise in this crazy chart:
Vinyl sales have jumped 250 percent since 2002, Statista says, while overall music sales have dropped by 50 percent.
This isn't just an American phenomenon. Britain also saw its best vinyl LP sales in more than a decade, with 550,000 sales as of November, and Australia saw a 75 percent spike in vinyl sales.
Interestingly, nostalgia isn't as big a factor as you'd think. While the No. 1 LP in 2010 was the Beatles' Abbey Road, last year's top-selling vinyl record in both Britain and the U.S. was Random Access Memories by Daft Punk. In second place was Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City. "We're witnessing a renaissance for records — they're no longer retromania and are becoming the format of choice for more music fans," Geoff Taylor, chief executive of British music industry group BPI, tells AFP.
That may be a bit of an overstatement. The 6.1 million U.S. LP sales still represent only about 2 percent of total album sales, versus 57 percent for CDs and 41 percent for digital albums. Daft Punk's top-selling LP sold about 49,000 copies.
Those numbers make "touting the 'comeback' of vinyl a little bit like telling a double amputee that at least he won't have to spend money on winter gloves," says Claire Suddath at Bloomberg Businessweek. Noting the LP sales numbers in October — 2.9 million — she adds that that's about as many albums as the band Asia sold in 1982. "If you want to save the music industry, you're going to have to do better than Asia."
But that sort of misses the point. Vinyl records are different creatures than digital downloads. They take up a lot of space, play on bulky equipment, scratch fairly easily, and make a hissing noise. If you are buying records today, you are not doing it for the convenience or cost or portability. So, what is behind vinyl's remarkable revival?
"The main reason for vinyl's renaissance is clear," says AFP's Alfons Luna. "It offers a richer sound than downloadable digital songs, which although hiss-free lack the 'warmth' of vinyl records." Other theories include the collectors' aspect of owning a beautifully packaged artifact, and the rejection of the sprawling, multi-tentacled reach of the digital world.
The resurgence of LPs "is largely attributed to the type of people who place a premium on traditional recording formats and the overall listening experience," says Bloomberg's Suddath. "These people probably also eat kale."
Pete Paphides at Britain's The Guardian is thinking along similar lines, saying the rise of vinylphilia "is the closest music consumption has come to the slow food movement."
While Raffaelli's "initial research has focused on the watch industry," says Carmen Nobel at Harvard's Working Knowledge, "his findings also help explain a recent resurgence of independent bookstores, a renaissance of streetcars in numerous urban city centers, and the revival of several seemingly archaic products including the fountain pen and the vinyl record."
Raffaelli explains that when the mechanical-watch industry seemed on the verge of collapse, it was watch collectors who stepped in and saved the day, paying top dollar for mechanical watches at auction:
Finally, the LP developed enough of a cachet that bands started pressing vinyl discs again — and charging a premium for the LP version of their albums.
Now vinyl is a luxury item, a sign of your high fidelity to the album you are buying and the band that recorded it. It's a strange phenomenon, and it may not last, but right now it's great news for music makers and music lovers.