The recent boom in vinyl merely reflects business’s desire to extract maximum commodity value from ‘manufactured rarities’. But, ask Numero Group’s Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley, what happens to the music when the bubble bursts?
The epochal boom of the sports card industry in the US can be traced back to 23 February 1989, when Upper Deck – an upstart producer of classy baseball card collectibles based in Anaheim, California – delivered its first case of individually wrapped card packs to George Moore of Tulsa’s Baseball Card Store in Oklahoma. Upper Deck’s cards differed wildly from those of their competitors. Topps, Fleer and Donruss had long traded blows in their world of cheap grey cardboard, rock-hard chewing gum and resealable wax wrappers. Upper Deck was bracingly new school, boasting patented hybrid paper cards, a hologram for thwarting counterfeiters, and anti-tamper seals. Gum disappeared entirely; Upper Deck feared the damage it might inflict on its jazzed-up souvenirs. But the company’s most daring move was to raise the pack price from the standard 45¢ to $1, giving their randomly sorted cardpacks the pricey sheen of conspicuous consumption.
The stodgy competitors soon followed suit, each engaging in a one-upping war resulting in a convention room-sized glut of novelty cards, including gold foil-stamped cards, autograph cards, cards featuring an embedded hunk of a game-worn Babe Ruth jersey, and – truly inexplicably – an Abraham Lincoln card containing a minuscule strand of the Great Emancipator’s actual hair. Five-card packs were now achieving prices from $2.99 to $150. Sane adults were planning their retirements on smiling sportsmen and historical figures printed on scraps of rigid paper. By the mid-2000s, things had moved on, kid collectors had been priced out of the market, and the trading card industry slogged through a series of mergers and leveraged buyouts. A $4 billion a year industry was reduced to mountains of card-filled cardboard boxes, filling drawers, attics and former retail spaces.
Readers of The Wire who fail to apprehend the above as a cautionary tale for today’s music business clearly haven’t been paying due attention to the nature of the past decade’s vinyl resurgence. Vinyl’s violent sales spike has been a lonely bright spot in what has been a 14 year deterioration in sales of recorded music; retailers now celebrate their very own Record Store Day every April. And record stores – those that made it through the 2000s gauntlet and those that, by the sheer force of a newborn paradigm, have sprung forth – are bursting at the browser bins with special 45s, exclusive 10"s, replica LPs and multi-album sets. Goodwill abounds, but among the racks, crowded with product and punters, there’s more than a whiff of irrational exuberance. This fully emerged market, though, is distinct from what’s been generally termed ‘the music business’. That business is, and has been, fundamentally about manufacturing hits, a volume game with cycles of busts paid for by booms few and far between. The new vinyl game has considerably less in common with the elder hit-chasing model than it does with Upper Deck’s gilding, jersey scraps, pricing schemes and historic scalp clippings.
The limited edition, once a reasonable countermeasure to over-serving demand, has become the groan-inducing lingua franca of the vinylsphere. Call it, in more pessimistic terms, the ‘manufactured rarity’. Alongside the vinyl medium’s desirability in terms of sound reproduction, the new vinyl market loads in a range of ostensible value additives: coloured vinyl, splatter vinyl, clear vinyl, picture discs, liquid-filled discs, unplayable speeds, unwieldy sizes, outlandish packaging... The art of packaging can be an impressive creative pursuit in able hands, but cliches are already rampant and whatever initial excitement limited runs might have generated has given way to rote adherence to convention. Such gimmickry has always existed, of course, though it has historically been deployed for supplemental releases aimed at superfans of a given artist or album. As the desire for physical media shrank rapidly, it became a matter of time before the casual vinyl buyer got mistaken for that same superfan.
Most buyers of contemporary releases on vinyl are already aware of, and perhaps perturbed by, the current circumstances, but for those still blissfully unaware, it’s worth explicating: it’s now perfectly commonplace that a new LP sells on eBay, for some crooked multiplier of its sticker price, before copies of that same product have been sold out by the retailers. As cognitively dissonant as that fact may be, it’s a fixture of the new vinyl marketplace, especially in light of that most tedious inbred cousin of the ticket tout, the vinyl speculator. Speculators claim no attachment to the music they purchase; rather, they simply hunt more rabidly than you’re willing to, preying afterwards on secondary-market superfans’ desperation. Whether or not such speculators might some day bankroll their children’s educations on blood-splattered Norwegian Metal 7"s remains to be seen. But if the massive bubble in the value of vinyl bursts, the stakes outstrip some speculator’s envisioned summer home in Michigan wine country – also at risk is overall consumer confidence in an already fragile economy for both artists and labels.
What we call the music business has successfully split into two economic camps: the digital marketplace, in which participants pay for a licence to access content – with no opportunity for exchange; and the vinyl marketplace, in which participants purchase goods that retain some inherent exchange value. Built into the vinyl buyer’s decision to purchase is a kind of surplus value: each player believes that they’ll be able, through arbitrage of some sort, to net a profit on the item, or at least enjoy declaring to their friends – or anyone else within undesireable earshot – what their purchase’s maximum eBay value might be.
The vinyl marketplace is probably permanently contracted, but rather than over-serving the superfan, it should pivot toward super-serving the casual fan. Anyone should be able to walk into any record store in the world and buy a standard vinyl copy of Nevermind for a reasonable price, rather than confronting the 180 gram pressing or the deluxe quadruple LP that fishes for their cash from a lofty wall display. In its attempts to scrape profits out of a niche, the business has squeezed its output out of the bins entirely.
While Upper Deck was revolutionising the US sports card market at the turn of the 1990s, and the major labels were attempting to kill vinyl altogether, companies like New Jersey’s Scorpio Records penned ‘last rites’ licensing deals, filling a small but profitable hole in the marketplace with new old LPs. Today, it’s still easy to spot a Scorpio title in the bins; just look for a medium-rare LP, recently shrinkwrapped and priced at $11 (or the equivalent). As the business around it gorged on the CD’s absurd margins, Scorpio profitably reissued great LPs at an extremely enticing price. With average LPs priced at around $25 in the US, Scorpio finds itself in an enviable position for capitalising on the post-IKEA generation’s interest in buying something physical – no matter its quality – at a cost nearly equal to that of a full album download. New generations of consumers mean new opportunities for labels to trot out the same old chestnuts, returned to the mother format. Baby boomers replaced their Zep LPs with CDs; Gen X did the opposite; and millennials bolster their torrented flacs with newly minted show copies of Houses Of The Holy. Format migration has gone retrograde; vinyl is being institutionalised as the format to possess – but not necessarily to use, of course.
Creating a sustainable vinyl marketplace is going to require more than picture discs, record store days, speculators and coffee-table LPs. Labels and artists should be making viable, well crafted and thoughtfully packaged releases that earn their bin longevity, are by no means limited, and don’t cost arms, legs or bodily fluids. Buyers in the 90s baseball card boom convinced themselves they were sitting on cardboard gold. New goal: convince young buyers of vinyl that the value of their purchases comes out of speakers, not out of auction sites. After all, it’s just a piece of vinyl.