Why declining album sales aren’t the endgame for music fans

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Sometimes, I like to try to convince myself that my high school years were the last truly good time of a musical golden age. With the second half of the 2000s edging just shy of the fully-digital era, insurmountably-priced CDs still lined the shelves of most department stores, monuments to a more tangible era of consumption.

Albums like Jack White's
Albums like Jack White’s “Lazaretto” are finding great success in the form of vinyl records.

Tuesdays have been the standard new album release day in the U.S. for quite some time. A decade ago, Tuesdays seemed different. Picking up the latest release from a favorite band was nothing short of a sacred process. I’d retreat to my upstairs bedroom where I’d pop in my newfound copy–careful not to scratch it–into a probably 5-watt, 6-disc CD changer I kept on my dresser.

The best part was being able to slide out the lyric booklet that came packaged with the case so I could follow along with the music. The artwork was the cherry on top, a visual representation to accompany the audible one, which for me, completed the experience and is something I believe to be sorely lacking from today’s new-fangled digital albums.

Pretty soon though, and perhaps inevitably, the compact disc became a relic. If they’re even sold in stores anymore, I haven’t noticed and apparently neither has the general public. CD sales have been on a steady decline since around 2002 (Which, for reference, is the same year ‘N Sync went on hiatus and never came back. Coincidence?).

Many blame the birth of the digital music file, a harbinger that completes the great cycle that began with the phonograph and morphed into the vinyl record and then the eight-track and the cassette tape and the CD and now has finally culminated with a virtually indestructible, highly-flexible piece of data.

But even the intangible, it seems, is too good to last. According to an article published by Billboard.com last week, weekly total album sales–physical as well as digital–have hit a new low. Such a low, in fact, it’s the weakest sales have been since Nielsen SoundScan first began tracking these statistics in 1991, translating into a figure just shy of $4 million.

This may not be the worst thing in the world, however. Look at what’s been happening with vinyl. Jack White’s June-released “Lazaretto sold 40,000 copies on wax during its first week, the biggest seller of its type since the vinyl version of Pearl Jam’s “Vitalogy” hit shelves in 1994.

This continues the recent trend of rising vinyl sales and should serve as a hopeful anomaly for fervent music consumers. And while this spike is likely because vinyl is cool and retro, it could also be a form of statement from the devoted music community against the newer, flightier digital one.

Most tellingly, vinyl’s renewed stature is a great example of how segments of the industry have managed to overcome despite a deluge of setbacks (though only time will tell if the ol’ compact disc makes a similar rebound).

Sure, vinyl will never be the dominant medium again, nor will CDs, cassettes, or the Microsoft Zune. In the end it may not really matter. The market will always be there, because the most resolute of music lovers–those prone to lying in bed, headphones on, belting every song to the ceiling–won’t cease in rushing to the defense of the format they hold most dear.

This type of passion may not completely revitalize a mostly waning industry. But there’s no reason why it can’t at least make old mediums cool again.

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