Now more than ever, vinyl is making a comeback. It hadn’t ever really left, with collectors around the globe keeping the wax alive between plastic sleeves, delicately rotating records across setups curated just as carefully as the vinyl itself. Still, the music format had never quite experienced the kind of explosion it’s experiencing now. While it remained the governing form of music for nearly a century, cassettes and CDs overcame vinyl in sales as we entered the late 1980s. For a while, it seemed as though vinyl was simply at its end – one of the few physical reminders that music wasn’t just an auditory experience, but a tactile one, too.
For the first time in a long time, vinyl has finally overtaken its successors in sales, increasing by 29% in 2020, according to a study by the Record Industry Association of America. MRC Data’s midyear report for 2021 illustrates that vinyl is anticipated to grow bigger than ever during its modern run, already doubling in sales compared to last year.
It’s clear that vinyl is far from dead, and it appears as though Generation Z is part of the driving force behind its resurgence. A look at MRC Data’s midyear report shows artists with huge Gen Z followings like Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Kendrick Lamar and Billie Eillish dominating the top of vinyl sales. Gen Z has taken an interest in LPs, but the 13- to 26-year-olds never actually experienced the era of vinyl during its golden age. While there’s undoubtedly a nostalgia aspect factored into the choice of listening to vinyl for Generation X and even Millennials, a different story can be said for Gen Z.
So, why exactly are vinyl sales increasing among Gen Z?
Several Gen Z vinyl collectors shared their experiences with the medium, citing a major influence behind their collecting is the tangibility that vinyl records provide. “An album is so much more than the music — it’s the cover art, the credits, the art design, the colors, the smell of the paper, the story behind the art, etc. It’s something that I can collect, and that identifies my character and who I was listening to at different points of my life,” said Tristan Simone, age 24.
Likewise, Alex Ballard, 23, shared similar sentiments as Simone, saying, “I just thought it was cool to have this physical manifestation of the music I listened to, particularly now in the streaming world where you have access to so much music, which is awesome, but the music doesn't really feel like it's yours. As someone who's really into music, it's cool to have this physical piece of it — to be like, ‘This is mine. This is part of my collection.’”
Beginning with the packaging, it’s truly like unraveling presents on Christmas morning to be able to physically unveil a record in hand — an experience that just isn’t possible with the predominant streaming services available today. Vinyl records provide a unique sensory experience that is palpable as well as audible. The very act of putting on a record is a mindful process — pulling the vinyl from the sleeve, putting it on the turntable, delicately placing the stylus between the grooves and watching it rotate all have a part in music’s tangibility.
“With a record, you have to take the time to pull it out, put it on, set the needle on. And so, that makes it more of an investment of your time,” said Clayton Jethro, 23. He added, “I really like the way that you can have the whole packaging aspects of records... It adds a whole different aspect of music that you don't really get to see as often these days. But, with the advent of streaming, that packaging aspect has been kind of lost. I think that's really cool, because you also get to see the credits and what's inside the gatefold. And that also gives you an opportunity to see people involved in the record that you wouldn't normally think of.”
It is this unique duality that has drawn many members of Generation Z into the world of vinyl collecting. Regarding vinyl as a keepsake that transcends decades is not only a trait of Gen Z, yet what is apparent within this generation is a knack for finding and preserving gems from the past.
CDs are what nearly pushed out vinyl in the first place, and yet the kind of following vinyl has does not exist in the same way for CDs (despite CDs being a physical product in their prime when Gen Z kids were growing up). Why haven’t CDs boomed in the way vinyl has with the generation?
For Gen Zers, there’s a novelty to older things — from obsessions with parents’ wardrobes (hello, mom jeans), retro video games (remember the 2017 Nintendo SNES emulator?) and overexposed Polaroids, there seems to be a fixation on life in the past. Part of this obsession with all things vintage has evolved into a phenomenon of its own, resulting in revivals of previous trends that have emerged from the past. Likewise, there’s a type of longing and nostalgia for the era when millions of songs weren’t accessible right in our pockets. Being able to rediscover music in the form of vinyl taps into the excitement of exploring unfamiliar territories — the same giddiness as when you entered a new grade in school. And for many, it’s a way to disconnect from the pervasiveness of omnipresent technologies and to focus on the physical world. It’s the experience of mentally shifting to a time and place removed from the present, like getting lost in the universe of a TV show or movie.
While many Gen Zers have likely stumbled upon an old record store packed with crates from wall to wall as their entryway to the hobby, picked it up from friends and family or simply followed the trends, it’s no accident that artists are able to meet the vinyl needs of Gen Zers in the first place.
“I also feel like the people putting the records out or record companies probably have their finger on the pulse as far as music [goes]... I definitely feel like I've started to see when someone releases an album — in their album rollout, in the media for that — they've started bringing back records in their marketing for an album,” Jethro noted.
Part of it is assuredly the result of distributors keeping a keen eye on trends and, not only meeting consumer needs, but going above and beyond with marketing products and creating demand for it. While vinyl exponentially boomed in sales this past year, previous years show that it was slowly increasing already, giving indication that it would likely continue to be a product worth maintaining support for.
Buying merchandise and attending shows are a few of the best ways of directly financially supporting an artist as a fan, compared to the type of revenue artists earn through streaming. Many Gen Zers are aware of the financial distribution and seek to support their favorite artists in a viable manner. Forbes reported on a 2018 study conducted by Sweety High, which outlined how Gen Z not only pays for streaming services, but many take the extra step to attend concerts and music festivals, too. Buying vinyl is no different for this generation and acts as another avenue to show love to an artist by contributing in a larger way than simply streaming their music. Music consumption habits of Gen Z have evolved in that music has become integrated into their personality traits and is considered to be an important facet of their lives.
Whether supporting new artists’ releases or finding a favorite throwback, it’s clear that vinyl collecting has withstood the test of time. As the vinyl record industry continues to grow and expand, Gen Z will continue to play a major role within the industry’s consumer base. With the rise of social platforms such as TikTok, many Gen Z collectors have found small clusters of fellow collectors to create community with. Yet, many Gen Z collectors expressed feeling left out of the larger community and conversation when it comes to vinyl collecting. As the vinyl record industry continues to evolve, consumers and distributors alike should consider new ways to include Gen Z collectors.
The tradition of vinyl collecting is one that has spanned over decades. These records have now been passed along to Gen Z, to put their own spin on. Gen Z will continue to shape this ever-evolving art form and hopefully pass the passion for vinyl collecting on for generations to come.
Kayla Griffith and Jillian Nguyen are VMP’s summer interns for 2021. Kayla is the marketing and partnerships intern, and has a deep love for alternative R&B and all things creative storytelling. Jillian is the editorial intern and an EDM aficionado.