“Well, CD sales are down, but surprisingly, vinyl is doing really well.”
That’s a sentiment we’ve heard time and time again from record labels recently, but at this point, can you really call the vinyl boom a surprise? Consumers see albums as holistic pieces, and a 12-inch vinyl as a physical extension of their Spotify playlist. Vinyl is old-school, and ironically, that’s the novelty. But while, in aggregate, music lovers have welcomed the recent surge in the format — total US vinyl sales up 25.9% in 2016 YoY according to BuzzAngle — one genre has been slow to ride the wave.
In 2016, hip-hop sales made up only 4.3% of total vinyl sales, despite representing a whopping 20.3% of total digital streams. So if we know that consumers are a) listening to more hip-hop and b) buying more vinyl, why aren’t they also buying more hip-hop on vinyl?
In the 1970s hip-hop and rap were synonymous with vinyl, with deejays using records as a literal tool for new music. But in 2017, as the genre continues to dominate almost every other medium, the lag in vinyl is striking. We spoke with Vinyl Me Please, a vinyl membership subscription service about the lag and what opportunities it represents.
“Rap & hip-hop has always found itself ahead of the curve when it comes to consumption trends, taking advantage of the malleability of mixtapes & digital playlists before anyone else, but in some ways the re-emergence of an old medium like vinyl may have blindsided the genre a bit,” says Cameron Schaefer, head of music for Vinyl Me Please.
“Two years ago, as I talked to managers, artists & label execs it was obvious they didn’t recognize the demand for current rap & hip-hop titles on vinyl. That has definitely begun to change with the success of artists like Kendrick [Lamar], Run the Jewels, Khalid and others with the format.
Now one of the biggest barriers is simply one of timing. Most labels aren’t receiving final masters from the artist until days or even hours before street date, meaning vinyl has to be pushed off until later, which could mean a few months or even a year (like Beyonce’s Lemonade). By the time vinyl plans are settled, the energy around the release has largely subsided meaning the artist & label either have to put real effort into re-energizing their audience around a vinyl release or just move on altogether without one.”
And though difficulties are present, the tides may be changing. Recognizing that hip-hop fans were craving an extension of what’s available on streaming services, independent labels were quick to use vinyl to their advantage.
“Until maybe one or two years ago independent rap and hip-hop was clearly way ahead in terms of marketing savvy and understanding of consumer demand for vinyl. Smaller indie labels as well as independent artists used the format to connect with their super-fans and knew the financial value of a good D2C offer or vinyl as tour merch. With that said, the majors have caught on and are now mimicking many of these actions so indie rap/hip-hop vinyl is no longer as clearly ahead or differentiated from its major label counterparts,” says Schaefer.
Schaefer concluded by sharing some datapoints from Vinyl Me Please’ own experience: “It’s [hip-hop] one of the most in-demand genres we sell. One of our early mainstream rap & hip-hop projects we worked on was a limited-edition red vinyl pressing of Young Thug’s Barter 6 with Atlantic/300 Entertainment in January of 2016. We sold out of 1,000 copies in a little over 24hrs with less than $100 spent in paid marketing. In light of this demand we launched a completely new subscription focused on Rap & hip-hop last month, releasing Noname’s incredible mixtape Telefone as our first release in the series and following up this month with Common’s Electric Circus. Currently only available as an “add-on” subscription for current VMP Members, we had over 1,500 members sign up for it in 2 days. We plan on opening the subscription the public as a stand-alone subscription early next year.”
Vinyl Me Please aren’t the only ones seeing the opportunity. Omerta Inc is a boutique, UK-based label that sells solely hip-hop on vinyl by re-releasing popular records. While change is certainly slow (all of vinyl is projected to only be 6% of the music market in 2017), and barriers to entry like release timing are abundant, hip-hop and rap on vinyl is an emerging niche segment that shouldn’t be overlooked.
So let’s put it all together. Generalist indie labels are driving supply of new releases on vinyl, but are constrained by limited resources. Major labels are driving the supply of catalog releases on vinyl, but lack the marketing energy and time to get the public re-excited about a vinyl issue. Hence, businesses like Vinyl Me Please and Omerta see white space, step in, and bridge the gap between high consumer demand and inconsistent supply by liaising with both the indies and majors to ensure that consumers who want vinyl, and who love hip-hop can get both on their own terms.