Here’s something you might not believe: According to Bandcamp’s annual statistics, cassette sales increased almost as much as vinyl sales did in 2017 (41% and 54%, respectively). Especially considering the banner year vinyl had, that’s a pretty wild stat.
Regardless, in an age where the pervasiveness of streaming services is being spelled as a death sentence for music’s “99%”, and digital and CD sales continue to plummet, or at best remain financially insufficient, independent record labels are still standing on shakier ground than ever before. The music industry’s continued monetary struggle isn’t news at this point, but when the online pirating culture that services like Napster spurred back in the early 2000’s appeared to threaten the existence of a music industry altogether, the playing field between indies and majors was at least (somewhat) leveled.
There was a brief period in the mid-2000’s, when the billionaire record execs had just had the gatekeeping rug pulled out from under them, that making exorbitant amounts of money by exploiting artists and music consumers seemed like it would no longer be feasible. This incited the hope that perhaps a new industry model, benefitting both artists and fans, could become a new reality.
To some extent it did. Bandcamp, a website that provides artists and labels with a fair and sustainable portion of the profits from their music and merch, has become the go-to medium for practically any artist outside of the mainstream—and they just announced that their site saw “double digit growth” in both digital and physical sales in 2017. That’s good news, but it doesn’t discount that streaming is by far the most popular method of music consumption (together, Spotify and Apple Music boast roughly 100 million paid subscribers) and that Spotify (which holds 70 of those 100 million) unfairly stacks their highly influential playlists, and appears to value profits over artistic exposure.
To compensate for the mere pennies that they earn from these streaming giants, most indie labels have, throughout the last six or seven years, relied on the niche format of vinyl records as a primary source of revenue. However, although vinyl was widely reported to have had its twelfth straight year of growth in 2017, the best-selling records of the year were reissues from legacy acts like The Beatles, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd, as well as movie soundtracks for La La Land and Guardians Of The Galaxy. The only 2017 release to crack the top ten was, dishearteningly, the new Ed Sheeran album.
None of those artists (and movie companies) are relying on vinyl sales to avoid economic danger, but for young artists on indie labels like Tiny Engines Records, Exploding In Sound Records and Topshelf Records, physical sales are crucial to their survival, and according to some of those labels, vinyl isn’t faring quite as well for them as the sweeping reports imply.
“I do think maybe [vinyl has] slipped a little in the past year, just as people seem to be buying less in general,” says Dan Goldin, owner of the Brooklyn-based punk label Exploding In Sound. His label has been releasing forward-thinking indie rock records from artists like Palehound, Pile, LVL Up and Big Ups since 2011.
Topshelf Records, which played an important role in the emo revival of the early 2010’s, has experienced a similar draught.
“Nothing sells as well for us as it did 3-4 years ago,” says Kevin Duquette, owner of the San Diego-based label, whose discography includes seminal albums from Sorority Noise, The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, and Ratboys.
For Tiny Engines, a South Carolina label with a stack of signees mostly from the Northeast, a distribution deal with Redeye has helped, but pre-orders have declined. This makes judging the success of a release tricky.
“From a direct mailorder standpoint, we sell less vinyl than we did a few years ago,” says Tiny Engines owner Will Miller, whose roster boasts The Hotelier, Adult Mom and Mannequin Pussy. “A few years ago we could put up a pre-order for a record and make our money back on a release fairly quickly. . . there’s definitely less people participating in pre-orders, for whatever reason.”