Led by Fleet Foxes and Abbey Road, 2011 Is Already a Banner Year for Sales of Vinyl (Not to Mention mp3s, Cassettes, and . . . CDs)

Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold.
After growing at a steady clip for the last few years, vinyl sales hit a milestone this week, crossing the 3 million mark for the first time since Nielsen Soundscan started keeping track in 1991, according to numbers the agency released to Seattle Weekly. With six weeks left in the year, that's easily enough to beat last year's previous best of 2.8 million vinyl LPs sold.

Leading the pack is the Beatles' perennial vinyl seller, Abbey Road, and Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, which has sold more vinyl LPs in a single year than any other new release in the Soundscan era. The Seattle band's sophomore album has sold 26,000 LPs since it was released in May, compared to 31,000 for Abbey Road, and 22,000 for Bon Iver's self-titled release in June.

The 3 million LPs sold is still a very small part of total album sales--just over 1 percent of the 255 million albums sold so far this year. But there are encouraging signs for the industry across all other media, too.

Compared to this time in 2010, album sales are up 3 percent, the largest year-over-year gain since 2004; digital album sales have climbed 20 percent; and CD sales, which have fallen off between 18 and 21 percent annually for the last four years, is down just 4 percent. Even cassettes have seen an uptick: Soundscan says year-to-date sales of 25,000 are up from 16,000 this time last year.

"I think we're starting to see some settling," says Mike McGuire, an analyst at Gartner Research. "I think some people who were casually using file trading and torrents are realizing the online side is maturing, there's more and more content available, and many times it's easier to pay for it than hunt it down for free. For the industry, that's some progress."

McGuire says he feels that many of the developing ways people have come to sample and experience music--from Pandora and Last.fm to music-subscription services like Seattle's Rhapsody--are now having a material effect on album sales. And while the most common way of discovering new music is still word-of-mouth, McGuire says those conversations are now being had on social-media platforms like Facebook, which give those personal suggestions a larger audience. Collectively, McGuire says this all adds up to "a more hospitable ecosystem for purchased music."

Russ Crupnick, an analyst with the NPD Group, says there are a lot of albums out now, from artists like Adele, Lady Gaga, and Eminem, that people--including teenagers--want to own physical copies of. At the same time, Crupnick says more people are turning to digital alternatives like legal downloads and subscription services for albums they enjoy but don't need to own physical copies of. But he's emphatic that the quality of the music has a lot to do with the rise in digital and the stabilizing of CD sales.

"Everybody talks about the last 10 years and piracy. I think that's important, but I don't think it's entirely true [that that's the only factor]," Crupnick says. "It's been the first time in my life that there hasn't been a new kind of genre in at least a decade. Alt-music, grunge, power pop, the pop tarts, there hasn't been anything new in, what, a dozen years? I think that, in addition to all the other things people talk about, is one of the reasons why music has been a little stale."

Reporter's Notebook:

-- Megan Jasper, vice president of Seattle's Sub Pop Records--Fleet Foxes' label--says that even though vinyl accounts for roughly 10 percent of Helplessness Blues' sales, "vinyl sales account for less than 10 percent of the incoming revenue from this release due to the cost of its production."

-- Though Adele's 21 is the biggest seller of the year so far with more than 4.3 million albums sold, it hasn't sold half as many LPs as Helplessness Blues.

-- 785 million albums were sold in 2000. So far in 2011, 255 million have been sold across all digital and physical platforms.

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