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Digital music sales drop for first time, vinyl sales up

Friday - 1/10/2014, 4:59am  ET

Analog guy trapped in a digital world

DJ Cerphe, on the pros and cons of listening to music on vinyl.

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WASHINGTON - The song remains the same - the way people listen to music continues to change.

For the first time since iTunes was invented, digital music sales dropped in 2013, largely because of ad-supported and paid subscription streaming services.

And the fastest-growing way of consuming music is one that was left for dead decades ago - vinyl.

How we listened to music in 2013
  • Digital download track sales fell 5.75 percent.
  • Digital album sales slipped 0.1 percent.
  • CD sales declined 14.5 percent.
  • Vinyl sales jumped by 32 percent.
  • Vinyl is 2 percent of total U.S. album sales.

Source: Nielsen SoundScan

Before music fans berate themselves for packing away turntables, the fact is vinyl sales remain miniscule, compared with digital options.

"It's kind of nice to see vinyl sales growing, especially with young listeners," says former WHFS DJ Cerphe, whose show is heard on Eco Planet Radio.

"We've always made vinyl. We still make vinyl. We never stopped," says Ian MacKaye, co-owner of Dischord Records, and D.C. hardcore punk pioneer.

MacKaye says Dischord has offered its music in a variety of methods since its first release in 1980, including vinyl, cassette tapes, CDs, and downloads.

"There are people who listen to music digitally. I'm happy to provide that," says MacKaye. "It's all kind of witchcraft anyway, when you think about it, how we can pluck sound out of nothing."

SoundScan has not yet released its detailed report on music streaming service, including Pandora, Spotify, and iTunes Radio, but industry executives have told Rolling Stone the growth has been offsetting the decline in digital sales revenue.

While many musicians have complained that streaming services pay far less than a penny per play, MacKaye doesn't sweat it.

"I didn't make a song to make money," MacKaye says. "I made a song to be heard."

MacKaye, whose recorded music and live performances have always been priced far- below industry standards, largely eschews social media, but acknowledges some benefits of the Web.

"The ability to find music on the Internet is an incredible gift," says MacKaye. "That's why I'm not opposed to file sharing, frankly."

Unlike many, MacKaye says if given the choice between a person paying to hear his music or not hearing the music, he'd prefer the song be heard.

"The money makes things go on some levels, but ultimately, as a musician, the song was to be heard."

The vinyl experience

The resurgence of vinyl records pleases Cerphe, who for the most part spun albums and 45 r.p.m. singles at the much-lauded WHFS, known for its alternative music.

"I'm an analog guy trapped in a digital world," Cerphe says.

Cerphe says the experience of searching for, finding, touching, and handling a vinyl record can't be duplicated, digitally.

He even likes the smell of vinyl, after breaking the shrinkwrap of a record.

"The smell of new music, even if it's a reissue, I love it."

Cerphe says the imperfections of vinyl are part of its allure.

"With its crackles and pops, vinyl makes you remember where you were, and what you were doing 25 year ago."

With music so available online, Cerphe says he identifies with characters in the film High Fidelity, starring John Cusack.

"Obscure musical knowledge was once a kind of currency," remembers Cerphe.

"You had to seek out the right record stores, manned by the knowledge gatekeepers, and progressive DJs, to learn about the cool bands."

Why vinyl is better than digital

With the immediacy of digital music, many music fans choose to download a single song.

Even some free streaming services allow users to build playlists of specific songs.

"With vinyl you're forced to slow down and take in a whole album as a whole piece of work, the way the artist intended," says Cerphe.

Artists often take great pains in arranging an album's track order - which is ignored by single-seeking listeners.

"For me, the sign of a great record is it makes me stop thinking of anything else," says Cerphe.

Cerphe says the vinyl resurgence doesn't mean people necessarily want to stop listening to digital music.

"The iPod generation, they want to own things, collect things, have a record library. They like the past. They want to belong to the late 20th century, and I kinda like that."

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