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Oct. 20, 2008, wasn’t a great day to release a record. AC/DC’s 15th and latest studio album, Black Ice, came out after a month of bailout discussions and bank failures. Record sales were down almost 17 percent from the year before, according to a recent article in the New York Times. And the Australian hard-rock band, which formed when Nixon was in the White House, had been absent from the scene for almost a decade. To make matters worse, the band announced that Black Ice would be sold only through two retailers, Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club. No official digital download would be available.
What seemed like a recipe for disaster turned out to be the opposite. Since its release, Black Ice has sold more than 2 million copies and spent five weeks in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 album chart. Though it didn’t hurt that AC/DC has built a huge fan base over years, or that Wal-Mart is one of the few retailers that has experienced sales growth in recent months, the success of Black Ice might also suggest something about the durability of its format. With so little money and so many options—some of them free, albeit illegal—why would so many consumers shell out for something as old-fashioned as an album?
To Alec Bourgeois, spokesperson for D.C. independent label Dischord, the answer is simple: Casual listeners might care only about a song or two on a given full-length, but serious music fans want the whole shebang. “I think it’s one of the things you see,” he says of customers’ devotion to full albums. “By having your own distribution, you notice trends that other people don’t.” Dischord, which released its first record (a 7-inch single by the hardcore band Teen Idles) in 1980, began making digital downloads available through its Web site last July. Customers now have the opportunity, via digital credits, to mix-and-match songs from various Dischord releases. But Bourgeois says few who buy music from Dischord’s online store favor this approach.
The popularity of the album is perhaps even more pronounced in Dischord’s vinyl sales. “There’s been an intense uptick in demand,” Bourgeois said. Interest has been so high, in fact, that Dischord’s vinyl offerings, which for years made up only about 10 percent of its business, are now selling almost as well as its CDs. As a result, Dischord has begun remastering and re-cutting several of the albums in its catalog, an initiative that has temporarily eclipsed its CD remastering program. Its latest release, Edie Sedgwick’sThings Are Getting Sinister and Sinisterer, is available only as a vinyl LP and a digital download.
Like other successful indies, Dischord has begun pairing vinyl releases with a free download of the same title. But if the recent experience of Orpheus Records owner Rick Carlisle is any measure, serious listeners need little extra incentive to purchase an LP. Even before he hung a going-out-of-business sign in front of his Clarendon storefront in January, Carlisle noticed an increase in the demand for vinyl. “Our business was the best it had been in seven to 10 years,” he says of the period right before he found out that his landlord would not renew Orpheus’ lease. “It was a strange irony.”
The store opened in 1977 and the lights are on for the time being; a new tenant has signed a lease for the store’s space, but Orpheus still keeps weekend hours. Carlisle knew he was bound to see sales increase once he discounted the stock. But he was caught off-guard by the volume. He says recent sales have been as high as 1,000 albums a day, and, as a result, it’s been difficult to restock the shelves. “Because of the resurgence of interest in vinyl, we had people lined up,” Carlisle said. In addition to baby boomers with more time on their hands, Carlisle was also seeing more of the coveted youth demographic. “That was just starting when I started to close,” he says of teenagers buying vinyl.
Could the album really be dying if the iPod generation still cares about it? In mid-November, the New York Times reported that Atlantic had become the first major label to earn a majority of its revenue from digital products, such as downloads and ringtones. The latter format in particular might imply that attention spans of the young are too short to support the album format. But Atlantic’s proclamation is somewhat misleading: Though 51 percent of Atlantic’s revenues come from digital products, two-thirds of the industry’s overall sales still come from compact discs.
That leaves billions still to be made off, yes, the album. Rather than a dying format, the album is perhaps more like the novel or feature-length film—a good idea that has weathered and will continue to weather technological trends. It’s already survived numerous physical products: the vinyl LP, the 8-track, the cassette tape, and the compact disc. Who’s to say that it won’t survive the digital download?