How technological advancements impacted on the 21st century music consumer- a study into the resurgance of the vinyl lp

Executive Summary

The aim of this piece is to establish wether there is a connection between the rise in the availability of digital music services, and the rise in sales of vinyl records in the 21st century. Literature relevant to vinyl records and consumer attitudes will be explored, combined with data found through secondary research. Once a connection has been made, both the research and the literature will be used to investigate wether the music industry can use the results in order to better service their consumers.

Chapter 1- Introduction

For the first time in history, 2014 saw recorded music revenues fall below $15 billion to $14.97 billion, thanks to a global drop in both physical (8.1%) and download (8.0%) sales. Despite this overall decline in worldwide revenues, one type of product is showing a significant upturn in sales, the vinyl LP. The sales of vinyl rose by 54.7% in 2014 and although it is still only a niche product, accounting for around 2% of international recorded music revenues, this spike in sales is an area of intrigue throughout the music industry (IFPI, 2015).

2014 also saw independent rock act Jack White’s solo album Lazaretto, break Nielsen Soundscan records, becoming the fastest selling vinyl LP since records began in 1991 (McIntyre, 2014), but what  exactly is causing a resurgence in this format? Once perceived to be out of date by major record labels (Kozinn, 2013), the 21st century is full of alternative listening experiences; compact discs, digital downloads and streaming services like Spotify and Deezer taking up the vast share of the market (IFPI, 2015). So is the recent trend just an anomaly among a certain group of consumers, or is there something more to the upturn in sales?

Neil Young (2015) states that the current interest in vinyl records is “really nothing but a fashion statement” as he believes contemporary releases are mastered from digital CDs so they are nothing but CD quality music playing on the vinyl format. This may or may not be the case, but Carl Smithson (2015) of Truck Independent records, believes the interest in vinyl is a direct reaction to the digital world; “Streaming is great for ease, but people want to own something and be able to share that experience with their friends.”

The purpose of this report is to investigate the current trend towards purchasing music on vinyl, and to try and decipher what it may mean to the wider music industry. In order to do so, secondary research has been collected in an attempt to reach conclusions to the following:

What consumer groups are buying vinyl records in the 21st century and why?

Is there a relationship between the sales of vinyl records and the consumption of digital music?

Can the music industry serve consumers better by understanding the link (if any) between digital music formats and vinyl records.

This piece will address the aforementioned issues by using the following structure: Chapter 2 will focus on critically analysing the already existing literature on what types of consumers buy vinyl records, and why they choose to do so. Chapter 3 will map and detail the possible ways of obtaining data relevant to consumer attitudes on vinyl records, using secondary research, and the philosophy attached to this methodology. Chapter 4 will present the findings of the research of both the quantitative and qualitative data sets found. Chapter 5 will then critically analyse the findings of the research, relating those findings back to the pre-existing literature, in order to asses the relationship between consumers and vinyl records. It will also look to how the music industry can use this data in the future to serve consumers most effectively. Finally, Chapter 6 will conclude the project.

Chapter 2- Review of the literature

This literature review will look into the pre-existing literature on people’s attitudes towards physical & digital music formats and the rise and decline of the vinyl record over time, in order to assess potential gaps for further research on the topic.

A qualitative study conducted by McIntyre (2009) in relation to the decline of record shops, found that virtually every one of his interviewees eulogized about the smell, feel and magical properties of a vinyl LP. He also concluded that compact discs (CDs) were a form of mass market consumption, the middle ground between the vinyl LP and the process of digital downloading. Furthermore, having a library of thousands of individual tracks was generally seen as a negative trait, as the music consumers questioned favoured listening to music in depth rather than breadth.

This is further echoed by Hayes (2006) in his study of teenage music fans who lamented the days where artists such as The Beatles or Bob Dylan recorded albums that made statements, and were supposedly more powerful than the recording labels they were signed to. These fans were obsessed by collecting and hunting down second-hand vinyl records, cleaning and archiving them in collections and discussing these experiences with like-minded peers. This, and the listening experience offered by the vinyl LP, lead them to rejecting contemporary music of the time.

Among fans of contemporary music though, there are distinctions clearly made between the physical and digital realms. Most commonly, according to (Giles, et al., 2007) digital music is used as a research tool used to discover new music that is then purchased on a physical format if particularly desired by the consumer. Their study also found that “the traditional aspects of music collecting still mean there is a felt need for material recordings”. The study also referred to the music itself being placed on display in tower racks and in dedicated items of furniture. Though their piece did not focus on vinyl records specifically, they suggest further research into young consumers, whose first music purchase was in the digital realm, and their relationship with physical music formats.

Further research is also required in the contemporary music market and how consumer behaviour has reacted to technological change (Warr, et all., 2011). It is also suggested in their report, that the values offered by physical music formats need to be assessed comparatively to the values that customers attribute to digital music. They believe that understanding these consumer values could be the way forward for the music industry.

In their study of music consumption, (Nuttall, et al., 2011) go some way into looking into this and found that in some cases, ownership of music is still important but that it has partially transferred into the digital world. Music is purchased online instead of on the high street, then stored as digital files on MP3 players and Laptops, as opposed to physical formats stored on shelves. It was also found though, that some participants attached a symbolic nature to physical copies of recordings. Part of this was through a level of superiority felt by the consumers themselves who believed they were a bigger fan of someone’s music if they bought and owned an artist’s CD. This was also linked to the satisfaction felt by owning a large collection of physical music to show off to others, though these sentiments were all from male respondents. This particular study related to CD purchases, but it could be used as a template for a similar study on vinyl records in today’s market.

It is also argued that when consumers are highly reliant on their portable music devices, their preferences towards owning a tangible copy of the music they are listening to is reduced says Styvén (2010). This high usage is explained by the desire for portability and large amounts of music on the go, something that tangible music formats cannot offer. The study goes on to say that one of the ways the internet has changed the consumption of music is to allow fans to just buy the singles they wish to own and not have to buy the whole of an artist’s album. Both these points reinforce Styven’s (2010) argument that tangible formats are seen as more valuable by certain groups of consumers and could indicate a need for a study into what format is perceived as more valuable, the CD or the Vinyl LP?

A lot of the value attributed to the vinyl LP in the 21st century is through its change from being used as a functional item to its usage as an aesthetic form of expression (Nokelainen, et all., 2015).  One of the reasons for this is that the modern record buyer is more interested in the technology itself, rather than the music or art contained within or on it. They propose that contemporary vinyl consumers aren’t buying into the format for its conventional uses but to take part in the tweaking and modification involved in using the technology itself. This is an interesting discovery, but given that the results are taken singularly from a vinyl enthusiast’s web forum, the results may not be the same if the same amount of people (190,000) were surveyed under different circumstances.

This does show that the digitisation of music has not rendered physical formats obsolete and this case is also put forward by Magaudda (2011). His study states that that the desire for material goods has not been eradicated, but reconfigured and reinvigorated through obsolete objects. He goes onto say that the subjects he interviewed use digital and physical music in ways that complement each other, and shows that they do not have to be mutually exclusive.

The credibility associated with vinyl records brought forward by Hayes (2006) is also further reinforced by the fact the formats relevance extends further than the rock/pop recorded up until the 1990s. It is suggested that the reliance on the format by dance, hip hop and electronic music listening cultures, is a large factor in the resurgence of vinyl in the contemporary marketplace (Bartmanski, et all., 2013).

In a comparative study of two Norwegian record shops Kjus (2015) found that one of the important factors of purchasing vinyl records in the 21st century was the detachment felt by listening through digital alternatives. One shop, Big Dipper, used this thought process as a marketing tool to launch an attack on the digital listening experience, and to promote itself as a provider of a service that had more value. Kjus (2015) further stated that, for the shops employees, vinyl “was a bridge to a (romanticised) past, when vinyl was a primary recording medium for artists and everything was different (better), a point made repeatedly on vinyl album reprints to this day.”

This section has thoroughly detailed and critiqued the available literature on consumer attitudes towards vinyl records. It has led to a belief that an under researched area in this field is the relationship consumers have with contemporary releases on the vinyl format. Hopefully research into people interested in vinyl will help identify what type of people are choosing to buy new music on this format today and why. This topic of research would be valuable to music producers of all shapes and sizes, from major to independent labels and artists, to help them produce content relevant to music consumers in the 21st century.

Chapter 3- Research Methods

This section will address the philosophy of research and look at the differences between social constructivism and positivism. It will define the attributes of both quantitive and qualitative data sets and state the methodology chosen by this paper, mentioning it’s strengths and limitations.

When conducting research, it is important to select a paradigm as a framework to the research. The theory of Positivism is one example of a research paradigm, and states that reality is independent of the researcher and it’s goal is discovery of theories. Because of this, positivists assume the act of research has no effect on the social reality it is conducting its research within. Positivist theories provide the basis of explanation, and predict the occurrence of social phenomena. It’s belief is that these phenomena can be measured, so positivism is associated with methods of quantitive analysis (Collis & Hussey, 2009).

The approach to answering a research question using Quantitative analysis means using predominantly numerical data from experiments, closed survey questions and published data sets. The advantage of using Quantitative data is that the researcher is able to draw data on a much wider scale of responses, answers are usually more precise because of a more articulated approach to questioning, and the breadth of the research allows conclusions to be made with a reasonable degree of validity. However, the data gained can be at risk of not understanding a phenomenon properly, as not all aspects are measurable, and there is a risk of obtaining bland results that are strictly numerical (Cottrell, 2014).

Social Constructionism, on the other hand, is the theory that social phenomena is instead created from the actions of social subjects. Because of this, social reality is in a constant state of flux and so it is necessary to understand the situation that the subjects are in, in order to understand what drives their decisions to act. The use of the social constructionist philosophy requires a more in depth view of subjects opinions and thought processes, this is why it is better to use a Qualitative data collection approach within this framework (Saunders et al., 2012)

Qualitative data instead uses open-ended survey questions, unstructured interviews or focus groups to gain a better understanding of human behaviour, opinions and thought processes. Because of this more open ended approach, the data provided can allow a greater set of responses to emerge from individual people that give insights into their opinions and feelings. The downside is that it can create large, cumbersome pieces of data in the form of long quotes from interviews or focus groups (Bryman & Bell, 2007).

The financial, accessibility and time limitations imposed on this piece, meant that the most effective way to research for this project was through the use of secondary data, predominantly within the social constructionism paradigm. Secondary data includes both raw and published data already collected for other purposes. The benefits of this are that the research is more permanent and more open to public scrutiny, the resource requirements are lower and it is unobtrusive. The downside is that it may generate results that are not directly relevant to the research question, there is no control of the quality of the data and the initial purpose of the researcher may affect how the data is presented (Saunders et al., 2012).

Because of the nature of the secondary data approach, both quantitive and qualities data sets will be analysed. To necessitate this approach requires the process of triangulation. “Triangulation is the use of multiple sources of data, different research methods and/or more than one researcher to investigate the same phenomena” (Collis & Hussey, 2009). Using triangulation leads to greater reliability of the research. Reliability is concerned with how consistent the research findings are, and if the results would be the same if the same procedures were used by different researchers. Triangulation also improves the validity of results, which is more concerned with wether the results designed to test a particular concept, really directly measure that concept (Bryman & Bell, 2007).

In order to explore the pre-existing literature, Google scholar was used to find articles relevant to vinyl records. The terms ‘vinyl’ ‘records’ and ‘consumer attitudes’ were used in the search engine. Then, in order to drill down further into more relevant papers, the terms ‘music industry’ ‘teenagers’ and ‘analogue technology’ were entered to produce more tailored results.

In order to then find data on the more contemporary interest in vinyl records, trade publications such as Music Week and Billboard were read, as were quality national newspapers. The databases of trade specific researchers like the IFPI and ICM were also searched for figures relating to the sales of vinyl records.

This chapter has clearly explained the different research paradigms relevant to this project, the differences between qualitative and quantitive data, as well as the positive and negative aspects of secondary research. It has also stated why knowledge of these philosophical theories are an integral part of creating an effective, reliable and valid research project.

Chapter 4- Presentation of the findings

The renewed level of interest in vinyl records has been well documented in various different press outlets and trade publications. The purpose of this section is to present the most relevant findings to the research question that were discovered through secondary research.

According to a 2013 investigation in the UK by Independent Communications and Marketing Unlimited (ICM), the driving force behind the vinyl sales resurgence was 18-24 year olds with 14% buying vinyl in the month prior to being questioned (ICM, 2013). However, in the same study the following year, it was found that the largest group purchasing vinyl records had shifted to those in the 25-34 year old category, accounting for 26% of vinyl sales, which was 17% more than that categories results from the previous year (ICM, 2014). This shows that the main age demographic of vinyl consumers in the UK are those under 34.

In the USA, young people represent an even larger share of the market. According to the National Purchase Diary (NPD, cited by Ringen, 2015, pp 38-39) consumers aged 35 and under represent 44% of the overall US music economy but account for 72% of all vinyl sales.

One of the key themes that arose during the research into why these consumers favoured vinyl was  the importance of the sound quality over the other formats available in the 21st century. One anonymous interviewee from the 18-24 category told the ICM (2013) in the qualitative part of their study;

I love the way vinyl sounds so raw. Other formats sound like an annoying frequency if listened to repeatedly, whereas I feel vinyl has a much fuller organic sound.”

In an interview with LA Weekly, the creator of the CD Kees A. Schouhamer Immink (2015) said; “As long as you can measure the difference, the CD will be better than the vinyl, absolutely”. He goes on to state that:

“If you say the whole experience — just like smoking cigars with friends — [is better], well, do it. Enjoy smoking cigars with friends, and drink beer and brandy and enjoy listening to an old-fashioned record player. But don’t say the sound is better. You may say it sounds better to you. That’s OK. That’s a subjective matter.” (Immink, 2015)

Paul Stephenson (2015), managing director of audio manufacturer ‘Naim’ acknowledges the functionality of the MP3 format, but sides with audiophiles who want more from their listening experience in a Guardian interview;

You will always get the bare essentials [from MP3], but in terms of changing your life and getting what the composer intended, you are never going to get that from MP3.” (Stephenson 2015)

Paul Rigby (2015) co-owner of Australian based record shop, Zenith Records believes this is only part of the reason why a younger market is starting to reject the MP3 and place more significance on owning a piece of recorded music on the vinyl format. He told the Guardian:

“With the younger folks, the vinyl has become a merchandise item. They’ll buy the T-shirt, they’ll buy the record. They’re collector’s pieces – not strictly a music storage medium. They represent more than that to the younger market,” (Rigby, 2015)

This theory is further cemented by the ICM’s findings in their 2013 report that 27% of all vinyl consumers purchase records without ever intending to play them. When interviewed on this subject, the respondents gave answers like; “It allows me to display the cover in my frame and leave the CD in the rack to play.” And “You can own what is essentially a piece of art in a size where artwork can be appreciated (unlike most CD covers).” (ICM, 2013)

This love for the aesthetics of the vinyl packaging is further echoed by General Manager of Ameoba Records, Rik Sanchez (2015) who told Billboard; “Having a record in your hand is just way cooler than having a file in your iPod”.

Rough Trade Director Steven Godfrey (2014) further supports this idea behind young people purchasing vinyl records:

“I think we are moving into a post-digital age where people do value something that is real – there is a value in its ownership, it is not just a piece of binary code on a mobile phone.”

A nineteen year old east London record shop employee told the BBC of the love for having ownership of a vinyl record, and how he got something out of the experience of owning a physical piece of music: 

“The thing about playing a CD is you put it in, press the button and it plays. This sounds a bit corny but the artist has put so much effort in with vinyl you have to get it out of its sleeve, put the needle on and I think it’s respectful.” (Alex, 2013)

Another example of this respect for the music and artist are the Classic Album Sunday listening parties organised by DJ Cosmo or Colleen Murphy. Murphy (2015) told the Independent;

“We provide a space where people can immerse themselves in an album, played on vinyl in it’s entirety, in a cosy setting with other people and on a world-class audiophile sound system so that people can hear new things and experience it in a way they never have before.”

Nielsen’s study of 4000 music consumers found that there is a significant number of people that would like to experience music in more ways that the industry is currently offering them. Nielsen’s Chief Analytics Officer stated “Fans want more, there is an unmet need there.” (Cited by Peoples, 2013) Their findings also said that even the group Nielsen called “Ambivalent Consumers” (the 22% that spent the lowest amount, $73 on music annually) would buy exclusive content if given the opportunity. The study also found that the potential revenue gap not currently being addressed by the industry was worth between $450 million and $2.6 Billion (Nielsen, 2013).

[Nielsen (2013) Turn It Up: Music Fans Could Be Spending up to $2.6 billion more annually. Available at:–music-fans-could-spend-up-to–2-6b-more-annually.html (Accessed: 30/04/15).]

From looking at the knowledge gained through this research, it is clear that consumers aged 35 and under hold an emotional attachment to music that is contained within the format of the vinyl LP.  Both this, and the community aspect of the listening experience offered by this format suggest areas that could be used to better service 21st century music consumers.

Chapter 5- Analysis of the Findings

Having looked at the pre-existing literature on vinyl records and then researching deeper into the role they play as a consumer product in the 21st century, it is clear that there is a relationship between the rise in digital music sales and the desire for a more tangible consumer experience. This section will now discuss the objectives of the research question through these findings.

A clear theme that emerged during the research was that consumers made a specific choice to buy music on the format of a vinyl LP, even though it is considerably more expensive than other physical (CDs) or digital alternatives (Winkie, 2014). An explanation for this is the way value is placed on the format itself, over and above the content contained placed on or within it. This links in with the (Nokelainen, et all., 2015) theory that purchasing music on the vinyl format is used as a form of expression/statement for the consumer. Brian Solis’s theory of the value of context is synonymous with this behaviour. He states that “we must invest in the calibre of our relationships as well as the calibre of the content we consume, create and share. The answer to what consumers value lies in context” (Solis, 2011). By realising that the vinyl LP is a context in which content is placed, music producers can seek to add value to this context and add value to their business.

A good example of this in action would be the success of the Lazaretto LP, by independent rock act, Jack White. The vinyl edition of the album was christened the “Ultra LP”, and was pressed with various unique traits, such as a floating hologram, reverse playing sides and under label grooves (OfficialTMR, 2014). This added value in the context resulted in 86,700 copies sold in 2014, 28,000 more than it’s nearest vinyl LP competitor, the standard vinyl pressing of AM by The Arctic Monkeys (Nielsen Music, cited by Jonathan, 2015) 

This value of context is again brought forward with the idea that vinyl records are “collector’s pieces – not strictly a music storage medium” (Rigby, 2015) and can explain why people aged under 35 are buying them. Hayes (2006) discovered this was true of young collectors purchasing secondhand records, but it would also appear to be true of the consumer of contemporary releases on the format. This would go some distance to explain the phenomenon of independent record store day, that has become a global event since it’s inception in 2007. Intended to support independent record shops, artists and labels are encouraged to put out limited edition vinyl records that are available in selected shops on that day only (Williamson, 2015). It’s success has sparked involvement from major record labels that have started creating special edition releases for record store day. This has left some consumers feeling alienated by deluxe vinyl versions by huge acts like U2 (Cramp, 2015). This is a counterpoint to Solis’s (2011) “Context is King” theory, as although playing vinyl is seen as a way to “respect” the artists work (Alex, 2013), it would seem a connection must exist first with the music, not the format. This suggests the format that the consumer chooses to purchase the music on is more of a reflection on the consumer, not the artist, and that by purchasing an artists work on a physical format, the consumer feels a deeper connection with the artists work (Nuttall et all., 2011) .

This should be recognised by music producers, especially when taking into account Nielsens findings that, combined, the Aficionado and Big Box Music fans (those most likely to purchase vinyl records) were worth an estimated 48% of all spending on music in the USA in YEAR (Nielsen, 2013). These consumers are the types that would already purchase vinyl, but perhaps the key area for creators to recognise is the Ambivalent consumer, who would spend a lot more on exclusive content if given the chance (People, 2013). One way they are given this chance to spend more is on record store day, so the appeal of the limited edition and tactile attributes of the vinyl LP can potentially stretch to people that do not necessarily regard themselves as fans. The 27% of vinyl consumers that do not own a turntable are further proof of this groups existence, and who place as much value on being able to “own what is essentially a piece of art in a size where artwork can be appreciated” as they do on a listening experience (ICM, 2013).

The use of digital music as a research tool rather than a consumer experience is prevalent among buyers of physical music (Giles, et al., 2007) and sound quality was one of the main reasons why certain consumer purchasing vinyl records over digital files. Stephenson (2015) states: “in terms of changing your life and getting what the composer intended, you are never going to get that from MP3.” This further cements Magaudda’s (2011) findings that digital and physical music are not mutually exclusive for young consumers but the idea among young people that vinyl has a superior and “much fuller organic sound” (ICM, 2013) than other formats available appears to be linked to a psychological and nostalgic thought process. This thought process shows that young people wish to have the ability to listen to digital music, but also want to invest in the artists work on vinyl because “They [Vinyl Lps] represent more than [a music storage medium] to the younger market,” (Rigby 2015).

Kjus (2015) found that young employees felt vinyl “was a bridge to a (romanticised) past, when vinyl was a primary recording medium for artists and everything was different (better)” so this nostalgia is prevelant among vinyl enthusuasts under 35 but the idea of vinyl sounding “better” is refuted by Kees A. Schouhamer Immink. Young consumers feel that the experience of CD’s that “you put it in, press the button and it plays” (ICM, 2013) is not enough but when it comes to the actual sound, Immink (2015) states; “You may say it sounds better to you. That’s OK. That’s a subjective matter”

The physical experience of playing a vinyl record that is tactile and real seems to be the prevailing theme as to why young consumers are turning to vinyl records. Classic Album Sundays where people “can immerse themselves in an album, played on vinyl” through the use of a “world-class audiophile system” won’t necessarily make the sound of the vinyl record more accurate than a CD or Digital File, but the “cosy setting with other people” again suggests the importance of context over content in the 21st century (Murphy, 2015).

Although the secondary research on this topic brought up many interesting theories on why young consumers choose to buy vinyl records, not doing primary research has led to relying on how others have been quoted. This means that the study is not a direct analysis of young consumers and their interest in the vinyl format. A deeper study into how digital consumption affects physical consumption is necessary (Giles, et al., 2007) and although this was one issue addressed in this piece, neither the funds or resources were available to mount a significant primary research project specifically in this area.

This section has critically analysed the findings of the secondary research and related them to the pre-existing literature in an attempt to answer the research questions. The research in this report has lead to the belief that consumers under the age of 35 are main people purchasing vinyl records in the 21st century and do so for a variety of different reasons, with different consumers placing different levels of importance on their favoured features of the format. Though the prevailing theme above all else is the need for an experience that is more tangible than that offered by digital music formats.

Chapter 6- Conclusion

In conclusion, the results of this paper make it apparent that the resurgence in the sales of vinyl records is a direct reaction to the rise in digital music services in the 21st century. Even though it is only among a certain group of consumers, the fact that the upturn in sales is driven by those under 35 would signify that it is a trend that will continue and grow in the future (ICM, 2013). The physical attributes and limited edition releases also seem to be a driving factor in the formats resurgence, especially when consumers are given more value through special edition releases like the Lazaretto LP (Nielsen Music, cited by Jonathan, 2015).

In a world where almost the entire catalogue of recorded music is available to most people through streaming services on their computer or even mobile phones, the desire for certain consumers to have something less disposable is to be expected. Technology has allowed the 21st century music buyer a wealth of choices when it comes to how they choose to purchase the material that they enjoy. This is why Solis’s (2011) theory of “context is king” is a key element to ensure that music fans are given the freedom to purchase music how they want to, not just be told how they will by the industry gatekeepers. The value gap in today’s industry discovered by (Nielsen, 2013) can be addressed through creative releases on all available formats, not just vinyl records, in order to cater for all different types of music consumers in the future.

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Williamson, C (2015) ‘Record Store Day reveals 592 exclusive releases’ Available at: (Accessed: 30/04/15)

Winkie, L. (2014) ‘The Price You Pay: At what cost does the vinyl revolution come,’ Available at: (Accessed: 30/04/15)

Young, N. (2015) ‘Neil Young on his new Digital Music Player and why MP3s are Subpar.’ Interview with Neil Young. Interview by John Horn for Vulture, 16th January. Available at: (Accessed: 30/04/15)


Record Label Profile – Third Man Records


At 10am On Saturday 19th April 2014, Jack White, owner and founder of Third Man Records, took on the challenge of creating the worlds fastest released record. Three Hours, fifty-five minutes and twenty-one seconds later, the task was complete [Moss, M. 2014]. This was all to celebrate independent record store day 2014 because, as Third Man Records slogan says “Your Turntable’s Not Dead” [Third Man Records 2014]. However, is Jack White really the saviour of analogue recording and vinyl records? Or is this just an elaborate way of upping back catalogue sales, enabling him to produce more vanity projects in the future?

This report will look at answering that question by looking at Third Man Records as a label, it’s history and releases, and how it carries out its business in an ever-changing music economy. This economy will also be analyzed to see if there are any practices that could benefit Third Man’s already interesting, innovative, yet niche market approach.


Third Man Records began life in 2001 when The White Stripes signed their first significant label deal with V2. In order to keep control over his master recordings, White set up the label to lease them to V2 in the USA and XL in the UK and Europe. A move that shows a solid level of industry awareness early in his career, turned out to pay dividends when V2 records collapsed in 2007. A loyal fan base created through these 6 years allowed him to rerelease material he regained control of in his own way, with no record label executives to worry about, but it was only in 2009 that a physical premises was built [Modell, J. 2011].

Incorporating label headquarters, record shop, performance space (capable of recording live gigs/sessions) and a novelty outlet selling souvenir like trinkets, White has swallowed up most of the vertical supply chain needed to release a record [Wikström, 2013: 51].

This is a smart vertical integration move, and with the United Record Pressing plant (the only missing link) situated a mere 1.3 miles from Third Man Headquarters, White enjoys a personal relationship with the plant, enabling him to release his strange and unique records [Gold, A. 2011].

Each one of these unique releases is accompanied by a YouTube video featuring Jack and Third Man employees explaining the unique features. That is then shared with their 95,401 Facebook fans and 97,512 Twitter followers [OfficialTMR, 2010]. Although a simple approach to social media, it is effective and relevant to its products and audience.

In terms of then further marketing Third Man’s releases, the 6 year period of success between The White Stripes third album “White Blood Cells” and their last album “Icky Thump” in 2007, helped turn Jack White into one of the 21st Century’s great guitar pioneers. In 2003, White was named the 17th greatest guitar player of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, cementing his status as a guitar hero [White Stripes Biography 2014].

Because of this iconic status, White has become tastemaker, with fans interested in every release on Third Man, simply because it has been released by Jack [Gold, A. 2011]. New garage-rock projects like The Dead Weather & The Racontuers featuring White, plus his own solo material, have greatly improved the labels stature.

The label also reissues blues and rockabilly records by the likes Blind Willie Mitchell, Charley Patton, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. White also reissues White Stripes releases and has collaborated with acts like Beck, Tom Jones and Wanda Jackson for label exclusive vinyl releases [Third Man Records 2014].

Third Man also signs artists for development projects, including; The Black Belles, Whirlwind Heat, The Greenhornes and Kelley Stoltz, who all have a similar garage rock sound to White’s material. Karen Elson, Pokey LaFarge and The Haden Triplets have a more country feel to their music, a style which is clearly very close to Jack’s heart, and can also be heard throughout White’s own tracks [Third Man Records 2014]. Solo blues artist Seasick Steve is also signed to Third Man Records, who’s most recent album, ‘Hubcap Music’ reached the top 20 in the UK when it was leased to Fiction records [Fiction Records 2014], suggesting that Third Man may be a little more than just Jack White’s plaything. [Official Charts Company 2014].

The most interesting of Third Man’s releases though are their “Vault Packages”, a quarterly subscription service offering online bonus material [Michaels, S. 2011]. They contain a brand new exclusive 12” LP, an exclusive 7” Single and a Bonus Item in one package 4 times a year. This costs $60 a quarter plus $20 shipping for international subscribers. This works out as $360 per year (£215) for UK customers, almost double that of an annual Spotify Premium service. There is also no guarantee of what the next package will be. It could be a new solo album from White, (Package 20) or a bunch of live recordings from an older Wanda Jackson, arguably past her prime (Package 9) [Third Man Records 2014]. This is an intriguing business model at a time where online internet subscription services such as Deezer, Netflix and Spotify are changing the way the public consume different forms of copyright. Perhaps offering something physical at a slightly higher premium, combined with online content, could be a way of enticing more of the general public into subscription streaming services. Though it could be debated that this could not work on a mass-market level, and would only work effectively in niche markets, such as the one that Third Man operates in.

Jack White clearly believes in that niche market; “We need to re-educate ourselves about human interaction and the difference between downloading a track on a computer, and talking to other people in person and getting turned on to music that you can hold in your hands and share with others” [Michaels, S. 2011]. So its obvious that Third Man Records has set up in opposition to the culture of digital downloading. However, this is could be seen more as a marketing exercise because a quick search of the iTunes Store will find most of Third Man records releases available for download [iTunes, 2014]. This backs up the idea of White using gimmicky releases to thrive of the press generated. Only an incredibly limited number of people in Nashville were able to purchase the world’s first liquid filled record on record store day in 2012, but the mass of attention gained through releasing such a product had the potential to increase his digital and regular physical sales significantly [Peoples. G. 2012].

Among these physical sales are CDs, however, they are limited to only to the artists that are signed to Third Man. Presumably because White still sees their importance in the growth and development of an artist, and the size of the global CD market. All of Third Man’s vinyl and CDs are distributed in the UK by Forte Distribution [Forte, 2014] and White himself also has a record deal with XL records. One of the UK’s largest independent labels XL is home to Adele, The Horrors and Radiohead. XL records stock and release White’s solo projects and White Stripes albums in the UK (including UK digital releases on iTunes) but XL does not have much input in the releases themselves as they are leased from Third Man [XL, 2012]

From vinyl to CD to MP3 to streaming, the change in music formats has always gone hand in hand with technological advancements that have continued to present fresh challenges to both major and independent labels. As the Internet has developed, the recording industry has had less control over the flow of its copyrighted material. Increased connectivity led to peer-to-peer file sharing sites presenting a massive piracy problem for the whole industry, which may have lead to irreversible damage to the value of intellectual property [Wikström, 2013: 6].

One way Third Man Records has reacted to these changes is by encouraging increased connectivity between fans and the label itself, with its aforementioned vault subscription service. Releasing what Jack White calls an “Ultra LP”, a reverse playing record with holograms and locked grooves, also shows a desire to give value to the physical product, not just using it as a vehicle for different copyrights [Beaumont-Thomas, B. 2014]. Not only does it generate great press and further his stance on being anti digital music, but it could also be an example to the rest of the industry. Perhaps more thought could be put into the design and release of its physical products as the mainstream CD buying public still count for 69.8% of the album sales market [Jones. R, 2014]

If Third Man started catering to this market, the label could expand greatly. Improving the quality of its CD releases (limited editions, box sets etc.) has the potential to tap into a whole new mass-market audience.

Being an independent label allows releases and projects to not be purely profit driven and can be created for more artistic reasons, especially when they are owned by an artist themselves. Major record labels are business, and so have shareholders to account to at the end of every financial year. This leads to major labels searching for the next big hit in order to generate maximum revenue. Although this is clearly a very successful approach, it is argued that major labels are unable to allow the creative freedom offered by smaller independents [Harrison, 2011: 63].

From the nature of Third Man’s special releases, it can be assumed that creative freedom and innovation are championed above the need for profit. The label itself is still a business though, regardless of the money that can be ploughed into it from White’s royalty cheques [Gold, A. 2011]. Artist run labels are an interesting business model, and what they can potentially offer their rosters is a contentious issue. On one hand their career could be propelled to heights previously unattainable to them, whilst being inspired by the creative owner to make better records. A good example of this would be The Smoke Fairies, who garnered so much attention from being the first UK band to release a single on Third Man records (that Jack White produced and played on), that their debut album skipped a release on White’s label and came straight out on V2 [Independent, 2010].

This is not always the case however, with artist owned labels sometimes being highly idiosyncratic and therefore, releasing only material that is either self-indulgent or sounds like cut rate versions of the owners hits. Though this argument could be levelled at some of Third Mans artists, there have arguably been worse. The Beatles, after the release of some of the greatest albums in history, started Apple records. Apple released experimental solo projects by John Lennon and George Harrison that are very challenging, and now only focuses on a steady flow of Beatles reissues. Paul Weller’s failed Respond records, and Noel Gallagher’s defunct Big Brother Records lacked success. [Petridis. A, 2010]. This is surprising, given their owners musical pedigree, but are further examples of the negative impact artists can have when they try their hand at being the A&R guy.

White’s pedigree allows him to collaborate with high profile acts, most recently Neil Young, who released a covers album recorded live in a 1947 recording booth. Young’s most recent innovation, the Pono music player, has seen him become the most credible face in digital music, promising digital audio at 24-bit sample rate to “bring music back to life” [Barry, R. 2014]. Although there are many sceptics, Jack White has come out in support of the device [Pono 2014]. This could be a way for Third Man Records to grow, by venturing further into the world of digital music; partnering with Pono, providing high quality digital music, whilst still opposing the MP3 format.


Through a combination of placing more value on physical releases and realising the internet has the potential to allow niche markets to flourish, Third Man records seems to be a stable, secure, yet idiosyncratic label. White’s bank balance allows him to indulge in weird and wonderful marketing campaigns fuelled by his genuine love for vinyl records, resulting in far reaching press that increases the labels profile [Beaumont-Thomas, B. 2014]. The artists the label signs and develops are either in the same garage-rock style as White himself, or are playing music akin to his influences, that can be sold to a specific audience. Third Man has identified that this audience places authenticity above all else when purchasing its music, and there is a high degree of authenticity in analogue recordings contained on vinyl LPs. The resurgence of Vinyl has primarily been in this small market that Third Man operates in [Dredge. S 2013]. If this format, almost consigned to the history books, becomes something for more than just the niche market enthusiasts, White’s innovative releases will be a huge part of reminding the general public that “Your Turntable Is Not Dead” [Third Man Records, 2014]

Reference List:

Barry, R. (2014) Oh No Pono: The Trouble With Neil Youngs New Player. Available at: (13/05/14).

Beaumont-Thomas, B. (2014) Jack White Creates Ultra vinyl containing hidden tracks and holograms  Available at: 29/04/14).

Dredge S. (2013) Daft Punk & David Bowie Helped UK Vinyl Sales Double in 2013

Available at: 29/04/14).

Fiction Records Seasick Steve (2014) Available at: (Accessed: 13/05/14).

Forte Third Man Records (2014) Available at: (Accessed: 29/04/14).

Gold, A. (2011) Jack White’s Third Man Records Tells The World: Your Music City Is Not Dead. Available at: (Accessed: 29/04/14).

Harrison, A. (2011). Music: The Business – The Essential Guide to the Law and the Deals. London: Virgin Books.

Independent So Who Runs The Record Labels Now (2010) Available at: (Accessed: 29/04/14).

iTunes Preview The Black Belles (2014) Available at: (Accessed: 29/04/14).

Jones, R. (2014) ‘Let’s Get Physical’, Music Week, Issue 14.03.14, Page 1 

Michaels, S. (2013) Jack White’s named Record Store Day Ambassador. Available at: (Accessed: 29/04/14).

Michaels, S. (2011) Jack White’s label launches subscription service. Available at: (Accessed: 29/04/14).

Modell, J. (2011) Pop Pilgrims: We Visit Jack White’s Magic Factory, Third Man Records In Nashville. Available at: (Accessed: 29/04/14).

Moss, M. (2014)  Inside Jack White’s World’s Fastest Record

. Available at: (Accessed: 29/04/14).

Official Charts Company Seasick Steve (2014) Available at: 29/04/14).

Official TMR (2010) Triple Decker Record. Available at: (Accessed: 13/05/14).

Peoples, G. (2012) Record Store Day Nashville: Liquid Filled Jack White Records at Third Man; JEFF The Brotherhood Rock Grimey’s. Available at: (Accessed: 29/04/14).

Petridis. A (2010) Why Artist Run Labels Dissapoint

Available at: (Accessed: 29/04/14).

Pono Testimonials (2014) Available at: (Accessed: 13/05/14).

Third Man Records About (2014) Available at: 29/04/14).

Third Man Records Artists (2014) Available at: 29/04/14).

White Stripes Biography (2014) Available at: (Accessed: 29/04/14).

Wikström, P. (2013). The Music Industry: Music in the Cloud. 2nd ed. United Kingdom: Polity Press.

XL Records The White Stripes (2012) Available at: 29/04/14).