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Vinyl Sales Slump Quality Blamed

A move to making vinyl records from digital files instead of the original analogue recordings is causing concern in the industry with sales slumping in the first half of 2017.

In the first half of 2015, sales of vinyl records jumped 38% compared to the same period the prior year, to 5.6 million units, Nielsen Music data show.

A year later, growth slowed to 12%. This year, sales rose a modest 2%. “It’s flattening out,” says Steve Sheldon, president of Los Angeles pressing plant Rainbo Records. While he doesn’t see a bubble bursting—plants are busy—he believes vinyl is “getting close to plateauing.”

Despite the resurgence of vinyl records in recent years, the quality of new LPs are not as good as “old” LP’s claim observers because record Companies are resorting to laying down vinyl from digital sources.

Old LPs were cut from analogue tapes—that’s why they sound so high quality.

But most of today’s new and re-issued vinyl albums—around 80% or more, several experts estimate—start from digital files, even lower-quality CDs.

These digital files are often loud and harsh-sounding, optimized for ear-buds, not living rooms. So, the new vinyl LP is sometimes inferior to what a consumer hears on a CD says Michael Fremer, editor of AnalogPlanet.com and one of America’s leading audio authorities.

“They’re re-issuing [old albums] and not using the original tapes” to save time and money, “They have the tapes. They could take them out and have it done right—by a good engineer. They don’t.”

When labels advertise a re-issued classic as mastered from the original analogue tapes, the source can be more complicated.

Sometimes they are a hodgepodge of digital and analogue. Often “labels are kind of hiding what’s really happening,” says Russell Elevado, a veteran studio engineer and producer who has earned two Grammys working with R&B singer D’Angelo.

Major labels say they use original analogue masters when possible. Sometimes tapes are too brittle to be used to make a vinyl master. Low-quality re-issues may be the result of less-reputable labels that can’t afford to shell out big bucks for engineering and record-pressing, says Billy Fields, a veteran vinyl expert at Warner Music Group.

Universal Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment, the two other leading music companies, didn’t make anyone available to comment.

Today’s digital files can sound fantastic—especially for hip-hop and dance music. But engineers say they need to be mastered separately for vinyl to have the right sound.

To meet deadlines for releasing new albums, labels can’t always cut vinyl to the absolute best audio quality, says Fremer, who declined to discuss specific examples on the record because it might alienate others in the industry.

Another culprit for vinyl’s slowdown is cost: analysts estimate vinyl has gone up four to six dollars per album in recent years. So-called “180-gram” or “audiophile” records, marketed as higher quality, can cost $30 to $40. Their heaviness makes them more stable during playing, experts claim and as such records might last longer. But any sound differences are “very marginal.”