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Record players: vinyl sales overtake CDs for the first time since 1986

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The vinyl revival is alive and kicking, as a new report reveals that record sales have overtaken CDs for the first time since 1986. 

The 2020 end of year report from the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) found that in 2020, vinyl sales grew 28.7% to $626 million, while revenues from CDs declined 23% to $483 million, continuing a long-term decline that started when music downloads and streaming came in vogue.

While the report notes that vinyl still still only accounts for 5.2% of total music sales – which is heavily dominated by streaming – the fact that the older physical format is thriving as CDs continue to languish speaks to our enduring fascination with turntables and records.

Bye bye downloads

It's not just CDs that are in decline. According to the report, downloads accounted for only 6% of total recorded music revenues in 2020, a format was once thought to have seen in the demise of physical formats. 

Soon after its introduction, digital music downloading soon gave way to music streaming, with the birth of Spotify in 2006 giving people access to a huge library of both popular and underground music for free (although most music streaming services offer a ‘freemium’ model, whereby you can pay for extra features). 

In spite of the popularity of music streaming, vinyl is continuing to grow as other formats decline. Since 2006, record sales have been rising steadily, and while they still make up a marginal percentage of music revenue, there can be no doubt that we’re in the midst of a vinyl revival. 

One reason for its survival could be put down to a feeling of nostalgia for the tangibility of physical records; the pride of owning your own music collection was largely erased when the industry went digital.

The record players of today are getting better all the time, too, with features like wireless connectivity making them more accessible to younger enthusiasts who don't want the fuss of lots of cables.

There’s also the small matter of how vinyl sounds. The warm analogue sound of a record spinning on a turntable brings a different flavor to music, with pops and crackles adding a charm that many find superior to the clean sound of streamed songs. 

Nostalgia or not, the news that vinyl sales have overtaken CDs isn't a sign that we're going back to the 80s. As What Hi-Fi? points out, 1986 was the year that cassettes dominated, making up 54% of all albums sold.

The biggest releases included Janet Jackson’s Control, Madonna’s True Blue and Lionel Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling. Meanwhile the biggest vinyl releases of last year were Harry Styles’ Fine Line with 232,000 sales and Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? with 196,000 sales. 

These are artists with lots of young fans, which suggests that the vinyl revival isn't just down to people who had record players back in the 80s – and without speculating too much as to the demographics of these vinyl buyers, it's fair to say that a good proportion of record player enthusiasts are millennials and 'zoomers'. 

Whatever your opinion on the music that inhabits records today, there's no doubt: vinyl is here to stay, and interest from the younger generations will be crucial in its continued survival.

Olivia Tambini

Olivia is TechRadar's Audio & Music Editor, covering everything from headphones to music streaming services. Based in TechRadar's London offices, she's a popular music graduate who worked in the music industry before finding her calling in journalism. She's previously been interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live on the subject of multi-room audio, chaired panel discussions on diversity in music festival lineups, and her bylines include T3, Stereoboard, Top Ten Reviews Creative Bloq, and Croco Magazine.  In her spare time Olivia likes gardening, painting, and hanging with her cat Ethel and golden retriever Dora.