The vinyl revival is coming to a crashing halt – but don't blame Taylor Swift

Retail store display of Taylor Swift's album Midnights in LP and CD formats
(Image credit: Shutterstock / melissamn)

The vinyl record revival counts among the music industry’s more interesting recent trends, and it’s one that has allowed for Gen Zers and Millennials to find common ground with older generations through a shared admiration for a somewhat outmoded tech format.

But after years of meteoric growth – 17 consecutive years, to be precise – sales of vinyl records in the U.S. have stalled. That news comes via Billboard, which, citing data in the U.S. 2022 Luminate Year-End Music Report, notes that vinyl sales in 2022 rose a mere 4.2% over the previous year.

When you compare that figure to sales numbers for the prior two years, with 46.2% and 51.4% year-over-year increases in 2020 and 2021, respectively, it’s clear that the vinyl record revival has not just hit the brakes, but skidded off the track. How this impacts future sales of the best turntables is unclear, but another data point from the Luminate report indicates playback hardware isn’t even at issue since 50% of consumers who had bought vinyl over the previous 12 months don’t even own a record player.

50% of consumers who had bought vinyl over the previous 12 months don’t even own a record player"

Turntable owners, a group I belong to, might find the idea of buying vinyl just for show and not play confounding. But what’s really going on behind the scenes here is sheer fan frenzy for collectibles that bring them closer to their favorite artists – Taylor Swift, for instance.

Vinyl numbers in 2022 actually would have been much worse if not for the release of Taylor Swift’s Midnights, the year’s top LP with 945,000 copies sold. According to Billboard, Midnights is the highest selling vinyl record since Luminate started tracking sales for the category back in 1991. Not only that, but Swift’s Folklore was the number seven best-selling record in 2022, and her full catalog generated 1.695 million sales of vinyl records in the U.S.

When it comes to vinyl, Taylor Swift is clearly bigger than The Beatles (who had only one entry in 2022’s top-sellers list, Revolver at number 18). But is Taylor Swift’s monolithic presence on the analog LP scene good for the vinyl recording industry as a whole?

Taylor Swift isn’t vinyl’s problem, the recording industry is 

Some Twitter pundits have dumped blame for vinyl’s current malaise on Taylor Swift and other mass-selling artists who effectively monopolize production capacity at pressing plants with their new releases. The requirement to crank out millions of Taylor Swift records means independent artists and ones with a smaller fan base go to the back of the production line, and as a result they can’t easily get vinyl in the hands of fans when a recording is released.

And the issue isn’t just basic runs of popular titles like Midnights. Taylor Swift’s release strategy for the album involved multiple color options, including a Blood Moon Edition, and retailers like Target in the U.S. have offered an exclusive Midnights lavender color edition. There are also four different back cover artwork variants, and when you piece them together in puzzle-like fashion they form a clock face. If you’re a hardcore Swift fan, you’re clearly going to want several, if not all, of these vinyl versions, even if you have no intention to drop a needle on any of them. 

Taylor Swift isn’t the first to toy with multiple LP artwork options – Led Zeppelin did the same for their 1979 release In Through the Out Door, which won a Grammy Award that year for best album artwork. So there’s precedence for what Swift is doing, with the difference this time around being that the recording industry has a diminished vinyl production pipeline.

Is that Swift’s fault? Of course not. The recording industry should have responded much earlier to the upward vinyl sales trend – which had been going on for 17 years — by investing in new manufacturing capacity. That case is made very clearly by culture critic Ted Gioia in his The Honest Broker substack, which further skewers the record labels for charging absurdly high prices for new vinyl releases, and specifically re-releases.

With limited music label investment in record pressing plants over the past two decades, it’s no wonder that when a monster hit like Midnights comes along and is issued on vinyl in multiple hues and artwork variations, it overwhelms the system. But that situation could change this year with more plants coming online, and U.S. states like Tennessee even making a bid to become a vinyl producing hub.

Once that happens, we’ll be able to get a better sense of whether the current slowdown in vinyl sales is pipeline-related, or if new vinyl collecting is a trend that has peaked – with Taylor Swift getting the final spin.

Al Griffin
Senior Editor Home Entertainment, US

Al Griffin has been writing about and reviewing A/V tech since the days LaserDiscs roamed the earth, and was previously the editor of Sound & Vision magazine. 

When not reviewing the latest and greatest gear or watching movies at home, he can usually be found out and about on a bike.