Vinyl is a quaint, but fundamentally flawed substrate for music. Print has never been a substandard magazine substrate. But that’s not the only way comparing print magazines with vinyl records is unhelpful.

I like buying vinyl albums, adding to my small but perfectly formed record collection. And I like the ritual involved in playing them – taking one off the shelf, getting it out of its sleeve, putting it on the turntable and setting the needle down to listen.

But this post isn’t about my rediscovered relationship with records. It’s about the irritation I feel when I see the comparisons, frequently made, between print and vinyl.

Legacy mediums

Comparing two legacy media formats is completely understandable. Both have been displaced to a greater or lesser extent by digital alternatives. Just as CDs began to eat into album sales in the late 80s, and music streaming has decimated CD sales more recently, the web, tablets and phones have seriously dented the market for print magazines.

And the repositioning of vinyl albums as artifacts worthy of collection is a familiar feature of the modern magazine landscape. High-end indie titles are certainly closer to coffee table books than old-school throwaway reads and even newsstand magazine publishers have jumped into the  collectibles space, with tightly curated bookazines packaging up specialist content raided from their own archives.

The uptick in the popularity of vinyl and some print can also be seen as a reaction to the never-own-anything digital economy. People are nostalgic for stuff that they can touch and display as a very visible identifier of who they are.

But while print magazine and LP buyers can be seen as united in swimming against the digital stream, the formats and the businesses delivering them are deeply different.

Quaint, but flawed

If I’m being completely honest, I started writing this piece in a low-level rage induced by yet another ‘magazines make vinyl-style comeback’ article. I get it, I do, but it’s unhelpful on so many levels.

The first thing that bugs me is the comparison between a perfectly functional format and a deeply flawed one. Vinyl is a quaint but not great substrate for music.

Back in the day I could not wait to ditch my records for CDs. When vinyl is your only listening option and your approach to stuff is more mindless clutz than museum curator, it’s a massive pain in the arse. The scratches on my records weren’t a quaint reminder of the analogue space we inhabit: they were an annoying, sometimes catastrophic, impediment to my listening pleasure.

There are dozens of arguments against streaming, but the quality of audio – surely the actual point of recorded music – isn’t one. In contrast, print has never been a substandard substrate for words and pictures. Different from digital, 100%, but never worse.

You don’t need specialist equipment to read a magazine. No one ever bought an album at a train station because they wanted something to keep them occupied on a three-hour journey. And short of, maybe, a Sub-Pop singles club subscription, the vinyl release and purchase cycle of bands is vastly different than media brands.

The Grub Street Journal

Different markets

My second, and probably more important bugbear, is that the markets for print magazines and vinyl albums are very different. Equating them on the back of a supposed nostalgia fuelled anti-digital backlash misses two vital points.

  1. Print magazines never went away
  2. Print magazine sales are shrinking

Production of vinyl records more or less died out in the late 80s, with only the most ardent audiophiles staying loyal to the format. Since the vinyl revival began in 2006, sales in the US have seen a 48-fold increase with sales growth steady over 15 or 16 years. Sales growth in the UK has been similar. Now accounting for over 30% of physical music, UK vinyl sales reached their highest level last year in over 30 years.

Compare that with a print market where sales revenue and volume has declined steadily over the same period, but where producers still see as much as 80% of their revenue coming from print magazines.

The notion that some sectors of the print magazine market are enjoying a vinyl-style revival ignores both the continuing revenue associated with the format, and on the flip side, the industry’s generally negative attitude to the format.

In contrast to a publishing industry ethos of managed decline, music companies are embracing vinyl as an opportunity. In 2017, only three of the year’s 10 biggest selling vinyl LPs were released that year. In 2022, eight of the year’s Top 10 titles were new releases.

Managed decline

This, mostly, isn’t the case for major magazine publishers who see print as an exercise in managed decline.

While sales of the UK’s top selling magazine’s have been falling consistently since 2005, print still accounts for a healthy percentage of revenues at most publishers. According to the annual mediafuture’s survey, print revenues average 46% for UK magazine publishers. That’s forecast to drop to 40% over the next couple of years, but it’s still significant.

Globally, print matters even more. According to PwC’s Global Entertainment and Media Outlook 2022-2026 report, although the print magazine market is shrinking, it will still account for 75% of total magazine revenues in 2026.

There is no question that print is having a moment, from the launch of Future’s The Blend luxury lifestyle title to the relaunch of an NME bi-monthly. But for the most part, rather than mirroring the music industry’s investment in new content on an old format, publishers are trying to figure out how to wind down their print output while desperately trying to grow digital revenues enough to back fill the shortfall.

New opportunities, not nostalgia

Why does all this annoy me so much? When commentators pigeon-hole print as a superniche artifact play, like vinyl, it marginalises the product, a product that is still central to most publisher’s revenue mixes.

I worry that the end-game in that scenario is fewer print magazines produced at scale and more magazines produced by the magazine equivalent of DIY record labels, who released some of the best music ever made, but struggled to pay their artists.

And what’s my point? It’s that, if publishers see any comparison between print and vinyl, they should see the new opportunities not the nostalgia. They should see any interest in print, however niche, as a chance to add value to digital outputs.

Reimagining print’s place in publishing portfolios the way record companies have reimagined vinyl is an opportunity to swap the day-to-day challenges of managing the decline of print for real, sustained growth.

That would be a comparison I could get behind.

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