Ed Sheeran's Vinyls

Market Share is a Zero-Sum Game

For the last few years, our income from recorded music has been split more or less 50/50 between physical media (LPs, almost exclusively) and digital.

I’ve written often about the structure of payments to artists from streaming, and as a member of the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) I’ve been advocating for improvements as the industry leans more and more heavily on them. What I didn’t see coming is that the other half of our recorded music income – from physical media – could disappear almost overnight. Consumer behavior doesn’t change that fast, especially among older fans. But supply chains apparently do.

Naomi’s and my new album was released on August 6 – digitally – and here we are in November still waiting for the vinyl even to be scheduled for manufacture. If we manage to get this LP out in the first half of 2022 we’ll be lucky – I’m told that projects submitted today are being given dates in 2023.

This excruciating delay isn’t limited to new albums - we can’t schedule restocks for the Galaxie 500 catalogue on LP, either. And when inventory at our distributor hits zero, so does our income from physical media.

50% is a lot to lose!

But not everyone is losing. Adele’s new album is being released this month with 500,000 LPs ready in time for Christmas. So are LPs by Taylor Swift, ABBA, and – maybe not last but surely least, as far as I’m concerned – Ed Sheeran. As Sheeran told a radio interviewer in Australia:

“Adele had basically booked out all the vinyl factories, so we had to get a slot and get our album in there. It was like me, Coldplay, Adele, Taylor, ABBA, Elton, all of us were trying to get our vinyls printed at the same time.”

You might wonder where all those vinyls go, once they leave the vinyl factory. Naturally, they’re sold at a “vinyl shop.” Here’s a photo taken by AC Newman (of New Pornographers) at Target:

I count only about 30 titles in that aisle, but each may have been manufactured in tens or perhaps even hundreds of thousands while the rest of us wait. And wait. And wait.

Why does Ed Sheeran – who holds the record for most streamed song on Spotify – even care about “vinyls”?

One possibility is chart position. As Ben Sisario explained in the Times, Sheeran’s “latest turn at No. 1 owes a lot to old-fashioned album sales.” The 62 million streams of Sheeran’s new songs in their first week of release accounted for less than 40% of the “album-equivalent units” earning him the top slot, the rest came from actual sales: 33k downloads, and 35k physical units including 9,000 LPs.

9,000 LPs? That’s indie territory – it doesn’t sound like the blockbuster figures one might expect Ed Sheeran to be fussing with. But as far as charts are concerned, those 9,000 LPs are worth 13.5 million streams – a boost of more than 20% to Sheeran’s streaming numbers for his No. 1 week. Not inconsiderable.

Still, even if his handlers foresaw the role that physical media would play in reaching top of the charts, Sheeran’s CDs outsell his LPs three to one. It’s hard to believe the format with his fewest potential sales was so crucial to a release strategy.

BREAKING: Our distributor has just informed us that a paper shortage has now hit LP jacket printers, adding yet more time to production delays. 2022 is looking increasingly iffy…

Back to Sheeran’s vinyls. He certainly doesn’t need the money from those LP sales. Vinyl is expensive to manufacture and as a result, its margins are relatively slim. Whatever he can clear in profit from 9,000 units, I don’t see him getting very excited about it.

If it’s not for the charts, and it’s not for money, is it prestige? For someone who calls them “vinyls?”

No, I think the significance of LPs for an artist like Sheeran – or most any of the other 30 artists represented in the vinyl shop at Target - is very little. Like so much in our economy right now, a drive for market dominance can have nothing to do with anything other than a drive for market dominance. If music was being pressed into cheese by some artisanal musical cheesemaker, Sheeran would be pressed into cheese. Why ignore the musical cheese market, if you can dominate that too? It’s the logic of consolidation, of grabbing market share, of wannabe monopolies.

On behalf of UMAW, I was recently invited to attend a roundtable for small business representatives to speak with the new Chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Lina Khan. I was one of the only people there connected to music, but it was remarkable how similar our testimonies were to those by farmers, pharmacists, grocers, brewers, wine and spirits wholesalers, journalists, even small entrepreneurs. Each of us described the same struggle to keep our independent business functioning despite intense consolidation in our industry. Identical problems emerged in everyone’s discussion: domination of the supply chain and distribution by the biggest players, methodical elimination of competition through advantages of scale, the maximizing of market share by a handful of corporations and tech platforms. Chair Khan listened intently; she brings a scholar’s knowledge of antitrust law and history to the job.

I didn’t mention Ed Sheeran or Adele or god forbid Taylor Swift in my testimony – you never know who’s a rabid fan – but vinyl production problems for records that won’t be stocked at Target is a perfect example of what is happening across industries in this moment of corporate oligarchy. There’s nowhere to hide from those intent on market domination – they won’t leave our small scale businesses alone, even though what we represent in dollar amounts is too little for them to really care.  

Nine thousand LPs are nothing to Ed Sheeran. But they are a means to survival for independent artists like me. My records aren’t sold in Target, and Ed Sheeran’s don’t show up in what I consider real record stores. Yet to those driving the consolidation in our industries, market share is always a zero-sum game. And Ed’s 9,000 vinyls are in direct competition with Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi LPs.

Blessed are the cheesemakers, who go about their day making a modest living without trying to put anyone else out of business. “Oh it’s the meek! Blessed are the meek… That’s nice innit, I’m glad they’re getting something cause they have a helluva time.”

Listening to: Used LPs

Cooking: Applesauce, to put up for winter