Spin the Black Circle

Taylor Swift has taken Pearl Jam's long love of vinyl to the next (commercial) level...
Taylor Swift Sells a Rainbow of Vinyl Albums
Artists across pop genres are finding success with colored vinyl and different variants of their releases. For Swifties, the urge to collect them all is strong.

This year's "Barbenheimer" – at least in my household – has been the simultaneous release of the new albums by both Pearl Jam and Taylor Swift on the same day, this past Friday. But it turns out the two artist have something else in common: a deep passion for vinyl. As in, records – aka "LPs":

But nobody does it quite like Swift, or at least at the same scale. Last year she sold 3.5 million LPs in the United States, thanks in part to five pastel-hued variants of “1989 (Taylor’s Version),” a rerecording of her 2014 album, and the popularity of Swift’s entire catalog during her record-breaking Eras Tour.

3.5 million! Records! And that followed nine (!) vinyl editions of "Folklore" in 2020. This was followed up by six vinyl versions of "Midnight" in 2022 – notably in several different colors, which led to a collectors boom.

When Swift’s latest album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” comes out on Friday, it will be available in a portfolio of different versions — on vinyl, CD and even cassette — with bonus tracks and, on certain “deluxe” editions sold through Swift’s website, trinkets like magnets, photo cards and engraved bookmarks. Some items, like a standard CD, go for as little as $13. But last weekend, Swift’s site offered a limited run of autographed LPs for $50, which, according to fans on social media, vanished in 20 minutes.

Cassettes! With vinyl, people at least try to make the argument that "it sounds better" – which again, Pearl Jam has been doing for years, way before it was cool (again).1 I mean, in 1994 the first single from "Vitalogy" was "Spin the Black Circle". I'm not sure what case you can make for cassettes, beyond the format being even harder to use than vinyl, so you get more hipster cred, I guess. But really, it's just the collectability element now.

“Vinyl collecting fits so well into Taylor’s fandom,” Hammers said, “because we’ve always collected Taylor-related things like clothing, general merchandise, CDs and even confetti.”

It is a global phenomenon, driven in part by the far greater revenues that artists can earn from physical products in the age of streaming, when per-click royalties are infinitesimal. Of the 10 most popular albums around the world last year, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, two were by Swift and five were by K-pop acts. Vinyl collecting also spiked during the Covid-19 pandemic, exacerbating supply-chain problems and resulting in monthslong delays, though wait times have since lessened.

But I mean, this is just next-level:

Most ingeniously, a sequence of numbers on the back covers of the four standard “Midnights” LPs, when arranged in a grid, formed the hours of a clock. For $49, Swift’s site also sold shelves and a working timepiece to go with them. In its opening week, “Midnights” sold 1.1 million copies as a complete package, the first time any album had crossed the million mark in pure sales since Swift’s own “Reputation,” five years earlier.

And it worked, of course:

As of last week, “Midnights” has had the equivalent of 7.1 million album sales in the United States, with streaming making up about 58 percent of that total, according to Luminate. But about 2.5 million copies — 35 percent of the album’s total consumption — were sold on physical media. The most popular version, with nearly 460,000 sales, was the “lavender” CD, with three extra tracks, sold at Target stores. (That figure does not represent all of Target’s sales of the album.) The lone cassette version, issued in “moonstone blue,” sold 17,000 copies and is now being offered for upward of $100 on resale sites like eBay and Discogs.

2.5 million sales of physical media for a new album in the 2020s is just insane. Those are the physical numbers Pearl Jam would move in the 1990s – well before the era of streaming, of course.2

One more thing:

In recent years, collectible packaging, particularly in the form of multicolored vinyl, has become de rigueur for virtually any major artist hoping for a No. 1 debut, from Olivia Rodrigo and Beyoncé to Harry Styles and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In a streaming-dominated era, when digital music offers nothing tangible for fans to display as a totem, a rainbow of vinyl variants is one draw for fans; versions with extra tracks, sold through exclusive deals with Target, Walmart or indie shops, are another.

All the cool kids are partnering with Walmart on exclusive product these days...

1 In 1994, Pearl Jam released "Vitalogy" on vinyl exclusively before the CD release. This set a single week vinyl sales mark which it held for twenty years.

2 For the record, Pearl Jam's albums in the 1990s (in the US): "Ten" sold 13 million copies, "Vs." sold 7 million, "Vitalogy" 5 million, "No Code" 1 million, "Yield" 1 million. And a special shout-out to "Vs.", which sold almost 1 million copies in its first week on sale in 1993, which was a record at the time (and stood for five years, in the heyday of CDs).