by Kevin Erickson, Communications Associate
Urban Ouftitters is now claiming to be the “world’s number one vinyl seller.” According to Buzzfeed, Calvin Hollinger, chief administrative officer for the Philadelphia-based clothing retail chain made the claim in a meeting with analysts yesterday: “Music is very, very important to the Urban customer…in fact, we are the world’s number one vinyl seller.”
Hollinger’s claim hasn’t been sourced or verified, but even if technically true, it could easily be misleading; the reality is that independent record stores certainly sell more vinyl than Urban Outfitters, but they don’t have a single corporate owner. (Update 9/29/2014: Ed Christman at Billboard confirms that indie store market share is far larger than Urban Outfitters, and also discovers that Amazon, not Urban Outfitters, sells the largest volume of any single corporate retailer.)
To put this data point in context, you have to think through the larger changes in music retail. While standalone chain music stores like Sam Goody and Tower Records once dominated physical retail, the niche they once occupied has been filled in by 1) big box megastores like Target and Best Buy—mostly selling the biggest mainstream releases 2) independent record stores—serving their communities as they’ve always done with a diverse selection and personal curation and 3) online retailers (from centralized outlets like Insound to general retailers like Amazon to direct sales from labels and bands). Big box retailers dominate CD sales, but mostly haven’t gotten seriously interested in stocking vinyl, so it’s not surprising that between 200+ stores in major markets and an online storefront, Urban Outfitters could achieve numbers that outpace any other single retailer.
The news reports made me curious, so this afternoon, I visited our local Urban Outfitters (in DC’s Chinatown neighborhood) to check out their offerings. I found a small selection, heavy on major label reissues, but with a few indie gems. The prices were notably higher than any of the independent stores in town, and weirdly, if somehow unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a single local release; a pretty serious oversight in a city with as rich a musical legacy as DC’s. There were a number of turntables for sale; unfortunately, they were the inexpensive faux-vintage Crosley variety which sound terrible and have a reputation for destroying records.
Most amusing was the window display of “employee picks,” emulating a ubiqutious feature of indie stores, though such displays don’t usually include multiplatinum releases from decades past like Nirvana’s Unplugged and Outkast’s Aquameni.
Urban Outfitters probably has played a supporting role in the vinyl revival, and perhaps deserves some credit for making the format available as an entry point for certain young consumers for whom a shopping mall is more geographically accessible than an actual record store. But it would be a big mistake to think that the retailer has a dominant role in the marketplace the way that iTunes, for example, utterly dominates the digital download market.
(It’s also worth mentioning here that complete and accurate numbers tracking the resurgence of vinyl sales can be hard to find, because the format is especially popular in niche/collector/microindie communities that aren’t necessarily reporting to Soundscan or working through distributors that do.)
Of course, as long as it means artists are getting paid, we’re pleased whenever record sales (and licensed band merchandise sales) go up. But there are reasons to question how artist-friendly Urban Outfitters is, given the company’s repeated issues with plagiarizing independent designers who can’t afford legal counsel to sue for copyright infringement (this, incidentally, is a good case for the small claims copyright court recently debated in Congress). Not to mention the endless parade of controversies over appropriation of Native American culture, and other offensive, socially regressive, and casually racist designs. Hopefully, we won’t hear about them selling Skrewdriver vinyl next.