How Taylor Swift masterminded the big vinyl comeback


Lifestyle accessory: Taylor Swift's vinyls are becoming the ultimate keepsake for hardcore fan
Lifestyle accessory: Taylor Swift’s vinyls are becoming the ultimate keepsake for hardcore fan

On November 4 a TikTok user posted a video that blew the minds of many Taylor Swift fans. It showed the blue “moonstone” vinyl edition of the singer’s Midnights spinning at the wrong speed.

But was it really the wrong speed? The fan behind the video was convinced the record, when played out of whack, yielded a “secret” vocal. “You can hear Taylor singing at the start of Midnight Rain,” went the caption. It was as if the inner chamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb had been unlocked.

The question of what speed Midnights should be played at has detained a significant chunk of Swift’s vast fanbase – Gen Zers who have grown up with streaming but are now discovering the old-time wonders of vinyl for the first time thanks to Swift. It’s been a bit of a learning curve.

“Why is there a man singing every track?!?” commented one stumped Swiftie on social media. It turns out they were playing the record – Swift’s 2012 album Red – at 33 1/3 rpm rather than the 45 rotations per minute at which it was pressed. Such was the confusion, one US website felt obliged to release a “how to” guide for vinyl virgins.

There are an awful lot out there judging by sales of Midnights. Swift’s 10th album is the biggest-selling vinyl record of the century in the UK, with 80,000 units shifted to date. That success has driven vinyl sales to eclipse those of CDs – one-time saviour of the music industry – for the first time since 1987 and soar to a 32-year high of 5.5 million.

The Midnights effect is part of a wider trend of Gen Zers and millennials migrating towards a format that has become fetishised as the ultimate keepsake for hardcore fans – or “stans”, in internet parlance. (Harry Styles’s Harry’s House likewise clocked up blockbusting vinyl sales in 2022.)

But more than that, it is a testament to the once-in-a-generation influence wielded by Taylor Swift, who seems to be able to remake the music industry in her own image and at will.

Swift has been one step ahead for years. She recognised the looming impact of streaming when she boycotted Spotify from 2014 to 2017 in protest at its royalties rate and its “fremium” model. “Valuable things should be paid for,” she said. “It is my opinion that music should not be free”. It is an argument other artists would make years later.

Just a few months ago she criticised the shambolic sale of tickets for her 2023 American tour. Much discussion of the Ticketmaster/Live Nation monopoly ensued and in the US a group of fans announced a class action lawsuit against Ticketmaster. Where Swift goes, expect others to follow.

She has more recently turned her attention to vinyl. The format was for decades regarded as the preserve of middle-aged “musos” lost in their Tangerine Dream and Neu! reissues. But Swift spotted that among younger audiences vinyl has become a lifestyle accessory – as much merchandise as music format.

Taylor Swift recently criticised the fiasco surrounding the sale of tickets for her 2023 American tour - Zhang Hengwei/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images
Taylor Swift recently criticised the fiasco surrounding the sale of tickets for her 2023 American tour – Zhang Hengwei/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

This ties into the explosion in demand for limited edition vinyl, typically presented in eye-popping colours. Swift has been out ahead of that trend, too – and in a way that underscores her ability to turn challenging circumstances into a triumph.

In 2019 Swift’s original record label, Big Machine was acquired by Scooter Braun, manager of Justin Bieber and a budding music industry mogul. This meant that ownership of her first six albums was vested in Braun.

Swift further claimed that Big Machine used that power to veto her performing a medley of old songs at an awards ceremony. So, to reassert control over her music she has embarked on the unprecedented and ambitious project of re-recording those earlier collections.

That difficult situation has yielded gold dust. In 2021 she released the first two re-recordings of those foundational LPs, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and Red (Taylor’s Version).

Both were available in limited edition coloured vinyl – gold and (obviously) red – and sold like the hottest of hot buns. In 2021 Swift shifted 750,000 vinyl records in the United States.

The vinyl edition of Taylor Swift's album Fearless
The vinyl edition of Taylor Swift’s album Fearless

That figure included 200,000 of Red (Taylor’s Version), a re-recording of her 2012 LP Red that came in a limited edition red vinyl format – complementing the gold vinyl format of her re-recorded version of Fearless released six months previously. Of the 10 best-selling vinyl records in the US that year, four were by Swift.

With Midnights, she took this trend to its logical next step. This collection of downtempo torch songs is available in four vinyl editions with different artwork and different colour vinyl: moonstone, jade green, blood moon and mahogany (plus a “lavender” pressing exclusive to US retailer Target and another black vinyl with bonus tracks).

The four sleeves can be combined to create a Midnights “clock”– the timepiece for which must be purchased for around £60 from Swift’s website and which consists of “four walnut wood shelves, each engraved with one word from the phrase ‘Meet me at midnight’.”

The clock is quite the object, and “comes with brass metal clock centre piece with 2 wooden hands that each have Taylor Swift printed in brass ink”. It’s a step up from the free posters scruffy indie bands used to bundle with their records back in the day.

Of course, many of these vinyl editions are destined to remain unlistened to. For some fans, the records are objects to be hugged and gawped at over rather than a slab of wax to be slapped a turn-table (Swift’s lengthy sleeve notes include reams of lyrics to explore). As one diehard who bought 15 copies of Midnights put it to the Sydney Morning Herald: “I owned a Taylor Swift record before I owned a record player.”

Swift didn’t bring back vinyl on her own, of course. The revival has been ongoing, in various forms, as far back as the Nineties. However, the trend accelerated during the pandemic – which coincided with the release of Swift’s Folklore and Evermore LPs and with her re-recorded “Taylor Versions” of her early output.

Four vinyl sleeves can be combined to create the Midnights 'clock'
Four vinyl sleeves can be combined to create the Midnights ‘clock’

“Generally, people being stuck at home with money to spend during the pandemic seemed to have kicked off a surge in interest in vinyl,” Jason McGuire, general manager of California indie label Stones Throw told the LA Times last year.

Until recently, however, this trend was largely confined to older music fans and the indie music scene. Swift has parachuted it straight into the mainstream.

“It’s a watershed moment for the entire music industry,” Kim Bayley, chief executive of the Entertainment Retailers Association has said of the news that vinyl is outselling CDs in the UK for the first time in a generation. “After the CD came along and pretty much wiped out the vinyl business, few of us would have believed a renaissance was possible.”

But there have also been criticisms of Swift. Environmentalists have wondered whether it is responsible to encourage fans to purchase four vinyl editions of the same record. Vinyl, after all, is made from un-recyclable plastic, each recording producing emissions equivalent to driving a car for two miles.

The counter-argument is that streaming has an environmental cost, too. Researchers at Keele University in Staffordshire have calculated streaming an album for 17 hours produces the same amount of carbon as pressing a vinyl record. So if you listen to Midnights for fewer than 17 hours, streaming is the more ecologically responsible option. If not, vinyl is the way to go.

Taylor Swift's album Reputation among vinyl records in the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in New York - Patti McConville / Alamy Stock Photo
Taylor Swift’s album Reputation among vinyl records in the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in New York – Patti McConville / Alamy Stock Photo

The other argument is that artists such as Swift and Adele are pushing independent musicians to the back of the queue for vinyl production. The music industry can only churn out so many physical records – and with Swift producing all those limited editions of Midnights, indie singers are having to cope with delays. For instance, fans of New York artist King Princess had to wait until December for the vinyl version of her record Hold On Baby, which was released on streaming in July.

Others will point out, however, that the Taylor Swift vinyl juggernaut is keeping many record shops in business – and that Folklore and Evermore were a huge boon to retailers during the darkest days of the pandemic. Retailers admitted as much this January by making Swift – who quietly donated money to record stores during the pandemic – the 2022 Record Store Day Ambassador. The role was invented just for her.

Whether the Swift effect is a long-term benefit to the industry only time will tell. But what’s for certain is the “stan”-driven vinyl explosion is a long way from playing out. That’s a prediction you can set your clock to – even the one you’ve paid sixty quid for from Taylor Swift’s official store.

Published by anthonyhayble

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