Are We Really Surprised Urban Outfitters Is the World’s Biggest Vinyl Retailer?


We’ve heard it all before: “Vinyl is BACK!” Vinyl sales in 2013 were the highest they’d been in 22 years, with 6.1 million new LPs sold last year — a 33 percent increase from 2012 alone. Jack White sold nearly as many copies — 40,000 to be exact — of his new album in vinyl form as he did on CD during Lazaretto‘s release week back in June. And yet, we can’t stop lamenting the death of the indie record store. We carry on with the well-meaning Record Store Day each April, even as the major labels have overtaken the exclusive offerings with ~*qUiRkY*~ pop novelties and reissue city. Music nerds can attribute RSD’s ubiquity and vinyl’s well-documented resurgence as “wins for the little guy,” but here’s a figure that bursts their indie-loving bubble: Urban Outfitters supposedly sells more vinyl in the world than any other single retailer.

“Music is very, very important to the Urban customer… in fact, we are the world’s number one vinyl seller,” Calvin Hollinger, Urban Outfitters’ chief administrative officer, reportedly said at a meeting with analysts yesterday. While not exactly a haven for collectors à la Discogs, Urban Outfitters’ 15-page online inventory of vinyl apparently thrives thanks to a system that allows UO to offer inventory from about 100 vinyl vendors without actually owning the inventory. Which leads me to wonder just how important music is to the company’s business side, rather than the customer.

For a vinyl distributor or independent vendor, you have to take what you can get in this era, vinyl boom aside. The sort of record chain that offered new vinyl in the CD era — specifically Tower Records and Virgin Megastores — have gone the wayside. Best Buy’s in-store selection often leaves something to be desired, though its online store is impressive, with nearly 44,000 vinyl records for sale. But just how cool is it to buy a vinyl album from a square in khaki pants and a blue polo shirt? That doesn’t vibe with the “vinyl lifestyle.”

Urban Outfitters, on the other hand, has made vinyl record-buying just one aspect of a well-rounded “hip” existence, along with funky terrariums, limited-edition Vans, James Franco essay collections, and circle scarfs emblazoned with faux-Native American prints. I can’t imagine too many serious record collectors are purchasing their vinyl at Urban, unless they’re going for the Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence vinyl sold exclusively at Urban. (How fitting, considering our claim that LDR is the UO of music.) But someone is buying their music from Urban Outfitters, as evidenced by Mr Hollinger’s claim.

The albums that UO stocks aren’t all that different than what you’d find in an indie record store (or, hell, those Whole Foods super centers), with the exception that there’s no used stock and few out-there picks that aren’t from the major labels and established indies. But you certainly can purchase Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, the best-selling vinyl LPs of 2013, or Jack White’s Blunderbuss and The Beatles’ Abbey Road, 2012’s best-selling vinyl.

In 2012, 64 percent of all vinyl sold was purchased at an independent record store, so it’s not as if chains have completely monopolized the vinyl marketplace as they did during the CD’s commercial heights. Still, a store with as distinct a worldview as Urban Outfitters is selling vinyl to millions of people every year. It shouldn’t be surprising, considering the move towards music as a lifestyle accompaniment — essentially a “vibe” maker — in the branding space. But it is just a little depressing for those of us to take vinyl collecting seriously, instead of treating it like a fad — or worse, home decoration.