How Urban Outfitters Became the Biggest Vinyl Record Store

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 09.25.14 in News

In June 2011, Bon Iver announced a partnership with Urban Outfitters. “We like @UrbanOutfitters and they like us,” a post from the Eau Claire, Wisconsin-based project of singer/songwriter Justin Vernon reads. The clothing and accessories retailer began stocking an exclusive, red vinyl version of 2011′s Bon Iver. It’s now sold out, but a paperback book about the indie-folk outfit is still available.

Bon Iver is now only one of many acts releasing exclusive vinyl through Urban Outfitters, from Lana Del Rey to Interpol. To those keeping track in recent years, the store has gotten to look like vinyl’s de facto biggest seller — John Beeler, project manager at Sufjan Stevens‘s Asthmatic Kitty label home, told Pitchfork this summer that “you go into Urban Outfitters and there’s a whole wall of vinyl” — and now the chain has made its wax-king status official.

“Music is very, very important to the Urban customer,” the company’s chief administrative officer, Calvin Hollinger, told analysts this week, as quoted by BuzzFeed. “In fact, we are the world’s No. 1 vinyl seller.”

Urban Outfitters, which had sales of $3.1 billion in its last fiscal year and also owns the chains Anthropologie and Free People, doesn’t disclose its music sales in public filings. But the claim is hardly implausible.

Nielsen Entertainment analyst David Bakula couldn’t confirm retailer-specific numbers. But he noted Urban Outfitters’ sheer size, with about 180 U.S. locations alone. And unlike many vinyl sellers, which also offer used records, Urban Outfitters concentrates on new releases.

“What they’re finding is pretty much whatever they put in there comes with their stamp of approval,” Bakula told Wondering Sound in a phone interview. “It’s a little bit like when Starbucks started carrying CDs.”

That said, independent record stores still outsell Urban Outfitters’ category overall. According to Nielsen SoundScan, non-traditional retail outlets — which would include Urban Outfitters along with online stores such as Amazon and director-to-consumer sales such as by Jack White — has sold roughly 2 million vinyl albums so far this year. That’s up 74 percent over last year. But independent stores have sold about 3.7 million vinyl albums year-to-date. That’s out of some 6 million U.S. vinyl album sales overall in 2014.

A trickier question is what Urban Outfitters’ dominance in this niche might mean for vinyl lovers. The company’s recent apology over a bloodied Kent State University sweatshirt is only the latest in a string of public controversies. Still, Richard Laing, director of sales for Sub Pop, told the Village Voice last year that the label was pleased to sell through Urban Outfitters. And Jason Taylor, sales and marketing director for Redeye Distribution, which sells from labels to retailers, said, “They’re totally legit partners.”

Fans who want artists to get the biggest cut can buy from the merch table, and fans who want to support the label can buy through the label website, this line of thinking goes, but the struggling record business can’t afford to sniff at a retailer as big as Urban Outfitters.

Nor is Urban Outfitters’ connection with musicians anything new — it just didn’t used to be on vinyl. In 2009, for instance, Sonic Youth‘s Kim Gordon released a clothing line through Urban Outfitters. A couple of years earlier, the band even performed at a Santa Monica, California, location of the store.

It’s worth considering, too, that despite all the talk about vinyl among diehard music fans, it’s still a tiny share of the overall music market.

“Vinyl is not going to be the savior for every genre,” Nielsen’s Bakula says. “But for the right crowd … that’s where Urban Outfitters is hitting the sweet spot here. They know what that consumer wants.”