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Vinyl Is Streaming Music's Flipside

Stocks in this article: P AAPL AMZN

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- There are exactly two bright spots in the music industry right now, and neither seems related to the other in any capacity.

As Nielsen SoundScan made clear earlier this month, the state of commercial music in 2013 was nothing short of awful. Album sales were down 8.4%. For the first time since Apple launched iTunes in 2003, digital downloads declined from the year before. It was by less than a percent, but it was less than a percent in the wrong direction.

If you were really buying into music in 2013, you were basically doing so in one of two ways: 1. Through streaming services like Pandora (P), Rdio and Spotify, which saw streams jump 32% to 118 billion; or 2. By buying vinyl and increasing sales of that once irrelevant medium by 33%. If you go back to 1993, vinyl sales are up 250% in the last 20 years as overall music sales slid 50%.

Streaming's remaining novelty and vinyl's nostalgia have a small role in those upticks, but there's a bit more at play behind those numbers. They're saying something fundamental about how we're consuming our music and what the expectations are from this point on. They're talking about music's future, and the artists, labels and companies that care about that future need to start listening.

The gains both streaming and vinyl are seeing are a huge statement on the weaknesses of downloads and the flawed experience provided by the favored MP3 sound file. When terrestrial radio began to lose its luster and CD sales started their steep and continued slide, the belief was that music fans could finally become their own curators. By sifting and stockpiling tracks, compiling playlists and poring over music blogs and social media, fans were going to create a utopian environment that finally matched the soundtrack of their lives.

The problem is that unless you're T. Bone Burnett and have hundreds of hours to dedicate to sifting through sources and diving into archives, it just isn't going to work that way. Casual fans can keep up, download podcasts of DJs and shows they love, search out artists and make connections, but that process only convolutes the job radio did when it functioned at its best. The most broad-based modern equivalents such as Seattle-based KEXP or the New York area's WFMU make a point of opening their airwaves to all comers and continuing a listener's education by throwing as much at them as possible.

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