Just a few short years ago, vinyl download cards were considered fairly standard practice. They were part of the package, part of the appeal of buying vinyl – if only as a bonus.
And at the time, it made sense. Digital downloads were still a mainstream format for music consumption, and a downloadable copy made the physical vinyl more appealing and better value for money. After all, vinyl records sell at a premium price and who wants to buy an album twice if they don’t have to?
But the times, it would appear, they are a-changin’ (as Dylan would put it). The recent figures released by the RIAA clearly show a strong decline in digital downloads and a continued shift towards streaming services for digital consumption. In the physical domain, vinyl continues to thrive, while CD sales decline.
These trends are reflected in the actual redemption rate of most digital download cards, which—according to many labels—is very low, and continuing to decline. In most cases, the redemption rate is below 25%.
It’s not hard to see why labels might struggle to justify the time, cost, and materials involved in supplying a download code to satisfy a minority of consumers. After all, streaming services are cheap and highly convenient. But is this a positive or negative trend?
The answer to this question all depends on your perspective, and your individual consumption habits. I, for one, haven’t yet made the switch to streaming. Perhaps this makes me old-fashioned, but I’m a huge believer in the importance of music ownership, and the effect this has on our perception of music’s value. So for me, the decline of download cards represents a decline in value for money. Increasingly, if I want a digital copy of a new record, my only choice is to go through the arduous task of digitizing the record myself using recording software.
Clearly, there are some costs attached to supplying cards. There’s the cost of printing, the cost of production and packing, plus the hosting cost. However, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t exactly seen a decrease in cost associated with vinyl that doesn’t include a download card. Moreover, I can’t help but think many record labels are missing a trick. Surely a download code is a perfect opportunity to ask fans if they’d like to stay in touch? This, in turn, would give them further opportunities to promote the artist, and push other revenue streams, such as concert tickets and merchandise. Some labels are great at this, others, not so much.
One model that I’ve heard put forward to keep digital downloads alive is an option to contact the label requesting a download. If the contact instructions are printed as part of the overall artwork (preferably inside a gatefold, or on the insert of standard jacket), then this would negate the need for an individual download card. This method is not without its downsides, but it could help continue to serve fans, while allowing labels to connect with the audience.
In defense of the shift to streaming over download cards, continued listening through these platforms means the artist continues to get paid—albeit a small amount per stream. As far as I understand, the artist does not receive any additional royalties for a download claimed off the back of a vinyl record.
So are download cards on the way out?
Sadly, it looks highly likely. Digital files are now a minority interest, with the benefits and demand too low for many labels to justify (or at least that’s how they view it). I would argue, however, that labels who go the extra mile to make their records feel like good value for money will win in the long run. If the production costs are proving difficult to justify, then a “contact the label” option could make the most sense for those wanting to serve the remaining demand for downloads.
Despite the apparent benefits, there are still plenty of music fans who claim they will never switch to streaming. So far, I’ve been one of those people. Will this change as time goes on? Only time will tell.