Women on Vinyl

new trends for an old medium

The author would like to note that “women” in this piece includes gender nonconforming people as well as female-identifying people.

The first record I ever played on a record player of my very own was Joan Baez’s “5.” Joan Baez, for those of us who weren’t alive in the ‘60s and aren’t history buffs now, is a legend. I won’t tell you why—you can Google it. Baez had a protégé whom most of us probably know, who also happens to have very recently won a little award called the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. You ever heard of Bob Dylan? Guessing the answer to that question is yes. Baez was the person who discovered the now ubiquitous folk singer, essentially making him the artist that would later become the “voice of his generation.” The two wrote, toured, and performed together. And they famously dated. So why don’t we know the woman behind Dylan?

Baez’s vinyl was the cheapest one I could find at my local record shop back home. I had been thinking about how the first thing to ever sound out of my first record player’s speakers had to be something really special. I’d always pictured myself listening to “the perfect record” (something folk, indie, or classic rock) as the sun set over my old bedroom. The mental list of what my collection would look like was precise: The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver, Two Door Cinema Club, Simon & Garfunkel. But when I went into the shop, I didn’t buy records from any of those bands.

Maybe it was because of how expensive those records were. Or maybe it was because, as I rifled mentally through the lyrics and albums, bios, and fun facts, I realized that not a single person I listened to was like me. Most of the other artists in the store weren’t like me, either. These artists and bands had no women. So, I picked up Joan Baez’s “5”..

Seeing all male artists was kind of an odd thing, a weird moment of dis-identification. And once the moment passed, I just picked the only album I could afford, which also happened to be the only artist who was a woman. After listening to the first 30 seconds of the first track, I cried for about three rotations and subsequently became obsessed with Baez and vinyl records. I also became obsessed with that weird feeling I had at the record store of not seeing women on vinyl.

Pitchfork reported in 2014 that more and more people are buying vinyl; about 6.1 million vinyl records were sold in that year alone. The same Pitchfork report showed that fewer than one million vinyls were sold in 2006, compared to the six million plus of 2014. I interviewed several Brown students who listen to vinyl records, and every single one of them mentioned that listening to vinyl was kind of like “a novelty.” Of course, this method of listening to music is anything but new. But clearly, there’s been resurgence.

The Telegraph reported that the top albums on vinyl for 2015 were all classified as classic rock, folk rock, alt rock, or indie rock. Only seven of the top 20 best selling vinyl albums were from “new” bands. The bands that competed with “classic” vinyls were: Arctic Monkeys (with two albums in the top 20), Daft Punk, Royal Blood, Adele, Jack White, and Amy Winehouse. The data reflects what my interview subjects were saying: Most of them noted something special about these genres (with the exception of Daft Punk)––something about rock/indie records sounding best on vinyl. Nearly everyone mentioned one or some combination of three bands: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Simon & Garfunkel. Many mentioned Dylan, Bowie, Pink Floyd. And, most of them didn’t mention women. In Telegraph’s list of top selling vinyl, only two women were listed. But neither were in the top 10, and one of them was dead.

When I originally started thinking about women and vinyl, I thought about the people who I knew listened to physical records. I noticed two groups: dads/uncles/grandparents and young girls. There was a generational gap. There are people who listen to records because that used to be the only format available, and there is the new generation who listens to this “novelty” format because it’s vintage.

Urban Outfitters claimed in 2014 they were the biggest vinyl record dealer in the U.S. This declaration was later debunked by Billboard, but the fact that such a claim was remotely credible to the business and music industry proposes interesting implications. Clearly, young people are buying vinyl records. And they’re doing so in enough numbers that every Urban store and Urban online are stocked up with a bunch of records. This young group, if we think about our nation’s demographics, is comprised of at least 50 percent women (but likely more, as Urban often caters to female consumers). And according to the charts, these young women are buying Arctic Monkeys, Pink Floyd, and Radiohead—not Beyoncé or Ariana Grande.

Is there a trend here? Do women who listen to vinyl not listen to women on vinyl?

I’ve not found empirical data on this; vinyl record sales are not broken down by gender. But what if they were? Would we notice, like I suspect, that most young vinyl listeners are women? And would we see that they seem to connect with Vampire Weekend better than they do with Katy Perry?

In my own collection, I have almost exclusively male artists. I’m not sure why. I’m a feminist; and I don’t believe that men make better music than women. Yet somehow I wasn’t buying women’s music on vinyl. Was it just me? I decided to talk to a number of people, specifically women, who listened to records.

I asked those people what they listened to, without specific instructions or questions about gender. I noticed trends, some of which I’ve talked about already. Primarily, most of them had similar taste in genre. But also, most of them got started listening to vinyl because of their fathers, grandfathers, and brothers.

Many of them had record collections passed down to them, and when they bought their own records, looked for that same rock/indie/alt genre. There were a few exceptions, but the rule was indie/rock. And, within that, most everyone listened to dudes only.

In the end,  I can’t say definitively that a gender bias exists within the realm of female vinyl listeners. There’s just simply not enough data. Rather, I’m just trying to think about how women interact with the vinyl record format.

Perhaps the best insight I can offer comes from talking to the female owner of a local record store here in Providence. At first, she told me she didn’t notice a difference in the gender of her customers. (She only said they were usually young, perhaps because of the store’s closeness to a college campus.) She also said she didn’t notice the gender of the bands she sold the most (The Beatles, Vampire Weekend, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Billy Joel). We finished our conversation, and I stayed in her to store to sift through a bin of discounted records. About half an hour after the interview had ended, she approached me and said,

“You know what? I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I think when I was young, it was really intimidating to go to these record stores. There were always old men, and they thought they knew everything. But now, girls can listen to records, too. It’s less intimidating. That’s actually really cool.”

I think it’s really cool, too. And I hope it only gets cooler for me, personally, as I actively choose to listen to more women on vinyl.

Thank you to Ali Murray, Laura Valle, Olivia Watson, Keri Brooks, Julia Cahill, Matt Cooper, Claudia Jones, and What Cheer Records + Vintage.