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How Taylor Swift Took Over Your Local Record Store

Over the past decade, pop has gone from a fringe seller at record shops to one of their bestselling genres

Taylor Swift

Rosetta Greek/Courtesy of As Many Weirdos as Possible

With his Instagram posts of old Thrasher magazine covers, flyers of seminal post-hardcore group Jawbox, and pictures with Neko Case, Matt Jencik is not your stereotypical Taylor Swift target. The 50-year-old, long-haired, bespectacled longtime buyer for Chicago’s legendary Reckless Records admits he’d probably be listening to Van Halen at home. But in records stores like Reckless and around the country, things have changed drastically.

“I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d have to think about Taylor Swift [vinyl] as much as I do now,” Jencik, who’s worked at the store for more than two decades, says with a warm chuckle. “I have to hustle so hard to get that stuff because it always sells out really fast, it’s hard to find, and people want it. If we don’t have it, it’s a problem. It’s changed how I approach my job.”

Jencik is one of many record store reps nationwide who’ve seen a similar shift over the past several years. As a Rolling Stone analysis of the 100 bestselling vinyl albums of each year since 2012 shows, pop is taking over from rock as the medium’s dominant genre. As vinyl has once again become a mainstream listening and collectible format, vinyl buyers are getting increasingly younger, several owners say, and the most popular albums have shifted from the indie rock and classic rock catalog albums that defined vinyl’s resurgence in the past decade to mainstream pop records from the likes of Swift, Olivia Rodrigo, and Lana Del Rey.

Reckless has long carried some level of pop music, but Jencik says he’d never seen it so prominent as in recent years. “There’s always been ebbs and flows for what we’re selling, but I don’t remember a time where our whole store was just different because of it,” Jencik says. “It makes it seem like it’s shifted our identity. People think that’s the store we are now, but we’re still an indie-leaning shop. But we’re selling thousands of copies of these [mainstream pop] records. By far, the majority of what we sell now is this major label stuff. And what are we going to do? Just not do that? It’s not like we made a concerted effort to change what we sell; it’s just what people keep asking us for.”

Matt Vaughan, the longtime owner of Seattle’s famed Easy Street Records, has a similar perspective. When he opened his store in the late 1980s, it became a mecca for hard rock, particularly with the city’s burgeoning grunge scene that gave birth to legends like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. That’s still in the store’s DNA, Vaughan says, and reflected in some of his top-selling records of 2023. (Pearl Jam, former Seattle rock group the Rockfords, and Duff McKagan are all in the store’s top five.) But just as prominent were four Swift records, Gracie Abrams’ Good Riddance (Number Six), Rodrigo’s Sour (Number Eight), and the Barbie soundtrack at 14

“We’re following the trends; sometimes the best leaders are the best followers,” Vaughan says. “We saw a lot more kids in their teens and twenties coming in. Pop was the minority five years ago, and we put our arms around it because we liked those customers and a lot of the music too. That minority became the majority. And these fans are buying a copy of [Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut album] Ten and DMX at the same time too. They’re more open-minded than we give them credit for.”

Vaughan says he recalled the first inklings of the shift with Del Rey’s second album, Born to Die, over a decade ago. But since the pandemic, he says, it’s become much more apparent. “I started to really notice the shift more with release parties,” he says. “There was a time where there were really low turnouts, [and] those parties were just forgotten. Now, we’re over capacity, understaffed, and ill-prepared when we have one for a kid like Omar Apollo, and the line’s around the block. What’s happening?”

For Matt Mona, who’s owned and operated Ka-Chunk Records in Annapolis, Maryland, since 2011, the change has been clear. In his first year of operation, the Black Keys, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and Neutral Milk Hotel were some of his bestsellers. Last year, however, Swift took up six slots, while Phoebe Bridgers and boygenius — decidedly rock but with significant pophead appeal — had three spots.

Other notable albums on Mona’s Top 20 included music that went viral on TikTok such as Steve Lacy’s Gemini Rights and pop-leaning hip-hop records like Mac Miller’s Swimming and Tyler, the Creator’s Igor. (More randomly, Mona’s top seller was Minecraft Volume Alpha, a soundtrack from the popular video game.)

“Pop music was like box office poison when I first brought it into the store years ago,” Mona says. During our 30-minute phone call, he rang up customers on Panic! at the Disco’s Death of a Bachelor alongside Katy Perry, boygenius, and Lorde. “I just could not sell pop; I couldn’t get it off the shelf. I still have all those indie-rock records I like to sell like Dinosaur Jr. and the Wipers, but the sheer amount of pop music has just increased and increased.”

Rock is still vinyl’s biggest genre — at least for now — but its hold continues to slip as the shift toward pop becomes more apparent. On the year-end Top 100 vinyl chart from Luminate, the music data platform that powers the Billboard charts, Swift alone made up half of the Top 10 in 2023, while Rodrigo’s Guts took sixth and Del Rey took the eighth and tenth slots for last year’s Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd and 2012’s Born to Die. (Travis Scott’s Utopia took fourth, while Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was the lone rock album in the Top 10 at Number Nine.)

That shift seems obvious when taking into account the limited record selection at big-box retailers like Target, where pop albums from Swift or Rodrigo dominate the shelves alongside a more limited smattering of Queen and Beatles greatest hits albums. But it’s not just happening at the most casual level of vinyl sales.

The Indie Record Store Top 50 (which Record Store Day launched at the end of 2023 as an alternative to Luminate’s chart) has similarly shown heavy sales from the music that’s topped the Billboard charts in the past year such as Swift, Rodrigo, Del Rey, Noah Kahan, and Zach Bryan.

“How do we keep record stores relevant? We need younger customers,” Record Store Day co-founder Carrie Colliton says. “It was a couple years ago we had Taylor Swift as an ambassador. We were putting Post Malone on our list. Obviously we were reaching out to that audience, and we still are. But I don’t know that even five years ago we would’ve said, ‘Let’s look at our charts; that’s a lot of pop music on there.’”

In 2012, 75 of the Top 100 bestselling vinyl records were rock albums, per Luminate. That dominance held steady for the next few years, but by 2017, rock was down to 50. Last year, rock fell to just 32. Pop has gone the opposite way, starting with only 11 albums in the Top 100 in 2012 and steadily rising each year. Pop reached a new high of 28 albums in 2023, the second most-listed genre on the chart and poised to become the genre leader. (The change is even more dramatic among the most popular records on the charts. In 2012, rock made up 20 entries in the Top 25, while pop only had two entries. This past year, rock fell to just four, and pop is now up to 12.)

Unsurprisingly, Swift is the largest driver of that change and practically a genre on her own. With just over a million units sold in 2023, 1989 (Taylor’s Version) itself sold more than 2012’s entire Top 100 list combined. This is both a staggering feat for Swift and testament to how much higher volume vinyl is now versus a decade ago. The average vinyl record on the Top 100 chart last year averaged 116,000 units sold last year, versus just over 9,000 in 2012.

It took just 33,000 units for Jack White’s acclaimed Blunderbuss to top the year-end Vinyl 100 back then. Meanwhile, Mitski’s The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We was the final record on 2023’s year-end chart with nearly 50,000 sales.

Nearly every record store rep who spoke with Rolling Stone says they began to see younger customers after business kicked back up again following the pandemic. Doyle Davis, co-owner of Grimey’s in Nashville, says high schoolers coming to his store has become a common occurrence that hadn’t happened nearly as frequently a few years ago.

“I never thought we’d sell hundreds of copies of an album in a couple weeks. We used to make our money selling three to five copies of a lot of different albums,” Davis says. “Business wasn’t reliant on blockbuster titles, and now it is. It’s like the Seventies.

“We’d never been averse to pop music. We just try and stay lean. I don’t want to have too many records in the store that aren’t moving, and we don’t stock up on records in giant quantities unless they sell,” Davis continues. “We couldn’t survive without the Taylor Swift sales. I would have never stocked that many Harry Styles records or something like that, but the customers showed me that they’ll just keep on going and it’s never gonna stop.” (In 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, Swift donated money and paid for three months’ worth of health care for each employee.)

Stocking more pop doesn’t have to mean shifting away from lesser-selling genres, either, several owners tell Rolling Stone. Mona claims the higher volume from the mainstream pop records has actually afforded him more flexibility to buy niche records he enjoys that may have to sit in his crates for longer like British singer-painter Billy Childish, Portland garage rockers Dead Moon, and beloved ragged indie rockers Guided by Voices. “It’s the mark of a healthy industry,” Mona says. “The pop stuff I sell makes it possible for me to stock the stuff I only sell one copy a year that I think is really good. It makes it sustainable to keep the less popular albums in the store and lets me take more risks.”

As pop music continues to become an increasingly irreplaceable part of record stores’ business, some record store reps have said it could change their stores. Still, every record store worker who spoke with Rolling Stone has been widely embracing of the pop wave not just from sales but from a cultural standpoint, a rejection of the sort of elitism that can still be associated with vinyl culture snobbery. At some point, they have to let younger shoppers decide what their culture is.

“The reason I still do this is because I want to run a company and a store that kids can come into and be stoked about,” Jencik says. “I’m a total crusty record store guy, but I feel like I still hold onto that aspect of this. I got into this because I went to a store I thought was cool, and I want that for the kids.”

As Vaughan says, “If it’s only going to be the graying of the record store, guys with Record Collector and Goldmine magazine under their arm, that’s no fun. There’s pockets throughout the country here, where you have these stores like a Easy Street. And if they haven’t pigeonholed themselves at this point, and they’re open to the anti-High Fidelity form of customer service, and they’re just happy to have customers looking at music as a commodity in their life, these kind of record stores should be doing pretty well right now.”

From Rolling Stone US