In June, Houston psychedelic funk-rockers Khruangbin released their third album, Mordechai. The album came at a good time for the band, just a few months after its collaborative EP with Fort Worth retro-soul singer Leon Bridges, Texas Sun, led to the band’s highest-charting single, which peaked at number seventeen on the U.S. AAA chart (and earned a coveted spot on Barack Obama’s 2020 playlist).
Even with the pandemic disrupting the music industry, the odds were in favor of the band having a relatively good year: in addition to the collaboration with Bridges, Khruangbin had spent the bulk of 2019 playing festivals and touring internationally. But a few weeks after Mordechai was released, they didn’t just have a rising new album on their hands—they were perhaps the most popular band on Discogs.com, the popular vinyl record marketplace and collection tracking website.
In a blog entry posted on the site in late September that listed the fifty best-selling records of August, three of the top five entries were just different vinyl pressings of Mordechai, including the top spot. In all, six of the top fifty best-selling records were by Khruangbin, topping both current hot acts such as Phoebe Bridgers and catalog titles like David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. The success followed a trajectory the band had been on all summer—in July, it had placed five of its releases on the Discogs list for that month, and one (2018’s Con Todo el Mundo) in June, the month Mordechai was released.
The audience for vinyl records isn’t a direct reflection of what the general public is listening to, of course. The format made up 17 percent of album sales in 2019, a huge figure for a physical format once considered dead. But it shrinks to just over 2 percent when listening formats that don’t require an album purchase (mostly streaming and single-track downloads) are factored into the music-listening landscape. Khruangbin pulls respectable numbers digitally—the band has 3.7 million monthly listeners on Spotify—but that’s 60 million fewer than the Weeknd, the most popular act on the streaming platform so far in 2020. Khruangbin isn’t the biggest act in the world, but they’re probably the most popular artist of the year among people who like to buy a record, open the sleeve, pull out a black piece of vinyl (or a pink translucent one, if they sprung for the limited edition, record store exclusive version of Mordechai, the best-selling variant), and drop the needle before the laid-back psychedelic funk starts.
That didn’t surprise Hannah Carlen, head of marketing at Khruangbin’s label, Dead Oceans. The label had planned—even before the pandemic—for the album to be a hit on vinyl, and took meetings with the band to ensure that it would be putting out Mordechai in a way that the band could be proud of. “Khruangbin have a strong point of view about what they want out there for people to buy,” she says. “When they first handed in the record, we had a long conversation about their ideas for packaging, for colors, how to involve stores that they have relationships with. They’re very hands-on and they have a lot of ideas.” The process of meeting the demand involves creatively juggling a few competing needs—COVID-19 has affected the already-limited capacity of vinyl pressing plants to turn around orders quickly—in order to ensure they’re able to fill orders. So far, they’ve largely been able to meet that challenge.
Carlen also has some ideas on why this band, and this record, have found such an eager audience. “Everything they do invites listening to a whole album, and invites repeat listens to find little nooks and crannies and textures and details and ideas and moments of imagination,” she says. “For a band that’s really easy to listen to, they pack so much into what they’re doing all the time.”
That sort of thing plays well on vinyl, where the investment a fan makes in a record means that they’re inclined to revisit it over and over again—and while Spotify may have a never-ending well of music for fans to continually dive into, your bookshelves can hold only so many albums. And the kind of activities that Khruangbin make an appealing soundtrack to are the sort of things that people are more inclined to do at home during a pandemic. Writing about the band’s second album, Con Todo el Mundo, in a review on Pitchfork, critic Erin MacLeod wrote, “This music might be the perfect accompaniment to just about any somewhat passive activity. Cooking? Studying? Walking? Riding the bus? […] Relaxing around the house on a Sunday afternoon? […] Every track is profoundly pleasant.”
Vinyl sales overall are up, even as the music industry has slowed as a result of the pandemic, which may be because the experience of buying a record has only grown more important for fans at a time when they can’t see bands play live. When things do restart, Carlen expects that Khruangbin will probably be filling larger rooms and playing larger stages at festivals. But the band is also uniquely suited for pandemic listening, she says. “For me, as a fan, I find their records very soothing to listen to, and soothing stuff is very hard to come by right now,” Carlen explains when asked about the band’s appeal in 2020. “A record that is fun and full of heart, and also really calming? That’s a good thing to have right now.”