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Heavy metal midlife crisis? Led Zeppelin’s ‘Physical Graffiti’ turns 40 in the digital age

February 24, 2015, 9:25 PM UTC

Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti” album. When it was released in 1975, vinyl records ruled supreme, and this particular one would eventually reach platinum sales status sixteen times over.

Oh, but how times have changed. Artists who are almost entirely guitar-free top the Billboard charts now, and downloading and streaming seem to be the dominant methods of music consumption. Vinyl did see an increase in sales of more than 50% in 2014, but overall album sales fell by 11% that year, including digital album sales. It all adds up to bad news for a guitar-slinging band that embodies the vinyl era.

Despite this daunting fact, the Led Zeppelin back catalog is in the middle of a deluxe reissue campaign that began in June 2014. All of its albums are in the process of being re-released on vinyl, compact disc and digital download configurations, and so far the group’s first five albums have made their way to music store shelves. Today, “Physical Graffiti” gets its turn at bat, and then only two more studio albums remain before the hoards run dry.

The decision to embark on an extensive reissue campaign comes at a time when compact disc sales declined 15 percent in the past year, according to Billboard. Starbucks (SBUX), one of the remaining vestiges of compact disc sales in the U.S., recently announced that it will stop selling them entirely at all of its 21,000 locations in March.

Doesn’t this mean the decision to relaunch the entire catalog is a little dicey?

As it turns out, no. The group’s 1971 album Led Zeppelin IV was reissued in October 2014 and re-entered the Billboard charts at number seven, just a handful of slots away from Taylor Swift. Clearly, there is still a market out there for this music, and it’s big enough to justify a physical release at a time in history that’s not exactly favorable to that sort of thing.

Those wishing to keep it simple can just buy the remastered album, or they can pay a little extra and get the “deluxe” edition, supplemented with seven bonus tracks. But for those for whom money is no object, or who simply like to show off, there’s the “Super Deluxe Edition” boxed set.

A true test of what the market will bear, it contains the album and bonus tracks on compact disc, vinyl and a high-resolution download accessible via a code found on the inside. It also includes a 96-page, LP-sized hardcover book. Altogether, the whole shebang costs approximately $120 and weighs approximately ten pounds, so don’t drop it on your foot.

Who, exactly, is going to buy this thing? Jon Lambert, general manager of the legendary Princeton Record Exchange in Princeton, N.J., told Fortune that based on what he’s observed since the campaign began last year, the super deluxe box sets are indeed selling, albeit in “drips and drabs.”
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“The main demographic for the big, boxed items is men between the ages of 30 and 50,” he said. “You have to be a little well-heeled to buy the box set.”

He said that while Super Deluxe Editions of “Physical Graffiti” sell somewhat lackadaisically, the mid-priced, single-format configurations have been moving steadily and at a brisk pace. He also added an interesting side note — those sales are almost entirely driven by young people, whose parents are old enough to have seen Led Zeppelin perform. And despite the vintage format, these kids are “without hesitation” buying more vinyl than compact discs, he said.

“Led Zeppelin has transferred generations,” said Lambert. “It’s still selling. Younger people are still buying those artists. Jack White sells well too, but classic artists are going to sell well, like Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones.”

There are still two more studio albums left before the Led Zeppelin reissue campaign wraps up. But while the tricked-out Super Deluxe Editions are likely to remain the province of well-to-do baby boomers, customers who are younger and less affluent will likely keep on buying the single-format configuration and keep this music alive for the foreseeable future.