Comment: A Record Is For Life

Launching this year’s Record Store Day, John Lydon said: “A record is for life. A download is a lack of life. A poor substitute for a real wife.” Our relationship with music is becoming increasingly casual, detached and fleeting. When Lydon speaks of vinyl records he does so with a passion that has been lost by most people to a world of quick, cheap downloads and obstinate music piracy. The appeal of vinyl though, remains. And thanks to events like Record Store Day its sales rose by 39% last year, the highest since 2005.

First celebrated in 2007, Record Store Day aims to promote independent record shops. 700 shops came together in the US to start, with the UK following suit a year later. This year, more than 200 shops in the UK will be celebrating vinyl culture with over 400 exclusive releases. Lydon also talks of “the destruction of the music industry”, saying that “people can’t buy records easily.” Although downloads undeniably occupy the engine room of the industry, artists are increasingly being drawn to the different attractions of vinyl releases, whilst acknowledging the place of mp3s. Indeed, many releases include a download code as part of the record. Attic Records, York, appreciates that there is room for all formats of music: “You listen to mp3 on your iPod. Then when you get home listen to some vinyl. Digital music is not going away, there’s a use for all formats.” Today’s instant access to music may have had benefits for both record labels and independent artists but it has turned the experience of buying music into an online process. Attic says record shops are “the centre of the music community” and that as part of the buying experience “people like to talk about music and look at what they buy.”

For this year’s Record Store Day, Attic had local artists Mark Wynn, Littlemores and Valmores playing in their shop, providing the soundtrack as the exclusive releases flew off the shelves of the small upstairs shop. The day brings “a push for vinyl, people want it,” Attic said. Rough Trade’s Spencer Hickman argues: “people still want something tangible, vinyl’s not going away anytime soon.” Exclusive releases this year included a digitally re-mastered version of The Clash’s ‘London Calling’, 5 previously unreleased singles by The Cure, 12 remixes of Arcade Fire’s ‘Sprawl II’ and ‘Ready To Start’ and the highly anticipated single ‘R U Mine?’ by Arctic Monkeys. With extremely limited numbers and extremely long queues, releases such as the above are highly sought after.

Does this represent an active backlash against the mainstream pop factory, or a return to the roots of home audio? Vinyl does offer superior sound quality in comparison to the tinny sound of a low quality MP3 through laptop speakers. And perhaps people are seeking more of an attachment, or a sense of ownership than the fleeting relationship with the Led Zeppelin catalogue they illegally downloaded after a night out. CD sales fell 13% last year, following the industry trend of declining music sales. People wanting a quality music experience are turning away from CDs towards vinyl, with its sense of physicality and permanence. How well does that first CD you bought ten years ago play? There’s many a dad who will happily force you through two hours of pristine sounding Genesis to prove the point.

Vinyl sales may have declined with the rise of digital music, but they have never disappeared. Sales were stolen by mp3 downloads and its accessibility has been reduced, but the appeal of vinyl remains.
The vinyl revolution represents a growing rejection of mass produced popular music, and an appreciation of the artwork and story behind the music that comes with the listening experience, restoring the music buying public’s attachment with their record collection. Independent record shops such as Attic are thriving in an environment where even the likes of HMV are struggling. It is important for the industry that such shops stay open, and it is the consumer who will ultimately benefit from the better music experience.
Record Store Day has gone some way in restoring the connection between music and listener. The appeal of vinyl can be explained by this connection: when you download a song there’s detachment; but buying a record requires more choice, risk and commitment. But it is the most complete and rewarding way to listen to music. As Lydon said, other formats are “a poor substitute for a real wife.”

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