2015 sees the introduction of Top 40 charts for vinyl singles and albums, signifying a resurgence in the vinyl trade. This is a commercial miracle, considering the fact that vinyl sales have been decreasing drastically since the ‘90s: according to the Official Charts Company, 2007 was the nadir for vinyl sales, accounting for only 0.10% of the music market share. This year, vinyl is projected to be a £20million business, and Record Store Day has become a nationwide (nay, global) phenomenon. Quite a turnaround. Are people being duped into paying £25 for a record, or is there something deeper in this format that music geeks have never abandoned?
The fate of vinyl records was supposedly sealed with the introduction of the compact disc in the early ‘80s. The digitalisation of the music industry made it easier for everyone: cheaper production and distribution for the record companies (not to mention the opportunity to re-release catalogue records again in the new format), and cleaner and more reliable playback for the listener. You could even fit more CDs in your living room. Internet distribution and .mp3 files took it a step further: now, you don’t need a physical source at all. But with the decrease in the requirement for storage space and high street outlets for music has come a decrease in the quality of not necessarily music itself, but music as a product. There is a difference between a vinyl record in a gatefold sleeve, covered with lavish artwork, lyrics and messages or photographs from the artist, and an invisible (and highly compressed) .mp3 file which arrives in your iTunes Media folder along with a small .jpg of the album artwork. This is obvious to some, but the Noughties have shown us that the majority of music consumers do not see this difference.
There is a difference between a vinyl record in a gatefold sleeve, covered with lavish artwork, lyrics and messages or photographs from the artist
This is perhaps mostly because many younger people have never experienced the alternative: their parents’ vinyl collections are probably still in cardboard boxes in the attic, and the majority of households in the UK most likely don’t have any kind of Hi-Fi anymore, let alone a turntable. What has gone out of the proverbial window as a result is, unfortunately, any popular interest in audio quality or the elements of a record that accompany the music itself. So why has this resurgence of interest in the most arcane of audio formats occurred, despite the overwhelming convenience of the .mp3?
It would be lovely to think that people are waking up to the fact that the vast majority of audio files available through major online music providers are highly compressed and, when played through a quality sound system or even just a good pair of headphones, sound that way. Unfortunately, I fear that this is wishful thinking. Pleasingly, there is a (very) vocal minority, amongst whom I am proud to count myself, who are in the know and are currently hoarding vinyl records and searching for their favourite albums in FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) format. I hope that one of the reasons behind the regrowth of the vinyl industry is the swelling of the ranks of the largely humourless audiophiles, even if it is only a relatively minor one. In the meantime, let’s hope that the warm, dynamic sound of needle-on-plastic appeals to an increasingly discerning market.
It is more convincing to say that there is a definite fashion for vinyl at the moment. Now everyone is buying, storing and listening to their music digitally, the counter-culture accordingly insists on doing the opposite. In a happy (or otherwise, depending on who you ask) coincidence, the hipsters and rebels happen to be heading back to where the audiophiles have been for decades: polyvinyl chloride. This is evidenced by the increase in the number of small, independent record shops, selling both second hand and new vinyl. While the legendary haunts of our parents’ youths have either struggled through to today or fallen by the wayside, niche stores specialising in particular genres are increasing in number: the kind of place where you can buy a Godspeed You! Black Emperor 12” for £22, but you can’t enter without embarrassment if you’re wearing an Avenged Sevenfold hoodie (perhaps with good reason). Although this is in danger of passing, as with any fashion, it does seem to have endured for seven or eight years so far, so here’s to this fashion staying the course. On balance, hipsters have ‘gone done good’ here.
There is also something about vinyl: something special, something mysterious. Leafing through a box of assorted goodies and coming across a second hand Steely Dan record for £4, all the time wary that the pile of jazz singles on the shelf above your head could at any time collapse into the mug of tea the shop’s owner made for you, is an experience with no counterpart in the digital world. Scrolling through Spotify’s “Discover” page is not the same thing. Along with the vintage vibe, and the fact that everything about music was supposedly better in the ‘70s, this experience is winning people back in an age that is, after all, obsessed with shopping as a pastime rather than a chore.
Alice Cooper seems to think that people are buying vinyl again because “kids…they’re tired of buying air.” He’s probably right for a proportion of people, and this is indicative of two reasons why vinyl is gaining ground. Firstly, as mentioned above, a vinyl record is a lovely object, but having to sit down and put that record on, and having to babysit it when it reaches the end of Side A: that really makes you listen, rather than using music as a background for travel or, dare I say, essay writing. Secondly, the King of Shock Rock reinforces the pre-eminence of rock and heavy metal in the resurgence of vinyl. Pink Floyd’s The Endless River had the biggest opening week for a vinyl release this millennium, and Metallica were the first band to attach themselves to Record Store Day in 2008. Official RSD ambassadors have included Josh Homme, Ozzy Osbourne, Iggy Pop, Jack White and Dave Grohl; Chuck D is unique for his Hip Hop background.
If there’s anything we can expect from the world of vinyl retail in the coming years, it may be the expansion into other genres; the owner of my local record shop in Wolverhampton told me (in hushed tones) that one of the most sought-after RSD releases of 2014 was a One Direction album. Whatever you think of that, it is reassuring that vinyl may have a future even in the mainstream as it once did, even just as a collector’s piece. Curiosity or not, I’ll still be buying them in a decade’s time, and I hope you will too.