Why Won't Vinyl Die?

It's been well documented in recent years that vinyl sales are on the rise, but who is buying the shiny black discs, and can the antiquated format really be sustained in a digital world?
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It's been well documented in recent years that vinyl sales are on the rise, but who is buying the shiny black discs, and can the antiquated format really be sustained in a digital world?

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As anyone who has ever helped a DJ move house will confirm, you only offer once. Yet, following the introduction of the LP in 1948, these 12”s of impracticality, evoking a fearsome loyalty, somehow prevail. We’ve always loved them. The unmanned Voyager space probes to Saturn (and beyond) contain songs to greet alien cultures cut to vinyl, with instructions on how to use it, and it will shock the iGeneration that families pressed for space once had to choose between a gramophone and a sofa. With discs lovingly placed upon the turntable, and children told to stand back, advice on improving sound fidelity included tapping out pipes, and to avoid trapping your bloomers in moving parts. Presumably, the joy of hearing music in your living room compensating for the lack of a sofa depended upon who was playing the records. In the absence of TVs and even money to buy large collections, playing a record was a monumental event - particularly for Peter Sellers, and his passengers, who even had a record player installed in his car.

There were fears since Voyager left in 1977 that a new generation might have needed its turntable’s instructions. In 2004, sales reached all time low, with Panasonic discontinuing its ubiquitous Technics SL-1200 turntable six years later. Now only one or two pressing plants remain in the UK, with the Vinyl Factory, the plant EMI sold in 2001, able to name itself in the definitive without confusion; its pressing of 1million records a week in the 70s now down to 25,000 a week.

However, as is well reported, as early as a Wired article in 2007, that in a music landscape littered by reunions, vinyl itself is making a comeback. In the UK 389,000 copies were sold in 2012, selling mainly from 300 or so surviving independent record shops, with the inclusion of CDs/downloads helping its renewed lease of life.

Vinyl, on mainly independent labels, might only constitute 3% market share in the UK, but compared to other formats, it’s rising, with 2013 sales figures already up by 78% on 2012. This increased demand recently wrong-footed a major label, apparently blaming the non-appearance of David Bowie’s The Next Day vinyl on a crashed lorry. No longer with a pressing plant in the UK, Colombia rely upon a US plant, which caused a similar backlog to Daft Punk’s album, and lost sales. Despite this, there is no indication yet of the majors recommitting themselves to vinyl. They are notoriously cautious, as Martin Atkins (drummer from Pil) reflected: “There’re no airbags in the music industry. When it goes wrong YOUR head is going through the windshield.”

So who’s buying it? It can’t all be Andrew Weatherall. And having seen off mini-discs and cassettes, and with CD (vinyl’s intended replacement) in its sights, why has vinyl survived?

Rough Trade East reveal that teenagers have started buying records, or vinyls, as they’ve renamed them; an almost retrograde phrase differentiating from the catchall ‘record’. Manchester’s Piccadilly Records similarly confirm an increase in vinyl sales over the past 5 years, and that teenagers are involved, buying records alongside 40-somethings who never stopped, and DJs who wish they could.  It reverts to a time when music involved hunting instincts and delayed gratification, as opposed to the ease of the digital takeaway. Its unique experience cannot be replicated via apps, or online. It is the joy of living off-line, free from profiling, advertising and surveillance.

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Then comes the supposed better sound quality, the record that vinyl audiophiles don’t like to change. It is probably debatable, but what does remain unique is the ritual of playing records. It is reminiscent of communion: the hush, the cloth, the reverence, and attentiveness to detail. It engages the listener before a note has played, resulting in a commitment to hearing the album through; or at least side 1. As Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy, of Classic Album Sundays says, “It’s kind of meditative…It’s turning off and actually going back to an analogue medium.” The bottom line is: you have to sit still, and playing a record implies you’re prepared to.

It maybe a fad, an opportunity for teenagers to rebel against the mainstream, from which pop-rave chart-fill is mostly unavailable on vinyl. Indeed, 2012’s best selling vinyls (Nick Cave, Richard Hawley, Alabama Shakes) groan with authenticity, evoking such nostalgia that it’s surprising they weren’t released on vinyl’s precursor, shellac - although in Jack White’s case it was probably discussed. But pop favourite Jake Bugg is also in there and, interestingly, Dr Who’s latest soundtrack comes on vinyl  - perhaps the Timelord knowing something we don’t - which certainly provides parents with something other than indecipherable plots to explain to offspring. As Roual Galloway, at Sound Performance says, “Younger collectors have found themselves attracted to vinyl because there’s an element of coolness associated with having a vinyl collection rather than mobile phones with MP3’s and streaming.” The recent (off-line) past is growing not only rosy, but cool too.

According to Andrew Bell at Denon, it might be that people want music from something other than computer speakers, reporting a doubling of Marantz and Denon ‘vinyl players’ between 2011 and 2012, while the two main pressing plants (France’s MPO and the Czech GZ) have such demand that advance orders are required. During April’s popular Record Store day of limited editions, the run-in time for general production even leaps from one month to three.

And to think it almost disappeared. One of the LP’s saviour’s was the dance 12” single of the 90s and early noughties, without which the few surviving pressing plants might have otherwise gone the way of mule textile machines of the 1800s. For DJs, both wannabe and actually, there was no alternative to the 12”; it ruled. The arrival of home studio software, CD mixers and laptop mixing may have now significantly affected sales of 12” singles, but its job is done - the unsung hero.

However, the fact remains, that without majors investing, and pressing plants running at capacity, vinyl releases generally trail main releases, if they appear at all. The attraction of digital sales to record labels, with no issues of overstock, storage, transport, or miss-pressings, is clear. And after all, any business plan based upon whims is inadvisable (Cabbage Patch Kid anyone?) but if these teenagers get the bug then perhaps another generation of vinyl junkies will need its fix. Perhaps this antiquated format still has life in it yet, but until the major labels reestablish their own pressing plants, vinyl will remain only a minor contender. But then perhaps that will be the very secret of its success.