5 page feature in the printed edition of todays UK times. Buy a copy!
Vinyl sales have shot up as CDs slump. Will Hodgkinson explains why we’re falling back in love with long-players
In March 2007, when digital singles outsold CDs for the first time, a media analyst called Aram Sinnreich told The New York Times: “I think the album is going to die. Consumers who have had iPods since they were in their single digits are going to increasingly gravitate towards artists who embrace that.”
Almost five years on, Sinnreich’s prediction has taken an unexpected slant. Album sales are indeed down: most major artists, with the exception of Adele, now sell only two or three hundred thousand copies of their latest albums. The HMV group is shifting its focus towards technology after an 8.1 per cent sales drop over Christmas. Despite this, there has been a boom in the music format equivalent of a Tudor re-enactment: vinyl.
Vinyl sales are at their highest for six years. According to data from the Official Charts Company, 240,000 vinyl albums were sold in the first ten months of 2011, up 40 per cent on the year before. In the US sales were at 3.9 million, compared with 2.8 million in 2010. Artists have realised that fans want something more substantial than a download: Florence and the Machine released a 45 of the singleShake It Out with a sleeve designed by Karl Lagerfeld, while Jack White of the White Stripes’ Third Man Records in Nashville has issued everything from a cosmos-themed glow-in-the-dark single by the astronomer Carl Sagan to a scented vinyl album by the model Karen Elson. The company has also put out new editions of classic White Stripes albums — on 13-inch vinyl.
Vinyl may not hold a place in the nation’s consciousness as it did back in 1975, when 91.6 million albums were sold in the UK alone, but its value as a medium of quality amid the ephemera of the digital age is becoming appreciated. Meanwhile, CD sales in the UK dropped by 12.6 per cent in 2011. It makes sense. Why pay for a bunch of digital files on a disc when you can listen to the same files on your computer for free?
Radiohead’s approach with The King of Limbs points the way forward. In February 2011 the Oxfordshire band put the album out, with little prior warning, as a £6 download on their website. Two months later they released it as a “newspaper edition” comprising two 10in vinyl platters, a CD, extended liner notes in the form of a newspaper and all the ensuing artwork such a package demands. The result was a good-looking, great-sounding object that people wanted to own. The £33 newspaper edition has sold more than 20,000 copies.
It isn’t only well-known bands such as Radiohead who are encouraging the move back to vinyl. The independent label Rise Above Records recently issued a £37 limited edition version of a rare album from 1972 called Swaddling Songs by Mellow Candle. All 1,000 copies sold out within weeks. Why is this happening, and who is buying it?
The clichéd image of the vinyl enthusiast is of a man — always a man — in his forties or fifties, seeking to revive the adolescent thrill of coming back from the high street with a new album, gingerly placing the needle on the groove, and rolling a joint on the sleeve before his mum shouts up the stairs and tells him to come down for tea. According to Rise Above’s Lee Dorrian, this isn’t the case at all.
“Ironically, technology has made a younger generation interested in vinyl,” says Dorrian. “Since music blogs blew up a decade ago all these kids are hearing amazing records online they could never have had access to before. Then they want to go deeper; they want the physical reality of a great album in their collection.”
One of Rise Above’s biggest bands, the Black Sabbath-inspired Electric Wizard, sold 10,000 copies of their latest album on vinyl, roughly the same amount as they sold on CD. “A well-produced vinyl edition by a band with a cult following has value,” says Dorrian. “Earlier this year we put out a limited edition of a single by a band called Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, which sold out in two days. It was on eBay for £600 two days after that.”
It’s the same story in the US. Light In The Attic is a label that specialises in high-quality reissues of albums that slipped through the cracks first time round. Its success shines a light on the fact that a culture of selling cheaply produced albums online for next to nothing has been instrumental in the devaluation of music as a whole.
“Putting out our releases with care is a slap in the face to those artists and labels that sell albums on Amazon for $3.99,” says Light In The Attic’s co-founder Matt Sullivan, on the phone from Los Angeles. “What’s happening now is that fashionable clothing stores such as Urban Outfitters are selling records and record players, so well-produced, good-looking vinyl editions have become covetable again. We never wanted to sell just to specialist collectors; we want to find an audience for great albums that didn’t get the attention they deserve. So when Urban Outfitters take a big order of, say, our reissue of Serge Gainsbourg’s [Histoire de] Melody Nelson, we feel like we’re doing the right thing.”
One of the few British record shops to thrive in recent years is Rough Trade. Founded in 1978 by Geoff Travis as a response to the DIY example of punk, Rough Trade now has two roles: as a store that fosters a sense of community among its customers, and a label that has released iconic albums by everyone from the Smiths to Arcade Fire. After agonising about whether he should spend £300 on deluxe vinyl editions of the first five Rolling Stones albums, Travis explains how Rough Trade’s story is essentially the story of a love affair with vinyl.
“Vinyl is returning because there’s a reattachment to something tangible and tactile,” Travis says. “You feel the history of something cut on a lathe; an ancestor to a piece of shellac. I see kids coming into the shop and buying records for the same reason I did when I was their age: to be involved with music through object fetishism. You’re perpetuating that mythic aspect that is at the heart of pop and rock music.”
That sense of myth and romance is an essential part of vinyl’s appeal. People think I’m trying to be cool when I tell them this, but the first record I bought was Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols. I was 10, and a visit to my rather unsophisticated suburban punk cousin — this was 1980 — made a deep impression. From the safety pin in his teddy bear’s ear to the anarchy sign on his Helix geometry set, everything about this boy seemed dangerous and exciting. Saving up for that album, which I still have, was a way to be like him. The fact that the first single I bought was the rather less cool Toast by Streetband (featuring Paul Young) in no way lessens the fact that records are as much about the worlds they represent as they sounds they capture.
That leads to a question anyone thinking of ditching the CD player and buying a record deck needs to ask: does vinyl actually sound better? This New Year’s Eve, a friend threw a party where she asked friends to bring along discs to play on the Dansette her husband bought her for Christmas. I contributed a handful of seven-inch singles, among them a song called Ace Insurance Man by the Sixties singer Bobbie Gentry.
It might have just been what Geoff Travis calls “the brain-flipping illusion” that vinyl makes everything sound better, but it seemed like Bobbie Gentry was in the room with us. Every instrument was up close; Gentry’s voice never more seductive. I’m not a sonic scientist, but there was a warm quality to that 45 that the digital version of the song just doesn’t have. Even the crackles were magical.
For all of the romance surrounding it, however, vinyl is only a product. The LP came into being in 1948 after the Columbia record company realised the commercial potential of a format that could play up to 25 minutes of music per side. RCA Victor brought out the 45rpm single a year later. Yet it’s a product that works and a design classic too, and it’s looking increasingly likely that vinyl will return as the medium of quality while CDs go the way of the eight-track cartridge. That’s no bad thing. Just as Holy Communion demands a gilded chalice, so a great album demands a beautiful object to contain it.