Back in the groove: Why we're falling in love with vinyl all over again
It was a trip back through the decades I never imagined taking. Several weeks ago, and for the first time in years, I walked into a record store and handed over cold hard cash for a vinyl LP. It was a fancy anniversary reissue of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures and I had gone seeking it after failing in my attempt to have the record label send me one for free.
The retailer whose door I darkened was Golden Discs. I was back there again a few weeks later to purchase a reissue of Lana Del Rey's debut album and Julian Baker's second. Since then, I've impulse acquired the first two long players by French ambient artist Colleen.
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And I ordered the first three records by my favourite singer, Tori Amos. Is this what addiction feels like? At the time of writing I'm considering splurging on the recent album by the Japanese House. It's one of the year's best debuts. Why not own it on vinyl?
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, with people like me dashing around throwing cash in the air, it's no surprise to discover venerable retailer Golden Discs recorded a profit of nearly €200,000 last year.
The uptick was driven largely by a 40 per cent increase in vinyl sales - a huge surge given that we're already some way into the Great 21st Century Vinyl Boom.
It isn't just Golden Discs which is benefiting. Globally vinyl sales jumped 12 per cent in 2019 (with the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy 2 heading the charge). They now account for 14 per cent of all physical music purchases. Nor is it merely a craze among oldies. Fifty per cent of vinyl purchasers are under 25. The kids are really into this.
What's going on? Wasn't streaming supposed to have killed off forever the fuddy fetishisation of listening to music on physical media? Every song you ever wanted is out there, floating in the cloud, waiting for you to dive in.
The point, I suppose, is that streaming has also transformed music away from something to be collected and ogled. As with many Spotify subscribers, I've become inculcated into the cult of the playlist - meaning that, though I listen to more music than ever, the experience has become ephemeral.
Tunes flit past and even the best are hard to really build a relationship with. It's like sticking your hand in a flowing river and expecting to bond with the individual molecules. Spotify is about infinite supply. The entire point is that you're always looking to the next thing. It's never about the here or the now.
Vinyl, by contrast, is only about the here and now. The ritual of putting on a record is something people have banged on about for years so I'll spare you. But it is hugely refreshing to take time out, drop the stylus and let the sound wash over you. If there's a pop culture equivalent to the slow food movement, this surely is it.
There have been vinyl revivals before. Some of us are old enough to remember them first hand (that creaking noise are my joints giving in again). Indeed, many of my guiltiest secrets lie within my record collection (that guy who bought a vinyl edition of the first Kula Shaker album in 1997 - it was I, your honour). Still, this one feels different. For one thing, the internet and smartphones mean everyday life has never before been so pell-mell. Honestly, it can feel as if there's no escape. Sitting with a record and putting your devices away offers precious, if temporary, respite.
"As soon as I get back off tour, I'm taking my record player out," a musician told me recently. "I need to get back into the habit of listening to records. It's all streaming and playlists. I've lost the knack of sitting down and focusing."
"Vinyl went into a huge decline when the CD launched in the early 80s," says Hugh Scully of Dublin Vinyl, which earlier this year introduced the successful vinyl subscription service dublinvinyl.com and is planning to expand operations into America and Japan.
"Vinyl almost disappeared completely but sales slowly started growing with the introduction of the iPod and later, streaming services. People wanted something tangible and to really support their favourite artists."