Entertainment Music

Friday 19 January 2018

Vinyl solution to the record industry woes?

Ready for the weather: Belle & Sebastian's Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance deserves to be listened to on vinyl
Ready for the weather: Belle & Sebastian's Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance deserves to be listened to on vinyl
John Meagher

John Meagher

There's no doubt about it. Vinyl is having a resurgence - and it's not just older people trying to reclaim their youth or hipsters looking for another slice of 'authenticity'. You might be surprised by the tender years of those perusing the vinyl sections today, and record shops are devoting more and more floor space to meet the demand.

Records are selling at greater numbers now than at any time over the last quarter century. You have to go back to the days of Nevermind and Achtung Baby for a time when vinyl shifted quite as much as it did last year.

The deaths of several totemic figures helped push record sales to levels not seen since 1991. David Bowie's Blackstar was a particularly big-seller on vinyl and in the weeks after his death, he had five albums in the vinyl Top 30. Classic Prince and Leonard Cohen records also sold significantly after their passings.

But it wasn't just heritage names who helped to push record sales up - Beyoncé's Lemonade sold very well in vinyl and there's been healthy interest in a fifty quid box-set version that came out just before Christmas, too.

All that helped to increase vinyl sales in the UK by 53pc last year, versus 2015, and if that trend continues, as appears likely, 2017 will be even bigger.

It seems quite extraordinary in a time of unlimited, previously undreamed of choice - where virtually every song you could wish to hear is available on a €10-a-month streaming subscription - that people would opt for a format that's often expensive, hardly portable, and involves far more from the user than a few finger-swipes on a smart-phone. (Of course, the chances are the new vinyl aficionados have a Spotify account, too, and if they do, they're clearly thinking some albums are worth paying for.)

Audiophiles have long argued that the 'warmth' of vinyl makes it preferable to other formats, but current sales are down to far more than the quality of the sound. Wonderful as streaming is - and I'm fully on board, having resisted initially - it does feel terribly ephemeral. Yes, there's such a gigantic quantity of music to draw from, for the equivalent of about two pints every month, and it's perfectly portable, too, but you simply couldn't argue that it hasn't helped diminish music.

You're far less likely to skip tracks on a record than CD, MP3 playlist or stream - although the least skippable format remains the cassette, which I've a soft spot for having been of impressionable age during its heyday - and the business of putting on an album is an active gesture that makes you far more engaged with music than merely typing a band's name out on Deezer.

But more than anything else, vinyl is a wonderfully tangible, quite beautiful artefact that showcases album artwork like nothing else. It's a reminder, in an age where the music's visual can be reduced to the size of your phone's screen (and rarely makes much impression), that great covers and great music often go hand in hand.

I was in a café the other day and eavesdropped on a conversation between two strangers. One had noticed the other was carrying Miles Davis's landmark jazz album Kind of Blue in his see-through Tower Records bag, and felt moved to tell its owner that he was in for a treat, it was one of his favourite albums. His new friend agreed, said he'd had the CD for years but was slowly purchasing all his best-loved albums on vinyl.

It's doubtful any discussion would have been struck up if the Kind of Blue fan was merely listening to a streamed version on his phone. Short of staring at the screen, how would you know? But sight of that famous 12-inch cover was enough to bring two music-lovers together, albeit fleetingly.

While the record industry has constantly reinvented itself technologically, it's never bettered vinyl as a format, aesthetically speaking. Even a decade ago, when vinyl sales were less than 10pc of what they are today, you would have had little difficulty finding people to tell you that.

It's intriguing to think that vinyl sales really started to accelerate around the time that streaming became a thing. Spotify ushered in an era of unlimited choice, but even its biggest admirer couldn't but acknowledge that streaming devalues music, even more so than the now ailing MP3. Perhaps it's understandable that some would want to rediscover a format that values music more than any other.

It also offers a permanency in a very disposable world. Loving the new xx album and its mirrored cover (which really looks good on vinyl)? Well you can pass that on to your nearest and dearest 30 or 40 years from now, whereas those enjoying the streamed version won't have much to show for it then - or now.

And that's the other thing about vinyl - it's a tangible possession that offers the finger to the cloud. Celebrate streaming though you may, but don't forget you're paying into a 'loanership' model. You never own all that great music. Stop paying the monthly subscription and access to the tunes evaporates. Can you be so sure that €10 will be the subscription rate per month next year, or 10 years from now? Would you pay €20 a month? How about €50?

While vinyl accounts for just 5pc of all album sales, the hefty margin involved is good news for the record industry and retailers. It also highlights a renewed willingness for people to pay for music, something that has troubled the industry ever since Napster came racing out of the blocks.

It's good news for the artists too, especially the down-at-heel fledgling ones. There's a much greater fiscal return for each record sold than for tens of thousands of plays on any of the streaming services. We can all toast to that.

Three records to love

Belle & Sebastian

Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

The hyper-literate Glaswegians would certainly approve of vinyl's resurgence and their latest album will get you in the mood for their outdoor show at Dublin's Iveagh Gardens on July 20.

The White Stripes

Elephant

Recorded at London's exclusively analogue Toe Rag studio, Jack and Meg's fourth album - and its emblematic single, 'Seven Nation Army' - sounds especially great on vinyl. Turn up the volume loud.

Brian Eno

Reflection

It's available as an 'endless album' thanks to an app that sees it constantly rewriting itself, but Eno's latest ambient confection is made for any turntable.

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