Vinyl Culture

In 2017, the consumption of vinyl records is a barometer of a certain artisan authenticity and cultural capital: no independent shop or event space is complete without a hub of LPs and a turntable amidst its distressed furniture, craft beer and specialist coffee. Sales of vinyl grew for a ninth successive year and reached a twenty-five year high in 2016, usurping digital download spending for the first time.

Away from the traffic of noise and hype surrounding this most unexpected of comebacks - a constant churn of mainstream news reports, Record Store Day exclusives, the launch of a new vinyl chart and supermarkets filling their shelves with the stuff - there is undoubtedly, to quote Buffalo Springfield, something happening here. Is this reversion to analogue merely a transient, fashion-driven trend or is it more permanent and emblematic of a phenomenon that transcends the vagaries of music?

Only a few years ago, industry jeremiahs were lining up to predict the demise of physical formats in the face of an unassailable explosion of digital music, downloads and streaming services: all genres of music, instantly accessible at the click of a mouse, morning, noon and night. Some five hundred and forty independent record shops folded between 2004 and 2009 and vinyl was viewed as the preserve of 'fifty-quid man' and die-hard, audiophile dullards.

However, since vinyl's 2007 death knell (a year in which just 200,000 LPs were bought overall), there has been a renaissance of physical music that commenced with a sharp upward turn in sales in 2008 (a doubling from the previous year's figures). The multi-national professional services company Deloitte predicts that vinyl revenues will approach one billion dollars globally for the first time this century as well as enjoying a seventh consecutive year of double digit growth this year.

Meanwhile, Jack White has just opened a new pressing plant in Detroit, Urban Outfitters has become a go-to source for young hipsters picking up new and classic titles as well as cheap-as-chips turntables, some artists are issuing 45's and LPs for the first time and the few surviving presses are struggling to meet the surge of interest and demand. In short, it's not a blip that is disappearing anytime soon.

A Friday afternoon traipse around Rough Trade's Brick Lane store demonstrated vinyl's eclectic reach: there were millennials, baby boomers and middle-aged punters purchasing albums and browsing the racks. Back in the 1990's, at the peak of the CD boom, vinyl collecting was viewed as an archaic, moribund hobby akin to trainspotting, whereas in 2017 it's seen as an aesthetic choice as much as a preference for a superior type of sound experience.

Mia Ramage, a fourteen-year-old from Essex looking for contemporary and retro indie-rock, told me that vinyl is "so much more appealing than streaming the album online as the music feels much more raw". She feels that the format "made you listen through the album from start to finish like a novel or a film and in the correct order - how it was intended to be played, which makes you appreciate the album as a complete piece of work in comparison  to a group of individual, unconnected tracks which can make you interpret the music in a different way". Her friend, Ellie Main, added that "vinyl allows me to separate myself and disconnect from the online world and connect with the music in a way that you can't with just streaming online".

For these young consumers, vinyl provides a refuge from the clinical side of the digital universe, with the packaging, cover art and sleeve notes servicing an appetite for aesthetic design and a tactile, immersive listening experience that's impossible to replicate with an MP3 or an ITunes code.

"People's appreciation of vinyl reflects a desire for imperfection", says Wayne at Soho record store and label Sounds Of The Universe. "No one has ever loved a CD or a download". He draws a parallel with the 'slow food movement', describing vinyl's rehabilitation as "a reaction against the immediate gratification and impersonality of online music culture"and notes that his clientele encompass all ages and include many tourists who view the procurement of tangible, physical products like vinyl as an intrinsic feature of the London experience.

Over at Fopp in Covent Garden, sales assistant Dom Lethbridge agrees that the vinyl format is in rude health, citing an exponential rise in sales over a period of six to seven years, an increase in floor space for it and a doubling of the store's range of titles in the last year alone. He estimates that vinyl's upsurge will peak and drop off at some point but believes it is a resilient, classic product that will survive fluctuations in its fashionability: whilst young customers are driving the boom and certain musical styles lend themselves to vinyl, he points to a rise in sales across demographics and genres.

It would seem incontestable that vinyl's comeback is being driven by a combination of factors. Older buyers are those collectors who never stopped purchasing throughout the CD and MP3 boom or those who sold their collections and are snapping them up again, fired by both a re-energising of the format and an inevitable nostalgia. Young consumers are fascinated as much by the surface noise and the level of engagement required that's lacking in the streaming and downloading of music. The latter caters for a more disposable sensibility with a fast attention span, whereas taking a record out of a sleeve and putting it on a turntable is imbued with a mystery and a cachet that online versions are unable to replicate.   

Paradoxically, another development fuelling the boost in record sales has been the rise and predominance of audio streaming itself (which has increased 500 per cent in the last four years). Services such as Tidal and Spotify offer a versatile gateway to musical discovery and novelty way beyond the possibilities thrown up by radio and the music press for previous generations. It's as though many people are exploring the options provided by streaming and if they are really drawn to something then they are going to shops and investing in the physical manifestation of what they enjoy on their tablets, phones and computers.

Another facet that's easy to overlook is vinyl's ubiquity in the online dialogue: a slew of web sites have arrived on the scene to help perpetuate the greater visibility of records in the musical blogosphere. Vinyl Encounters, for example, is an enterprise set up by Jamie Parmenter that's entirely devoted to the physicality and the sensory perception of vinyl music, combining photography, reviews and personal stories behind favourite albums to spread the word about artefacts that have sound-tracked definitive moments in people's lives. Ben Goldfarb aka DJ Scribe also created the 'I Love Vinyl' site in 2009 with a group of other jockeys from New York, Chicago and Baltimore as a means of defining a 'sonic manifesto' for believers.

Whatever happens next, it seems likely that vinyl's rejuvenation will continue to be an integral feature of the recent upturn in the music industry's economic fortunes. Regardless of its long-term prospects and its current media darling status, the format is feeding from a palpable synergy between indie labels, stores and a huge array of niche artists and audiences that indicates a convergence of co-existing platforms is the future.

Michael Sumison