How much would you pay for a copy of Nik Kershaw’s album ‘The Riddle’? Should you wish to add it to your iTunes collection via Apple’s store, it would cost you about £5.50. On Amazon’s marketplace, you could pick up the CD for £7.65. But in a hip store, in Sheffield’s Meadowhall Centre, a second-hand vinyl version would rush you £12.50.
In the age of Spotify, Google Play, file sharing and Grooveshark, something curious is happening. The oldest commercial music format is attracting impressive sales, at premium prices.
In 2013, just over 780,000 vinyl albums were bought in the UK. That’s the most since 1997 when 817,000 were sold, and also represents a 101% increase on 2012′s numbers. The total for 2014 is expected to be higher still. Obviously this is a tiny percentage of all music bought, but it is still a noticeable and expanding market. So who’s buying vinyl LPs and why?
Interestingly, the sales figures for turntables are more or less static. So, either many people still have their record players and have returned to the purchase of product to play on them, or a cross-section of the consumer base is forking out for vinyl, but isn’t playing it. That latter explanation at first appears ludicrous, but I sense some truth in it.
"What we’re witnessing here is a fetish."
‘Hipster’ isn’t a new label – it reaches back to the jazz-age, but its use as rather derisory handle for a certain breed of male urbanite is quite recent. Alongside the hipster’s impossibly tight jeans, giant spectacles and an obligatory beard come various lifestyle accessories – an iPad, a waistcoat and a penchant for old records. This is particularly apparent at Spitalfields Market, on the boundaries of the City of London and the beginning of Shoreditch, the hipster’s natural territory. Here, dotted amongst the designer dresses, handmade jewellery and artisan coffee, are dozens of vinyl stalls – enthusiastically attended by clutches of the aforementioned hirsute gentlemen, busily flipping through dog-eared copies of ‘Parallel Lines’, ‘London Calling’ and ‘Live And Dangerous’. In their pockets are electronic devices onto which they could download almost any album with a few stabs of a forefinger, and at a fraction of the cost.
What we’re witnessing here is a fetish. Twelve inches of black plastic, covered in a printed cardboard envelope have become an object of desire. Just like those spherical black and white TVs, or those tripod Philippe Starck lemon squeezers, the functionality of the vinyl LP isn’t the point – it’s the totemic value and the fashionable cache which is attractive.
Of course, these are not the only folk buying analogue music. Many professional DJs still favour the grooved format (although many don’t), and there is still a clutch of fans who take great pleasure in tracking down obscure US soul recordings, or ‘Anarchy In The UK’ on A&M. Then there are those who insist that music simply sounds better when generated by a stylus dragging its way through plastic bumps and valleys. The hunters after rare discs I completely understand. There is a definite thrill in acquiring something original and scarce – it’s the same satisfaction offered by ownership of a first edition of Winnie The Pooh, The Naked Lunch, or issue one of Action Comics. DJs know their trade and the best tools for the job, but the hipsters and auTVdio fiends baffle me.
Buying and owning vinyl LPs as a fashion statement is similar to adopting veganism for style purposes. The consumer choice is easily made, but the deeper significance of the behaviour or product is ignored or unknown. Surely exploring the collected works of Steely Dan, absorbing the lyrical wit and complex composition via one’s iPhone, is far cooler than snapping up a battered old copy of ‘Katy Lied’ and propping it up in your Hoxton lounge, hoping one’s dinner guests find it nicely offsets your ‘upcycled’ dresser.
I’m also bemused by the claims made for vinyl’s sonic superiority. I’m completely aware that an MP3 audio file is very compressed, measured against an analogue record. But there are so many variables in the playing of the two formats, that a straightforward comparison is almost impossible. Someone crowing about the depth and richness of the vinyl experience, is often talking about the brilliant reproduction of their classy turntable and amplifier. If they were to listen to their cherished Miles Davis collection on the old JVC music centre I lugged from flat to flat throughout the eighties, I suspect they’d reach for an iPod in an awful hurry.
It’s incredibly swish to bemoan the soullessness of the CD and the homogenized feel of the MP3, but let’s be honest, unless you happen to be an acoustics expert or a particularly exacting connoisseur, has that difference every really detracted from your listening pleasure? If an MP3 comes across as a touch tinny, a better set of headphones usually solves the problem, doesn’t it? In fact, the poor performance of Apple’s standard-issue cans has done more to fuel scepticism than any actual format failure.
Like any music buff in his forties, I remember vinyl’s glory days with affection (album artwork has certainly never been more impressive), but I also look back fondly on my Chopper bicycle without wanting it back in my life. How soon we forget the irreparable damage a determined scuff or scratch would inflict on a favourite disc. How casually we disregard the memory of onerous cleaning and polishing our record collections demanded. What’s more, with every play, each LP came closer and closer to its demise.
Without hesitation, when CDs became the majority format, I switched to buying my music on those smaller, silver discs. When CDs were superseded by digital downloads, I happily embraced them. The delivery mechanism has always been considerably less significant to me than the artists and their music. And it seems to me that those fuelling the resurgence in vinyl have their priorities a bit skewed.
Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant