Thursday 6 March 2014

For the record-debunking the myth of a vinyl revival

"Well they say "Brian is back", but in my heart he's always been around" The Beach Boys-Brian's Back

"Mums with pushchairs outside Sainsbury's/ tears in their eyes/They'll never buy a Gibb Brothers record again/Their old 45s gathering dust..." Saint Etienne-Teenage Winter

Imagine, if you will, a world where the media gets itself all excited about a beer revival. The BBC makes programmes about beer, full of hazily recreated shots of a heavily side-burned young man entering a 70's pub and wistfully buying a pint in a handled glass. The great and the good trip of themselves to comment about how great buying beer is. "You never forget buying your first pint" says one. "There's that silence, then a clink of glass" chimes another "then you get your first sip. It's like magic". The press flies the flag for beer. 'The Beer Revival' screams the Mail headline. "An online poll of 1,700 beer buyers found that 86 per cent of them said it was their favourite ale format. A third of today’s beer fans are aged under 35. 'Beer is back' says another. "The first half of 2013 saw sales of beer increase by over 33%, based on the previous year’s numbers.' Great, you may think to yourself, I like beer. But hang on a minute, I've been buying beer since my late teens and have never stopped, how can it be back if it never went away?

Of course, the above quotes are not about beer, but about vinyl. It would appear that thanks to an Arctic Monkeys LP an increase of sales of vinyl occurred to the tune of 33%. The only people really trumping this are the major record labels. We should perhaps remind ourselves that we owe these people no favours. In 1979 Sony and Phillips united to introduce a new digital storage disc. The CD (a kind of mug coaster invented by Metal Mickey) was a disaster for LP's and 45's and killed off the cassette tape. The marketing campaign for CD's in the late 80's and early 90's was a simple one: the vinyl record is obsolete, this new shiny disc is all you need. Strangely, the record buying public acquiesced, with 400 million compact discs being produced in 1988 alone. People where getting rid of their weighty, cumbersome, scratchy, space consuming LP's and buying into the slick new age. Then, just as the record companies were doing an Arthur Daley-esque trade in pushing you to buy a record you already owned, it all went horribly wrong for them. After enjoying the Britpop boom of record sales (once again kids where spending pocket money on records in Beatlemania proportions) the 2000's saw the internet triumph. MP3's and file sharing was the new thing daddio. Your music lover could askew the nasty business of having to actually buy recorded music and could simply download that tune they wanted free, or if they couldn't find the songs they wanted, they could buy the ghostly essence of a song from Itunes for 79p. This development pretty much killed of popular music as we knew it in the UK. We lost Tower, Virgin. Our Price, MVC to name just a few. We lost Top of the Pops and 90% of independent record shops. We lost the act of buying a record. It was the Sony wot dunnit.

During all this though, did you actually stop buying new records on vinyl? The other formats all had flaws (tapes chewed, CD skipped, MP3's, well, pretend records hardly constitute a record collection do they? You don't even own it. Your collection of songs downloaded from Itunes remains the property of Apple, and is theirs to take back once you die) but vinyl when looked after can last forever. Don't get me wrong, I own an ipod, I have bought tapes and CD's, but I prefer listening to vinyl. It's my format of choice. I like vinyl. I love buying records more than I love buying socks, but we should remember they are very much the same act.

For my money, there are two kinds of people who buy their records on vinyl. One is the collector, the person who is a bit older and has a bit more spare cash and must have every release by an artist or label, even if it means shelling out £50 for a record they already own because the font is slightly different on the label. This is vinyl as fetishism. Sawdust Caesars building their own little empires of taste. The spotlight was shone on these kind of collectors by Nick Hornby in his book (and eventual film) High Fidelity. In the book, one record shop worker sells a Dylan LP to a gullible customer on the grounds that people will mock him if doesn't own it. It made an A&M pressing of the God Save the Queen 7" the pinnacle of the desirable record collectible and as a result the price of the 45 rocketed. It is perhaps easy to sympathise or even feel empathy towards these fellows. In a harsh and uncaring world, a record collection is a sane beacon of light, one to cherish in mutual understanding. But make no bones about it, these are lovers of vinyl not music. Their purchases are based on their heads rather than their hearts. They buy records as an act of tribalism rather than love, the same way football fans show their allegiance not by going to games but by buying the new shirt every season and any mug, car air freshener, socks, or wallet with the team logo on it. Records are not be played and enjoyed, but bought, filed away and stored, like a stamp collection. A very recent example of this is Pristine Christine by the Sea Urchins, the first release on Sarah records suddenly selling in excess of £200. It's perfectly possible the new owner is spinning it regularly and drinking in it's chiming indie tones with an ear to the speaker and a feeling of warmth all over them, but I somehow doubt it.

The second type of vinyl buyer is the music fan. They love nothing better than to discover a new band or a new label. They can be very easily identified, they play the same 7" over and over again and gently sway the pub conversation towards the new band, song, album, label that you simply MUST listen to. These are music's bread and butter, the reason the world of music is still thrilling and wonderful. There's nothing quite like that buzz of finding something new to fall in love with. It, of course, doesn't have to be a new release. One of my favourite record shops is Beatin' Rhythm Records in Manchester, but it was really special when it was on Tib Street. It was a room full of 45's and a couple of decks with headphones. You could pick up a pile of 7" records, give them a spin and buy the ones you liked the sound of. There was something lovely, beautiful and exciting about that. You may have picked up a record that you will still playing when you're sixty, or it may be a load of shit. I love that gamble. (Through digging there I picked up a copy of Tainted Love by Ruth Swann for a fiver and a copy of Let the Music Play by Didi Noel for two quid. I sill play these records in pretty much every DJ set I do). Of course, you could buy the prettily packaged CD set of 100 best Northern Soul records, with extensive sleeve notes and pictures. But really, where's the fun in that?

Perversely, the nostalgia thing has gone full circle, with people trying to replace the LP they got rid of when they bought the CD. "I used to have that on vinyl" they say, and drift off into a warm daydream, then find themselves shelling out silly money on Ebay. There is a rather confusing quote by head of BPI Geoff Taylor. "The LP is back in the groove. We're witnessing a renaissance for records - they’re no longer retromania and are becoming the format of choice for more and more music fans." he says "This year has been a treat for vinyl aficionados with releases from Daft Punk, David Bowie, Arctic Monkeys and Black Sabbath". I'm not sure how buying a Black Sabbath record isn't 'retromania', but there we are. One thing the majors have got wind of is the genius idea of having an MP3 download code included when you buy a new LP, an idea nicked wholesale from the indie labels the BPI ignore. It means you can enjoy your new LP at home, have it on your ipod when you walk to the pub or burn it onto CD for the car. One thing the BPI cannot smooth over, is where someone wanting to buy the new Daft Punk, David Bowie, Arctic Monkeys and Black Sabbath LP's can do so. With HMV now effectively a t-shirt and DVD shop, how can the BPI trump a vinyl revival when it's impossible for people outside cities to actually physically buy them? Even indie labels who specialise in vinyl releases are feeling the pinch, with the price of mailing them out getting giddily higher and higher, making it virtually unsustainable to ship records over seas. Maybe the resurgence will see the comeback of record shops, but I wouldn't hold your breath.

Look, there is no vinyl revival. People have never stopped buying it they way the stopped buying cassettes. It's always been a format of choice. However heavily glossed up for the press, an increase in sales of LP's is a good thing, but can only be sustained if people go on buying it. Maybe someone buying an Arctic Monkeys LP can buy a key to the wonderful world of buying records. Or maybe their loan foot square purchase will sit in a corner gathering dust. One thing is for certain, every year there is a new label, a new band, a new LP to fall in love with. Your only job is to discover it.


  1. This is interesting, right and against the grain ... very good. Spot on about the marketing campaign for CDs. Remember the one detail that was at the core of this campaign? - Find some stupid megaband who will take your stupid money and tell their stupid listeners the CD sounds so much better? Dire Straits,so much to answer for.

    I also generally agree that sales picking up a bit compared to dismal earlier years does not justify speaking of a revival of a format that's never been away. However, for me personally, it is. In the years between 2005 and 2011 I (counting myself firmly among your second type of music fan) bought almost no physical format at all. In those years, having a beautiful object mattered less to me than the option to take the music with me anytime and anywhere I went. It was only towards the end of 2011 that I noticed (I hadn't really been paying attention) that this was no longer a decision I had to make, that I could have both. So being offered the complete service of how I want to listen to music made all the difference to me and I don't care who had the idea first. Ever since then I've been buying about twice as much music as ever before. Because vinyl rocks. Revival, there you go.

  2. Thanks for your comment. It's really easy to get all doe eyed about the LP being an object. For me it always has been and always has been my favourite way of playing music. That said, I (as written above) do own an ipod. What's interesting is that there a certain albums that sound great wandering around on an ipod but not so good sitting down to listen to it in my bedroom and vica versa. The bedroomy stuff sounds OK if youre listening to it on a train, say, but not walking down the street. I'm not sure why that is. I cannot, however, listen to songs from a computer. Call me rockist, but I cannot get on with spotify. There nearest I come to that is hearing something on bandcamp and then buying the release. That works.

    I'm really glad you got into buying vinyl again. The multi format the download slip brings is close to genius, and has to have some sort of effect on people buying it for the first time. This is great stuff, but only if they keep buying it.

    What else I find interesting is the time period you stopped buying vinyl. Around the early 2000's the fall out of anthemic britpop turned me off indie for a few years, and instead I got into Northern Soul and old funk, which had me digging around second hand record shops. I'm sure I would have bought vinyl still if I was buying indie records in that period, but a lot less of them I reckon.

  3. I guess with me it was more of a case of technology triggering behaviour than any development in the music scene. I just happened to buy my first iPod in 2004 and after a while thought, hey this is a great device!

    Couldn’t agree more about not being able to use the computer for music. I just don’t get Spotify or Last FM, not even Soundcloud. I believe I get the idea behind Bandcamp and find it rather charming but the thing that most turned me back to buying vinyl and feeling the excitement of new music was finding Twitter. It’s just such an inspiration to follow people’s recommendations even though I only use the links posted for a first impression … anything I find great or even interesting I try to get a hold of on vinyl these days. Incidentally, this is where Bob Stanley is definitely wrong in his otherwise excellent book. You know there’s this nostalgic attitute of ‘The internet killed the record dealer and the music magazines’ and how this is so sad because now there’s no-one left to sort the wheat from the chaff and offer guidance in the vast field of music. That’s just rubbish. Finding and following the right 50 accounts on twitter was less hassle and offers me guidance that’s so much more broad and at the same time more specifically tailored to my preferences than any record dealer or magazine 20 years back could ever have done!

  4. The irony of Yeah Yeah Yeah was I was sent scuttling to youtube just to get some sort of reference of the records he was talking about. I apologise for fence sitting here, but I see both sides of the argument and think they are both right. What Stanley was talking about is the dying art of great music journalism. I held (hold) the same view, so as an experiment bought a huge pile of Select/NME's from a local chazzer. And do you you what, the standard of journalism was fantastic. Trust me, this is isn't an old sod getting nostalgic, I found myself absorbed in articles about bands I have absolutely no interest in, just because they were so brilliantly written. But where I agree with you is that standard of journalism has been pushed in to the underground, I trust tweeters and bloggers far more than any music magazine, which is actually quite sad. I've written, on this very blog, about the serendipity of music and how I've discovered music totally by accident, and it's those bands and those records who hold a special place in my heart. Discovering music is an incredibly wonderful thing, it borders in righteous. But I you, as a DJ there's nothing more annoying than finding a brilliant band and not being able to play them because they haven't released anything on vinyl. "Surely you could just play the CD" says the voice. Well, that's a totally different argument.

  5. "I trust tweeters and bloggers far more than any music magazine" too. What I miss is the consensus of magazine reviews, when the music press was the only source of info, even if it was disagreeing with Tony Parsons, Garry Bushell or Everett True. Of course, following a dozen twitter accounts or blogs can be great for the individual, but it's much more abstract, and deathly for pub conversations.

    I'd be delighted if the BBC started making 'beer revival' programmes. It doesn't seem that unlikely. Real ale has had a similar lost/found trajectory to vinyl. And "craft beer" rubs me up the same wrong way as "vinyls".

  6. A lot of media coverage of the high sales of vinyl has used the word 'hipster' which is pretty infuriating. It must be like being a labourer and suddenly seeing all the kids wearing a working mans donkey jacket.

    I remember going to a junk shop a few months back, and buying a load of old copies of NME, Q, and Select. I found myself reading them cover to cover even (almost especially) the writing on artists I don't know or don't like. The standard of writing was incredible, and I miss that so much. Like you say, the danger is that everyone is reading from various sources and the connection is lost. I stopped reading NME when they had a picture of, I think, the singer out the View with his messy hair and the comment was an advert for a hair gel. I'd rather have 20 people read a good fanzine than 20,000 reading half baked journalism used to sell product.

    I have no problem discussing music in the pub. Not over a 'craft' beer obviously. Thanks for reading.