In today’s digital world you can listen to whatever music you want instantly at the click of a mouse. So why are vinyl records more popular now than they have been in years?
Shiny black round things: The UK is now home to just 291 independent record shops.
The vinyl record should have died long before the turn of the century. It was meant to vanish when the Compact Disc (the CD) arrived in the late 1980s — but it didn’t. It should have become an antique when the digital revolution of the internet, iTunes, iPods, Spotify and smartphones transformed how we listened to music over the last ten years — but that didn’t happen either.
Against all the odds, sales of vinyl records around the world have been rising every year in double-digit figures since 2007.
April 19th is Record Store Day. It began in the US in 2007 to raise appreciation of independent local record shops which were in decline as people spent more time listening online. Today these stores are in better shape than ever, as they are at the forefront of the vinyl revival. Many bands, including One Direction and Haim, support Record Store Day and are issuing special edition vinyl singles to promote it.
So what is the secret of vinyl’s long-lasting appeal? For many it is simply a better sound. Its fans believe that, compared to a CD, music on a vinyl record has a richer, more three-dimensional presence. They feel the process of creating a squeaky-clean digital sound removes too much of the ‘warmth’ of the original recording. To keep this they are willing to forgive the disadvantage that any specks of dust or damage to the disc can be heard as noise.
For others there is also pleasure in being physically involved as opposed to just clicking on a link. The care in removing the disc from its sleeve and the precision required to place it on the turntable and lower a needle creates a satisfying ritual, which prepares the mind to concentrate on listening. It’s a chance to escape the frantic on-all-the-time busyness of screens and smartphones.
So is vinyl set for a glorious return?
Hardly, say its critics. Last year 780,000 vinyl LPs were sold in the UK, double the number in 2012, but still only 0.8 per cent of all albums sold. And that’s a long way from vinyl’s heyday in 1979 when 89 million singles were sold and one hit single alone might sell more than half a million. Vinyl is a niche market, they say, and it’s going to stay that way.
That’s not the point, say fans. The reason more and more people like vinyl is because it gets you closer to the music. There’s a warmth and depth there that a download will never able to match. And no one invites you round to hear something they’ve just bought on iTunes, but they will if they have a new Arctic Monkeys album on the turntable.
I never listen to vinyl records. Why do they matter? Every new recording format creates musical possibilities. In the 1950s the long-playing vinyl record with close to an hour of music allowed the invention of the album. The arrival of the cassette tape in the 1960s meant people could easily record music and make their own mixtapes. MP3s have meant that everyone can create and share playlists.
- Aren’t vinyl records only for hipsters? There are lots of different types of music available on vinyl and some of them do form their own subcultures. But music is the least exclusive of pleasures. If you like it you can simply enjoy it.