Investigation into recent increases in sales of vinyl, for the Louder Than War website, and featuring exclusive interviews.
It has been well-reported recently that people are buying more vinyl, but some sales figures I learned of from a leading Manchester music store are quite remarkable. As a city whose social and cultural identity has always been closely intertwined with music, I wanted to discover what it was about vinyl that had recently captured the imagination of so many of Manchester’s public.
High street chain Fopp revealed that like for like sales on vinyl are up 100% this year, compared to 2012. And that is not merely a case of doubling from selling one record last year to two this, as Fopp also confirmed to me:
“Vinyl accounts for 25% sales on some new releases, such as Bowie, Arctic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend.”
Just think about that. One in every four people who went in to buy ‘A.M.’ walked out with the 12″ record. Fopp comes across as a store people visit for its competitive CD and DVD prices, as opposed to the specialist range of a traditional record shop, so is quite striking.
Across town, Piccadilly Records, one of Manchester’s largest independent music stores has seen a similar development:
“The change has been quite dramatic really,” confirms ‘Pasta Paul’, who worked at Piccadilly for twelve years, until earlier this year.”
HMV on Market Street has evolved too, boasting a much larger vinyl section (now downstairs) than in recent years.
Indeed, this increase in vinyl sales is hardly a revelation, and has been well reported already this year by the likes of NME, the Independent (source for both: Official Chart Company) and the BBC (source: BPI) amongst many others.
Andy Rourke, formerly of The Smiths, cemented in Manchester musical history, now lives in New York City, and suggests a similar resurgence in music fans buying vinyl in his adopted home-town:
“I really think that people are starting to buy vinyl again. Me certainly!”
Rourke also confirms the release plans for his current band, Jetlag:
“Jetlag intend to release a limited edition of 12-inch records, also some white labels for DJs to spin.”
So what has driven this recent change? It is worth considering the history of vinyl, alongside its rival musical formats.
Let us rewind to the early 80s, a time before bit torrents, YouTube or Soundcloud. If you wanted to listen to any music, you had to own it, and pay for it. Vinyl records were outselling the relatively new cassette (which, although smaller, was more difficult than vinyl for selecting tracks, and could be copied onto from a record), but the CD revolution was about to engulf music-lovers worldwide.
The BBC summarises the development of the Compact Disc, which was launched to rival vinyl with its two appealing advantages: Firstly, a more convenient listening experience was now possible, due to small, versatile players with track selection, pause and skip functions. Secondly, a smaller, more compact way of storing vast music collections could be achieved.
According to the BBC:
“In April 1982 Philips showed off a production CD player for the first time. “From now on, the conventional record player is obsolete,” said Lou Ottens.”
As we now know, vinyl did not succumb to the fate Ottens hinted at over 30 years ago, although the then the Technical Director of the Audio Division at Philips may, in fact, have had a point. Many ‘conventional’ record players Ottens referred to are indeed now rare. Turntables are no longer restricted to grandparent-esque Gramophones or large, bulky DJ decks. High street retailers now sell convenient, high-quality and fashionable players, stylish as well as practical.
Rourke concurs this has fuelled a desire to buy more vinyl:
“A friend of mine recently bought me a portable turntable as a gift which compelled me to go out and find some new records, now I’m hooked.”
So the ease of listening to music on vinyl seems to have increased, making it more comparable with putting on a CD. But what about that second downside to vinyl, owning and lugging around a collection of records?
Bizarrely, the digital revolution may have helped contribute to the public not minding and actually embracing this negative. To explain, Pasta Paul takes us forward to the beginning of this MP3 boom:
“It used to be all about CDs and vinyl, with vinyl on the way out. In 2001 the iPod was launched, mini-discs were still around and a total state on influx was just about to unfold.”
Around this time, many expected digital downloads, with their accessibility, size, ease to play and of course cost (even for those purchased legally) advantages, to eclipse all other music formats, and potentially signify the end for physical music sales and indeed stores. However, Pasta Paul confirms things did not quite work out that way:
“Vinyl sales did dip but they never went away. I would say that 2005/6 was a low point for vinyl sales.”
So why did we continue to buy vinyl, and more of it, too? Simon Poole, founder of the Silent Radio website, which covers all musical goings on in the region, provides an explanation:
“There are more artists using the vinyl format than when I first started blogging five years ago. The digital revolution has pretty much hit its peak and now many people are realising that, when they buy an album via mp3, they are in fact just paying for the pleasure of listening to it and not actually owning it.”
This view of wanting to own something physical is shared by Pasta Paul:
“I think people wanted something real to hold. Anyone can go online and download music for free or buy it from a creditable site. But owning a limited edition 7″ picture disc you can hold in your hands means something.”
Tom Clarke is an instrumental founding figure behind the legendary Manchester independent label Akoustik Anarkhy (often referred to as ‘aA’). He suggests the notion of the buying experience (or going shopping), itself as another factor, and refers to ‘vinyl lovers still looking through dusty shops searching out old ones, picking up new ones.’ Many can certainly relate to flicking through records in a rack and finding an unexpected nugget, so much more rewarding than an online search and click.
So a tangible product is important to many, with Poole arguing not just any old record will necessarily do:
“Artists are identifying a small number of their fans are willing to pay the extra for something a little bit special.”
Few would argue that a gatefold 12″ is not ‘a little bit special’, when compared to a jewel case CD. And, although there have been some wonderfully-packaged CD digipacks and box-sets, so have there been vinyl releases.
The website of Manchester band Dutch Uncles has sold out of the vinyl format of their latest album, 2013′s Out Of Touch In The Wild. It is a gatefold 12″ gold vinyl release. Drummer Andy Proudfoot puts forward another attribute for a release of this type:
“It was our idea for the gatefold, we’ve all loved an album in this format before. It allows for more album art and therefore adds more artistic value and continuation of themes throughout.”
If people do not need to buy CDs for the convenience anymore, they still can for their tangible element. But vinyl serves that purpose far better. Wall-hanging picture frames for your record sleeves, showing off your favourite LP or rare collectors’ items, would not provide anywhere near the same effect if CD-sized.
With the demand for vinyl remaining, combining formats has become more common.
“I think artists saw the creative side of vinyl and certain labels did too. Labels who release vinyl with free digital download codes included have the best of both worlds,”
…adds Pasta Paul, hinting at the ideal purchase for music fans – great playability with a delightful aesthetic quality to match. Proudfoot confirms this, adding:
“I just think you can’t really argue with a good looking product in a heavyweight format that also comes with a download code! Something for everyone, even if people just have it on display and listen to the digital version.”
Although some artists and labels may be vinyl junkies themselves, with Clarke suggesting ‘We always let the artists have control over the final product, artwork and design etc so hopefully they will like them,’ he adds that it is the record buying public who have shaped the format’s fate:
“We’ve been fortunate with our vinyl releases in that they’ve sold well. But if we didn’t sell any we’d soon stop.”
Proudfoot agrees that this is a consumer-led increase in demand:
“Vinyl is always the most popular bit of merch asked for at shows and we always make sure we’ve got plenty of all three records around. You tend to see people posting photos of their vinyl purchases a lot more than CDs or screen shots of iTunes! There’s always been a certain amount of satisfaction to be had when you’ve bought a new album on vinyl in comparison to other mediums.”
Record labels have responded by releasing more on the vinyl format, according to Poole:
“Whereas the press releases we used to get would list a lot of releases just being digital only, a lot of these artists that never really used CD as a viable format are now doing limited runs of vinyl.”
The popularity of vinyl has also certainly been helped by the annual Record Store Day, a nationwide event held at independent stores with artists contributing limited releases and even live performances to the promotion. Pasta Paul explains:
“Record Store Day was instrumental in the resurgence of vinyl sales in the later part of the decade. You can see how it invigorated and intrigued people who had never thought about owning a record let alone a record player.”
Indeed, its impact has been quite remarkable. Pasta Paul continues:
“In the days leading up to RSD, the press come out and turn it into a national story, it’s all over the radio and the BBC run a series of programs about how we all thought that people didn’t buy records anymore. If that means a few more people catch the bug and continue to buy, love and respect vinyl, that can only be a good thing.”
There are, of course, those who claim that the sound created by putting on a record, crackles ‘n’ all, cannot be replicated on any format, although that could be difficult to prove either way. One thing that can be agreed on, however, is that people are buying more vinyl, for whatever reason that may be.
“It’s nice to see releases in the shops, available at gigs and people enjoying them,”
…says Clarke, and I doubt anyone would disagree with that.
There has been also recently been a movement towards a cassette revival, and a ‘Cassette Store Day’ series of events, although the impact is yet to be known. For now, however, after seeing off the threat of the cassette, CD and mp3, it seems that vinyl will keep on spinning.
Warmest Thanks to everyone who has been interviewed for this article.
Akoustic Anarkhy will be releasing the new PLANK! single ‘Aphid / Pupal Stage’ very soon,http://www.akoustikanarkhy.co.uk/
The latest Dutch Uncles LP ‘Out Of Touch In The Wild’ is available now on Memphis Industries http://dutchuncles.co.uk/
Andy Rourke’s Jetlag are to release their début LP soon http://jetlagnyc.blogspot.co.uk/
Pasta Paul now DJs and books events at Kosmonaut in Manchester http://kosmonaut.co/
BBC – ‘Under 25s Are Behind A Surge In Vinyl Sales’http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/22208446
BBC – ‘How the CD Was Developed’ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6950933.stm