Record Store Day, the vinyl revival and the music in our mess age

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Record Store Day takes place on April 19. Once again, retailers and crate diggers will come together to worship at the altar of vinyl. But is all as it would seem? Getintothis’ Jono Podmore separates myth from reality.

Record Store Day has been incredibly important as a catalyst for the resurgence of vinyl. The fact that indie record shops managed to sell a huge £2m worth of vinyl in one day puts paid to the idea that either vinyl or record stores themselves are on the way out.”Kim Bayley, Director General of the Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA)

Getintothis was working a lot in France at the turn of the century. It was the period that, somewhat behind the rest of Europe, the French suddenly found themselves encouraged in strangely choreographed waves to buy mobile phones and to use the internet.

Although almost overnight every train journey was regularly punctuated by téléphone portable beginners bellowing into their shiny new machines approximations of their arrival time and the impact it would have on meals, lots of the population faced this technological onslaught differently. With typical Gallic defiance and the obligatory shrug we would often hear the badly-shaved cynically and sarcastically intone “Le progrès ne s’arrête pas” when presented with a new step forward for mankind.

Of course distrust for change is endemic in agricultural societies no matter how nuclear powered they are, but there was something more. A weariness of new toys and formats and behaviours that we’ve all seen come and, more importantly, go. Betamax, Videodisk, 8-track, VHS, Cassette, Fax, Minitel, Floppy disks, Minidisk, CD DVD SACD DAT followed soon by Blu-Ray, HDTV and countless moribund download formats. It’s no surprise that some new gimmick doesn’t quite set the heart racing in the way the marketing team hoped.

So where does vinyl fit in to this litany? 78 and 16 RPM disks have long since gone the way of the 8-track cartridge but it seems the LP and 45 are formats which persist. Perhaps in terms of the ruthless drive of progress they have died – but if so, they have died and gone to heaven.

According to the BPI*, in October 2013 sales of vinyl LPs crossed the half a million mark for the first time in more than a decade. By the end of the year, sales reached 780,000 – a 101% increase on 2012. That’s the highest figure since the 817,000 LPs sold in 1997. Vinyl is roaring back to life!

But before we get carried away, for every LP sold there were over 70 CDs sold – 60.6 million in all over the year. Although that’s down almost 13 per cent on 2012’s total, and despite rumours that the format is dead, two thirds of all albums sold in the UK were CDs. Digital sales of 32.6 million – up almost 7 per cent on 2012 – now represent almost 35 per cent of the total album market.

So as far as albums go in 2013 it was CDs at 64%, downloads 35% and vinyl a piddling but ever-growing 0.8%.

But it’s what that 0.8% represents that is the central reason why vinyl is here to stay. This is the luxury end of the market. This 0.8% represents the cream.
People are prepared to pay £25 for an album on vinyl because it’s the ‘taste the difference’ option: classy, stylish, cultured and superior.

This is epitomised by Steve Jobs, a man that loved music so much he only ever listened to his beloved collection of vinyl at home, but unleashed a tidal wave of low quality downloads on the market, and utterly vanquished a business model that once invested in the content he himself loved. Vinyl for him, iShite for the rest of us.

Today, major record companies wouldn’t dream of making any meaningful release without including vinyl. There’s no great money in it, but to appear to snub the classy end of the market is to devalue your product.

There’s a parallel here with orchestral music. Big groups of musicians like orchestras and big bands in jazz were developed for one reason only – volume. By increasing the numbers you increase the dynamic range between the loudest event and the quietest.

All the wonderful timbral and spacial effects are simply side-effects. So when electrical amplification came along, like vinyl those big groups became redundant. But also like vinyl they didn’t die out because their very expense became a symbol for luxury.

If you spend £8 to sit in the cinema you want to feel you’re getting your money’s worth, so whatever the content of the film the music HAS to appear to involve an orchestra of over 100 highly trained musicians: the medium itself has to feel rich. If you find yourself one day at a concert hall and the orchestra is playing pieces from the classical/romantic repertoire, check out the audience.

The privileged and the rich will be there to reinforce their sense that they deserve luxury – that they deserve an enormous array of highly trained slaves to entertain them.
An aspect that the sales figures don’t take into consideration at all is the 2nd hand market. There are no hard figures but I have close friends and colleagues who deal in the second hand market, and a couple of thriving second music stores are within five minute walk of my front door.

The story is universally the same: we can shift enough vinyl to make do, but you can’t sell used CDs for love nor money. And sales are across a wide demographic. The longevity of vinyl has also been noted by music libraries. My band, metamono, refuse to release CDs and we’ve been asked for copies of our vinyl releases by both the British Library Sound Archive and the Köln Sound Archive in Germany.

Over the years the archives have noticed how fragile and vulnerable CD/DVD is as a format. One scratch and the entire thing is unplayable, the content lost forever. Scratch a vinyl you get annoying clicks BUT the content is still there to be enjoyed and can still be extracted. So they’re buying up vinyl again – for prosperity.

We’ve been involved in vinyl releases, remasters and reissues throughout the darkest days of CD hegemony in the 00’s. The economic impact of the great CD swindle** was leading to music becoming almost valueless and convincing anyone to invest in manufacturing increasingly expensive vinyl was getting tougher and tougher. But nevertheless there was a hardcore dedicated to keeping the format alive.

Why? When CDs and downloads offer high quality, clean, flexible, instant playback, play listing etc., would a fundamentally mechanical format illicit such devotion? Would come to represent luxury?
The answer is because it’s just BETTER.

In the last 20 years I’ve heard lots of reason why it’s better that range from the practical to the downright mystical via abject pseudo-scientific drivel. The reality is that it’s a range of lots of different reasons that make vinyl attractive. When these are brought together, they are totally convincing.

Here’s a few of those reasons:
It sounds better. Despite a bit of surface noize and perhaps the odd click, it’s a richer, more comfortable and engaging experience listening to music on vinyl. We’ve seen dance floors suddenly fill up when the DJ switches from CD to vinyl. We’ve played music in social situations all night and the only time anyone asks me to turn it down is when the CDs go on. Our conscious perception may not be able to tell the difference but we unconsciously prefer sound from vinyl.
Where it gets obscure is exactly why this is the case.

Vinyl is an analogue format – the complete sound wave is stored and replayed mechanically, rather than being chopped into slices, stored as numerical values and then hopefully replayed at the same speed to recreate the original wave as in the digital system. Plenty more on the differences between digital and analogue audio in our recent Getintothis article.

Then on top of the analogue/digital aspect there are other enhancements specific to vinyl. The mechanical nature of the medium has an effect on the dynamics, especially at the extremes of the spectrum.

Sharp attacks in the high end get smoothed out and low frequencies become more compressed†, sometimes with added overtones that make the bass warmer, more complex. This is particularly beneficial to percussive sounds. Drums on vinyl sound richer, more exciting and are more comfortable to listen to. If the tune’s got drums and a bass line the listener and the dancer simply has a better experience from vinyl.

The finished record on your shelf is the end result of a long process – from studio mix, mastering, cutting the lacquer, processing metalwork and eventually developing a stamper which is used to press into the hot vinyl – each step of the way in the hands of a craftsperson, each one of them using their skill and experience to enhance the final product.
Their craft does not go to waste. We’ve had the privilege to hear music develop all the way through this process and at some point, miraculously, it just begins to sound right. The production chain in the digital world cuts out almost all of these skills, and believe me you can hear it.

There are many reasons why vinyl sounds better. We’ve even come across doubtlessly utterly bogus theories about the carbon in the vinyl resonating in the same way as the carbon in our bodies – a theory that only goes to show the lengths that people will go to work out WHY, in terms of experience, vinyl is just so superior.
Reference and nostalgia play a huge role. For many people that initial click when they put the needle on the record means that they are about to hear music how it sounded when we couldn’t live without it. In fact that click and the initial surface noise are strangely vital.

They give a volume reference – you have a good idea how loud the music will be and you know your deck is alive. They are also part of the physicality and ritual of putting on a record. Teaching my kid how to put a record on, how to handle the vinyl without touching the grooves, placing the tone arm, the precision necessary to drop the needle in the groove, was a rite of passage.

An important, defining moment. She’d been playing CDs on her own player for years without any such opportunity for a bonding ceremony. People love that physicality – need it in fact. So much of our lives are lived through the almost tyrannical portal of our computers that to take the time to enjoy an aspect that exists on the outside is massively rewarding – especially if it’s so much better than what’s on offer inside the machine.

We consider ourselves reasonable. So reasonable in fact we’re prepared to accept arguments about the sound quality of CDs and digital formats. We’d happily discuss the possibility that our love of the physicality of vinyl is little more than disguised folksy Luddite nostalgia. But there isn’t an intellect on this planet that could convince us that a transparent, low-grade plastic CD jewel case containing space for a tiny printed booklet is in any way a preferable format to enjoy and display artwork than printed on to a 12″ by 12″ card sleeve.

Those nasty, mean little boxes, the unreadable tiny text, the booklet that rips the very first time you take it out the box, the broken spokes from the disk hub floating around in the box, the cracked, chipped and eventually opaque cover – Oh! the horror.

Compare this to a double album sleeve printed on high quality card. Not only is it in human scale with readable text, it works without disintegrating in a matter of weeks. As a record cover ages it gains Wabi-Sabi†† (as does the vinyl itself), not just another step towards landfill. A record sleeve can even be repaired. It can be framed or held aloft in a sweaty, darkened room for all to see.

It is a thing of intrinsic square beauty – a canvas to generations of visual imaginations, an inspiration. Wherefore your little plastic excresence now, Lord Digi? And artwork for downloads? Half an hour of photoshopping for a barely conscious pixel-jockey giving his nothing to be ignored with every play. At best a reminder, a model of what the real cover on the vinyl looks like.

As a musician, producer and composer we’re often a little scathing about DJs despite the fact many of my friends are DJs and I’ve jockeyed the odd disk myself in my day. After all, harvesting adulation/cash/birds/jazz-talc for the magical act of playing recordings of music made by musicians, producers and composers who are busy harvesting nothing but debt, can be seen as somewhat unjust.

But if there’s one thing that DJs deserve all that glitter for is that the best of them didn’t turn their backs on vinyl in the darkest days of the “digital revolution”. Not only did they keep a love of vinyl alive in the underground they also leant it chic – a mystique. Records became the tool of the demi-god who lifts up his people on to the dance floor and takes them on that spiritual journey, disks visibly spinning like Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels, the wheels of steel. There were many converts and they still have their turntables and still get sweaty palms when they pick that tune out of the box.

The devotion of this sub-culture alone will ensure the survival of the format. They may be ageing but they are also educating and there are eager ears to hear the message, then hear the music, then browse the racks.

Join them in your local store on Record Store Day.

Further reading on Getintothis:

Liverpool record shop Dig Vinyl coming soon to Bold Street.
The Vinyl Emporium (Hairy Records) closes.
Getintothis on the death of the indie record shop.
Record Store Day in Liverpool – Wolstenholme Creative Space, Game Theory and more.
Getintothis on Record Store Day
Getintothis on Probe Records.
*Market share source
Market share source 2

** CD swindle – selling the same content or re-releasing old content in a format up to 10 times cheaper to produce than vinyl for up to four times the price. It worked incredibly well but they didn’t invest the obscene profit in to music and arrogantly assumed they would get away with it forever.
† Not data compression, but dynamic compression. Put simply, turning down the loudest moments so the whole thing can be louder leading to a more consistent dynamic profile and more detail in the quieter aspects
†† Wabi Sabi is a super complex Japanese traditional aesthetic concept which partly comprises of beauty residing in imperfection and impermanence. So objects that show use, slight damage or patina are said to have Wabi-Sabi. More here.

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