The vinyl revival – the Emperor’s new clothes?

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Eager vinyl enthusiasts searching the racks at Liverpool Psych Fest

As vinyl sales continue to increase, Getintothis’ Rick Leach takes aims at the music industry big beasts – and reckons that it’s the consumers who are being taken for a ride.

Life has surface noise” said John Peel when referring dismissively to the advent of digital music and advantages over vinyl. Peel was clearly right about most things (The Fall, football, the poetry of Half Man Half Biscuit etc), but on that occasion, he was way off the mark. Completely and utterly wrong.

Life does indeed have surface noise, and in fact at times that’s all it seems to be comprised of, but to equate how music is delivered and heard with life itself was facile. It was an easy soundbite and I’m sure it was meant to be sharp and pithy, yet it came across as Luddite and mean-spirited.

However, like many aphorisms, scratch below the surface and you find there’s not much really in there. Unfortunately, because it came from Peel and it sounds good, it’s stuck and lingered around for far too long. It’s difficult to determine exactly how much that one comment has led to the renaissance of vinyl, but it’s played a significant part. Without the blessing of Peel, the return of vinyl may have been limited to classical buffs with high-end music systems or a limited few prog rock fans gripping on tightly to their prized copies of Brain Salad Surgery.

Instead, vinyl now has a credibility that far outweighs any importance or significance that it deserves and any new release deemed worthwhile will be available (at a price) in black grooved plastic, surface noise and all.

How did we get here? How did a format that seemed dead and buried, consigned to the scrapheap along with wax cylinders, shellac 78s, eight track, DATs, MiniDiscs and the rest, survive? How come it’s reached a point where you can now get vinyl records in Tesco?

You don’t need to look that far. It’s pretty obvious.

With the introduction of CDs and digital music, big record companies across the world were overjoyed. Here was a format that was smaller – and therefore cheaper to ship and distribute – and also cheaper to make. Not only that, they were sold at a premium on the twin premise of crystal-clear sound and indestructibility. Not like those pesky LPs, prone to scratching, warping and jumping to the point of becoming unplayable. We didn’t know at the time that CDs would also become unplayable for the same reasons.

We bought it hook, line and sinker; along with CD players. There’s always a cost. After a short while, the record companies realised that we really wanted to be able to replace all our old vinyl LPs with the same music on the CD, so out they came. We were buying the same thing twice, but it didn’t matter.

In fact it was better. Sometimes they were even so kind to stick a couple of extra tracks on the CD that weren’t on the original vinyl album. They’d come out with “original artwork” as if having to employ a designer to make a sleeve that would work on CD was a bad thing. We could get rid of all those massive vinyl albums cluttering up the place. Turntables and record players across the land were stuck up in lofts, taken to car boot sales (where you couldn’t give them away) or thrown into skips. We loved it. This was the future. Ironic hey?

Record Store Day 2015

Checking out the wares – upstairs at the Jacaranda

So it was all rosy in the garden. There was a brand new sparkly way of flogging old (and new) tat and what’s more, the listening public were buying more and more hardware to play the new discs on. The gravy train was chugging along quite nicely.

MiniDiscs hung around for a bit before they were quietly shuffled off without much fuss. The industry had seen the debacle that had ensued with the start of home video and didn’t want to have to go through another Betamax vs VHS war. It is much easier to sell one format than having two separate ones competing with each other. A big problem had therefore been eliminated and normal business was resumed. Nothing could go wrong.

Has Record Store Day run its course? Getintothis offers up its view

Yet like every single episode of Scooby Doo, they’d have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky kids. Or rather, if it wasn’t for that pesky internet.

This is where the industry had the biggest Homer Simpson Doh moment ever. Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course and they missed the biggest trick ever. The rise of CDs as a format roughly coincided with a massive explosion in home computing and more significantly, the introduction of home internet and latterly, faster broadband access.

Remember the “Home Taping is Killing Music” thing? Those logos that appeared on inner record sleeves? The tape and crossbones thing? The thing that was supposed to make us feel guilty? The thing that was supposed to make us stop and think twice before we unwrapped another TDK C90 to copy the latest album that we’d just bought for our mates? Were we going to be the ones responsible for killing music? Did our fingers hesitate slightly before we hit the record button on our twin deck Amstrad? What if we actually did kill music?

But we (or rather I) didn’t stop. We copied album after album for each other. It was possibly this that actually kept music alive rather than anything else. Certainly there was no silent spring scenario. Music carried on despite all the home taping. We all still bought records and continued to go to gigs. The music industry didn’t end up on its knees.

However, with the advent of the internet and digital music files, the industry was very concerned that there would be another Sony Walkman moment. Both in America and the UK strenuous efforts were made to limit the introduction of portable music players. Legal actions by the industry were jump started to cut the supply of music players at source. Injunctions were issued and numerous law suits were initiated. If there was nothing to play these digital files on then the problem would be solved.

Yet this was where they completely got it wrong.

They concentrated on the hardware and totally ignored the software. Their misplaced targets were the devices used to play the mp3s as opposed to the mp3s themselves.

They were side-stepped. It didn’t really matter how you listened to the mp3s but rather that you could get them so easily. Napster, and latterly P2P and file sharing through Torrents, saw to that. Napster was closed down in the end, but by then it was too late. Millions, probably billions of digital files were stuffed on PCs and laptops across the world and listened to by and large not on a physical piece of kit, but through software such as WinAmp. The industry had gone after the wrong target.

Home taping hadn’t killed music, but it was now taking a bit of a kicking due to the proliferation of all those mp3s that we could swap at will. Sales of CDs fell through the floor. Austerity began early as profits fell, big labels cut acts and got rid of any waste that they could. Record shops started collapsing. A cold chill ran through the industry. Everything looked bleak.

Probe Records - after the mayhem died down

Liverpool’s Probe Records – after the Record Store Day mayhem had died down

Until…

It’s all too easy to stray into conspiracy theory territory and to see the “music industry” as some monolithic beast devouring all in its wake. Like most conspiracy theories it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny and can be debunked very easily.

However, somebody, somewhere within the industry had a very bright idea. Not one that lends itself to a grassy knoll situation of course, but one that worked out very well. More by accident than design, like all debunked conspiracy theories, but very fortuitous nevertheless.

Dig Vinyl, Probe Records and Record Store Day 2015

Where they’d missed the mp3 issue by a country mile, with their next move they more than redeemed themselves. An act of sheer genius. Cynical genius it may have been but genius it was.

Remember all the death of the vinyl thing? When we’d all got rid of our old albums and LPs and replaced them with CDs? The longer lasting and indestructible alternative? The future? Well, the future wasn’t looking so bright and shiny anymore.

So if we wouldn’t buy any more CDs – or at least buy them at the rate that was needed – what could be done? What could we be sold?

How about…vinyl?

What? Records?

Are you kidding?!!

No way!

The music buying public would never go for that, would they? Surely not!

Oh, but we did! And we have! In such a big way!

And how exactly was this done? How did we fall for it?

Let’s see.

First off, and this links back to the “life has surface noise” quote, there was a lot about how we’d be able to recapture the “warmth” or “natural sound” through vinyl. How we lost the comfort blanket of vinyl and it was now being lovingly restored to us.

The second thing seems to be the “audiophile” aspect. All major innovations regarding consumption of music start through classical music (for obvious economic reasons; classical music buffs have more disposable income that popular music fans). Vinyl never really went away as far as classical music was concerned. However, us pop music fans couldn’t be left out, could we? Surely our preferred form of music now deserved to be treated with as much respect as did classical music, didn’t it? We were not poor cousins anymore and our music was just as worthy.

So out came the vinyl records, crept out in dribs and drabs, on “high quality 180g vinyl”. (We actually weren’t that sure what that meant, but assumed that it was intrinsically better. It must have been because there were gold stickers on the sleeves on the records pronouncing the 180g thing. Have you noticed by the way that these stickers don’t really appear anymore? Is it still 180g or are they made with some shitty 175 or 150g weight? How could we tell?)

Who remembers that Ralph Lauren advert?

Initially the revived LP format was restricted to generally acknowledged “classic” albums; Dark Side of the Moon, Steely Dan albums, Led Zeppelin etc. You know the score. The target audience was very precisely selected; that older rock demographic who were probably the first adopters of CDs and who’d replaced all those Pink Floyd records with CDs. They also had a bit of spare cash to splash around as well and could indulge themselves with a nostalgic impulse buy.

And you needed a bit of spare cash as well. Twenty quid for a 180g vinyl album compared to a tenner for a CD. But that was a small(ish) price to pay.

It was a bit of mystery as to exactly why these re-issued records cost so much to buy. After all, everything was ready. The albums had been recorded years before, mastered and all that, artwork was all done. What more needed to be done?  Wasn’t it simply a matter of just pressing some new records up? Maybe the sheer expense of all the 180g vinyl was the factor that caused them to cost at least double that of the same music on CD. Maybe, just maybe, there was something to do about pricing them at a level where they would be seen as a “premium product“.

Dig Vinyl

The expanded Dig Vinyl on Bold Street is benefiting from a renewed appetite for all things vinyl

But never mind, it sounded so much better. Possibly.

And there was all the artwork. Now with your failing eyesight and bifocals to hand, you could properly read the cover art. None of that faffing around with jewel cases and bits of card, you were now able to study and appreciate the sleeves in full.

How often have you heard the “isn’t it good to hold a proper record again?” refrain? You can’t underestimate the power of nostalgia. This was what music was supposed to be about. Classic records in a classic way. Side one. Side Two. It allowed older fans to wax lyrical about it all.

That’s where we ended up.

Classic albums available as full-size proper albums. It took a while. The market wasn’t flooded all at once; demand was kept high and supply was kept low. It’s gradually built up over the last few years to a point where you can get most of the “classic” albums back again on vinyl. They’re still pretty expensive yet that’s the way it goes. You can always get them on CD, but it’s not quite the same, is it?

Now most of the new albums are available in both formats. One more expensive than the other. Some people, I understand, get copies of them both on CD and on vinyl. That’s what you call a money spinner.

Record shops are thriving once again. HMV has racks and racks of vinyl and as mentioned, you can now pick them up with your weekly shop in Tesco.

Everybody’s therefore very happy.

Music hasn’t been killed off, record sales are booming once again and we consumers are happy. We’ve got exactly what we want.

Or what we’ve think we want. What we’ve been told we should want. Not explicitly, but we’ve been led, sleepwalking yet again down that yellow brick road.

This is the thing.

We’ve been sold the exact same thing twice. Not only have we paid for it once, but we’ve paid well over the odds for it the second time. It’s similar to buying one car, taking it to get scrapped when it was perfectly usable and then paying four times the amount you originally paid for it ten years earlier to get exactly the same model. Never mind that the car you had in the intervening decade did just the same and more, you now have a car that gives you a “real driving experience.” It’s a classic.

The big sell regarding vinyl seems to be that “you can hear a lot more” and “the sound is better”, “it’s warmer and more human” and, wait for it, “there may be surface noise, but…etc”. Now, this falls apart for a number of very simple reasons.

Can you really hear a lot more? Is it possible? Do you have good enough audio equipment to be able to translate that special warmth to a level where there is a discernable difference? And just as importantly are your ears good enough to be able to tell a difference or have long years of listening to music at too high a volume knackered them to the point where it doesn’t really make much difference?

Even if you could – even if there is a difference – then is it worth it? Really worth it? Is the sound quality twice as good? Would you enjoy the music twice as much on vinyl as on CD or as an mp3 through crappy little speakers? Surely good music is good music irrespective of how you hear it. Getting a crap record on CD and then hearing it on vinyl won’t make it any better and similarly, listening to an undoubted classic such as Pet Sounds or Blonde on Blonde on a CD doesn’t make them worthless. They are still great records.

Then there’s the whole “it’s good to have a proper record, proper sleeve, the feel of vinyl” thing. Honestly? Is that alone worth a tenner or more? What if you were to buy a CD for a fiver and then for another tenner you could purchase a 12” cardboard sleeve and a pancake of black plastic as well? Doesn’t really make sense, does it? Just buy an extra CD. You’ll have twice as much music.

(Remember that you’ve already had to shell out for new equipment to play the vinyl albums. It should be noted that you now can buy single speaker Dansette style record players for £70 or so. Kind of blows the whole “it sounds better” argument out of the water.)

For a while, new vinyl albums came complete with download codes so we were able to at least able to have mp3s of what we paid for, but increasingly this seems to be less and less common. I guess that it’s hard to stick a vinyl album into the side of your laptop and burn it to your hard drive. Ironically, you’d have to get a CD as well as the vinyl album to be able to do that.

The real big winners out of this are not us as consumers, nor the artists (who historically get screwed by the big record companies anyway), but the music industry itself.

Just as the whole shebang was ready to collapse upon itself like a dying star because of file-sharing and the like, they managed, very luckily and very astutely, to breathe life into the corpse and keep it going for just a bit longer.

And we think that it’s great.

Vinyl.

It really is the Emperor’s New Clothes.

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