Turning the Tables

As vinyl sales overtake digital in the UK for the first time ever, have we truly entered the analogue revolution?

There’s something special about that sound when the needle hits the vinyl and your favourite record begins to play out of the speakers. Audiophiles have been saying this for years, but now it seems that the general public is beginning to agree, as records are starting to become a more common sight in our shops and in our homes once again.

Latest figures would suggest that this is more than simply just a hipster fad – vinyl sales hit £2.4m in the UK last week compared with the £2.1m made from digital music purchases, meaning that vinyl is mainstream again for the first time since the 1980s. Sorry hipsters.

The situation has changed greatly in the last twelve months alone. This time last year, the sale of vinyl albums reached only £1.2m while digital sales were at £4.4m. While vinyl sales have been sharply rising for the past few years, digital has been struggling, and this year’s decline in numbers is firm evidence of that. But if digital downloads are cheaper, more convenient, and more accessible, why are so many people reverting to a seemingly outdated medium?

The first thing to take into account is that such figures are distorted due to the fact that digital is relatively cheap, whereas one is paying a high premium for vinyl – the top selling record in the UK at the moment is Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn boxset which retails for £52. These numbers also don’t account for people signing up for music subscription services such as Spotify and Apple Music which have expanded greatly in the last year or two, eating into the downloads industry.

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Nevertheless, you can’t deny that vinyl is back. The once ubiquitous format seemed to be dying out with the advent of CDs, but has now been resurrected in the digital age under a shiny new guise – the retro factor. For generations who grew up with the medium it carries a sense of nostalgia, and for millenials it is something of a cool novelty, which stands in stark contrast with the technology that has attempted to streamline our lives.

Sales have also increased at this time of year due to the simple fact that vinyl makes a great Christmas present. Unlike an mp3 file or a Spotify playlist, a physical record is something special, something tangible, something you can wrap and put a bow on. There’s more of a weight and significance associated here. Do you remember the first thing you ever downloaded? Not a chance. But do you remember the first record you ever bought or were given as a gift? Probably.

This is all helped by the fact that vinyl has become much more accessible recently. It’s shed its tired image of middle-aged men and music specialists rummaging in car-boot sales and dusty charity shops for vintage copies of Dark Side of the Moon. Contemporary artists are beginning to release vinyl copies of new albums, even pop music and film soundtracks are starting to appear, signifying that this market is no longer reserved for rock classics and esoteric indie darlings.

An official vinyl chart was introduced in the UK last year, and taking a look at it reveals some pretty interesting insight into current consumer habits. Classic albums like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Guns n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours are a prominent fixture, but there is also a wide range of more recent releases – from Busted’s latest album, to the Stranger Things soundtrack, and Metallica’s brand new Hardwired…To Self Destruct. While it’s clear that people are interested in collecting the quintessential volumes, there is also room for contemporary artists in this market.

For years the hipster mecca Urban Outfitters has stocked a trendy, limited selection of bands like Radiohead, NWA, and Taylor Swift, but now more highstreet shops are beginning to take note. Even Tesco and Tiger have started stocking vinyl, so you can pick up some David Bowie while you’re grabbing milk or homewares. Is anyone who’s serious about vinyl shopping gonna buy their records here? Probably not, but it creates a less niche shopping experience for the general public.

How does this affect the music retailers? Tower Records and Golden Discs have greatly increased their vinyl selections, with the latter reporting that their sales of vinyl were up by 500 percent in 2014. This resurgence could also help independent music stores too. The likes of The Record Spot, Spindizzy, and Freebird Records in Dublin are always packed full of people who want to browse a physical selection, chat to knowledgeable people about the records, and find those special items that aren’t sold anywhere else.

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Hunting for the perfect vinyl in Freebird Records on Wicklow Street

On the whole, vinyl appeals to a different profile of consumer. Whatever their motivation, it seems that people want to own physical albums again and are willing to make a significant financial investment to do so. But why would you pay a premium for something that you can get easy access to online, or even download for free?

For me, the matter is about more than just how you get your music, it’s how you consume it. A record is like a piece of art, with an special audio quality that’s lost in digital releases. There is also a sense of ritual associated with listening to a record – taking it out of the packaging, cleaning it, placing it on the turntable, switching sides, hearing the album in full. This makes it more of an occasion than simply hitting play on a Youtube video, or putting your iPod on shuffle.

Essentially it’s a cultural signifier – a statement that you care about the music and the listening experience.

Personally, I love hunting down second-hand vinyl in dusty charity shops, it’s much more exciting than placing an order on Amazon. One of the main criticisms of records is that they are vulnerable and cumbersome, but I think that this makes it special. I generally don’t mind if the discs are scratched, as the sound quality is still far superior, with a rich timbre, and little imperfections add to the audio experience. There is a significance in owning an actual record, and an absolute joy when you find exactly what you were looking for or perhaps even a surprise that you never thought you’d come across.

Most of my record collection comes from my dad’s old vinyl that he hoarded for years even when we didn’t have a turntable. My copies of Dark Side of the Moon and Rumours didn’t come in shiny new packaging from Urban Outfitters; they’re dusty, with crumpled sleeves, and scratch marks which lead to the occasional skip. They’ve even still got labels where my father wrote his name and address because apparently that’s what people did in the 70s. He’s since passed away, but these artefacts connect me to him. We always shared a passion for music, and now I can continue to share in the records he left behind.

Vinyl may be experiencing a bit of a renaissance, but it still only represents a small fraction of the industry. However, it’s amazing to think that an album format first invented in 1948 which involves stamping a groove into a piece of plastic would now be outselling the latest 21st century technologies. Trend or not, vinyl is definitely sticking around for now, and I have to admit that I’m pretty pleased about that.

The hipsters will just have to revert to cassette tapes next.

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