The popularity of vinyl records is on the increase. Aaron Lee goes in search of answers
“I love how much the digital revolution has democratised music in the last 10 years,” says Sam Walton, a musician in Alice Gun’s band, “not only does it mean that you completely remove the indie-snob factor of: ‘Oh, I can listen to this and you can’t’, but it also means that for someone like me, my music is just as accessible to most people as, say, One Direction’s is.
“However, this ubiquity means that music has assumed a different role ‑ more disposable and ephemeral ‑ and I think vinyl is a great tool for making people care.”
Music was the first sector to feel the full effect of the digital revolution. Faster than many thought possible, it swept away the security of physical media, changed the craft of music-making and redefined how people consume music. Now vinyl is back and in vogue, but there’s more to the format’s revival than nostalgia.
Sales of vinyl were up over 40 per cent in 2011, helped by the demand for albums from Fleet Foxes, Radiohead, Adele and the Black Keys, which are not names you would associate with your stereotypical record collector of the 60s and 70s.
“It’s not just older people who are buying vinyl. In the last three or four years, we’ve started seeing newly minted vinyl fans,” says Ossie Hirst of Flashback Records in Islington.
“Partly, people have abandoned the mainstream CD shops that don’t cater to niche interests – HMV used to be a fantastic shop for back catalogues, but now they just release chart music. People come to shops like us and then they find out: ‘Hey, I can get this stuff on vinyl’. A lot of people come in here and buy one or two records; they might have a tiny collection, but they buy their favourite albums on vinyl.”
As well as being outlets for niche tastes, Jack Rollo, co-founder of Kristina Records, Dalston, says part of the reason he set up his store was for the social aspects: having a dialogue with customers, exchanging recommendations and putting on in-store gigs. Kristina opened in July 2011, and this surprise entry to a part of the retail world many have written off has been building momentum. It’s already had visits from south London rapper Roots Manuva and classical musician Clive Williams.
You only have to look to Rough Trade, with its coffee shop, recruitment boards and gig nights to know that the role of the record store has changed. Still, Rollo says small stores can survive selling vinyl.
“It’s still viable. We could see it’s viable. It just depends on how you do it and what attitude you take,” says Rollo, “I think that’s one of the things that’s gone well with Kristina is that Dalston is a place where a lot of people who work in the music industry live, so there’s a mixed element to the record shop.”
Tune into your heart
Indeed, national Record Store Day, which started in the US in 2007, has been a way of generating more support for independents. Hundreds of limited releases, a large portion of them from major labels, like EMI, Warner Bros and Universal, have made it the busiest time of year for stores.
However, Mark Burgess, founder of Flashback Records, which started in 1997, and member of Red Horses of the Snow, says it’s the devotion of fans that has pushed the major labels to keep vinyl alive: “The major labels have been very reluctant, because they had a vested interest in killing off vinyl right from the early 90s. They didn’t want to release things in two formats [the other being CD], because it’s far more expensive.
“They’ve slowly come round to the fact that there are more and more people buying vinyl, and major labels, basically, just want to make money. Now they’re starting to see that the vinyl market is recovering, I think they’re getting more behind vinyl as a means to make money, rather than the loss-leader which it has been for some years.”
While the majors are all for vinyl if it sells, the independent labels never stopped supporting it. Labels such as Blackest Ever Black, Kye Records and Angular Records, which was set up by former Goldsmiths students, have supported small stores with experimental and diverse music for years. More than that, they have continued to serve up vinyl-only tracks, which have become increasingly rare in the wake of digital. Jack White’s Third Man Records has even hidden 7” tracks inside 12” records which have to be broken open to get at the good stuff – how’s that for hard core?
Al Mobbs, founder of indie label Ambiguous Records and director on the board of the Association of Independent Music, says: “As a label owner, I know that for anybody who chooses to buy the music I put on vinyl, it’s not disposable. It is a smaller market but making a small, limited edition run of records, maybe 300, hand-numbered, makes them really special. If I had the choice of giving a friend a signed 7” single or emailing them an MP3, the vinyl would mean so much more.”
Yes, nostalgia for the days of the Beatles, Mini Coopers and George Best are part of why vinyl is back in vogue, but that’s being overtaken by interest from younger music fans and fresh collectors.
“Virtually every other Hollywood film that comes out, there’s a scene with someone putting a record on,” says Burgess, “Vinyl, at the moment, has a coolness which I can’t see diminishing, because people will still want to have those artefacts.”
And, for Walton, these ‘artefacts’ are a sign that people truly treasure music: “You can’t take an LP out and about with you, so you have to put aside a time to sit down and listen to it at home. You also make more of an emotional investment in it too: there’s no skipping, so you have to commit!
“That level of investment might seem daunting, but as a musician it’s rewarding to know that listeners are paying as much loving attention to it as I did when I made it.”