Vinyl records have always been considered a symbol of cool. It comes as no surprise then, that the rising popularity of vinyl has coincided with the hipster movement. The British Phonographic Industry – the UK Labels’ association – revealed that over 3.2 million vinyl records were officially sold in the UK in 2016 – the highest annual total in a quarter of a century.
In a market industry report released earlier this year, Geoff Taylor, Chief Executive of BPI & the BRIT Awards, responded to the rise in demand for vinyl: “Growth in UK music consumption in 2016 was fuelled by the explosive rise in audio streaming, which has increased 500 per cent since 2013, and relative resilience from physical formats. Led by sales of David Bowie, demand for vinyl jumped to levels not seen since the start of the Nineties…”
Although the growth in vinyl album sales has not abated for nine consecutive years, there was a considerable dip in sales between 1994 and 1998. In 1995, the figure was 1,410,905 and by 1998 it had reduced to 642,102.
There was a short-lived rise in vinyl album sales between 1999 and 2001. However, the dawn of downloading hit the market hard, causing a decline in sales between 2002 and 2007.
In 2007, a mere 205, 292 LPs were sold.
Between 2008 and 2013, vinyl album sales had steadily increased.
Record Store Day had a significant effect on vinyl sales in 2013. Eight of the top ten vinyl albums which emerged that week were RSD exclusives. More than 700, 000 albums were sold by the end of 2013. There was a 81 per cent rise in the sales of 7-inch albums and over 72 per cent increase in 12-inch albums in RSD week from 2012.
The concept of releasing vinyl records is held in high esteem by many artists. For them, vinyl epitomises the spirit of rock and roll culture. The long-time association of the vinyl format as an art-form and recognition of its “authentic” audio quality, iconic cover art and sleeve notes, is likely to have contributed to why the rock genre remains the leading genre in the record renaissance.
The spike in vinyl album sales in 2014 can be attributed to the sale of rock records. Three quarters of all vinyl albums sold that year were from the rock genre. The best-selling titles included releases from Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and several classic recordings by heritage artists such as Oasis.
In response to the continued increase in demand for vinyl, the Official Charts Company launched the UK’s first ever weekly Official Vinyl Charts in 2015. LP sales in 2015 reached a 21-year high to 2.1 million units.
Despite vinyl’s near-death experience in 2007, more than 30 album titles sold more than 10,000 copies in 2016, compared to just 10 in 2015 – figures which show the extent of the renaissance of records.
Although vinyl LPs now account for almost 5 per cent of the albums market, Alexis Bennett, 38, Associate Lecturer of Music at Goldsmiths, University of London and Edison Fellow at the British Library Sound Archive, believes the rise in demand for vinyl must be put into perspective:
“It’s only a small fraction of the music market, so it’s hardly a revolution. But there is certainly a sense that vinyl has a new lease of life. It’s been building for a while. There are various factors, and not all of them are to do with music. People like to own something tangible, something they can hold in their hands and care for. This is a pleasure that is similar to book collecting: there’s no need to buy books now, but people still do, because it feels more sensory.”
The deaths of Prince, George Michael and David Bowie rocketed the music of such icons back into the charts in 2016, causing a surge in vinyl sales. Fans clambered to rediscover the music of their heroes whilst the younger generation discovered it for the first time.
Bowie was the biggest-selling vinyl artist of 2016. Five of Bowie’s albums posthumously featured in the top 30 best-sellers. Blackstar was last year’s most popular vinyl recording, selling twice as many copies as the previous year’s vinyl best-seller, Adele’s 25.
The loss of legendary musicians in 2016 was not the only catalyst for the rapid rise in vinyl sales, which have increased by 53 per cent since 2015.
According to Saskia Longaretti, 28, a singer-songwriter, the physical format of vinyl is precisely its appeal:
“When you can access more music than ever, it is kind of depressing. It is hard to connect or share it with friends. If you have a record, you have to put it on and listen to it until the end, you can’t skip through it and you hear it exactly how the artists wanted it to be listened to.”
David Barlow, 48, a graphic designer, believes that vinyl is a timeless format:
“I think there is something wired in vinyl junkies, they just like being around records, they like looking at them, looking at the sleeves, and listening to them. You know who flicks through their MP3 collection?”
In November 2015, a BPI commissioned study revealed that 66 per cent of music buyers regard themselves to be “multi-channellers”.
A massive 123 million albums, were either downloaded, streamed or purchased on physical format by U.K. music customers in 2016.
Last year was the first time that vinyl album sales surpassed digital download sales. In week 48 of 2016, the record industry made £2.4 million from record sales while downloads took in 2.1 million.
During the same period in 2015, vinyl albums brought in £1.2m in sales while digital downloads made £4.4m.
The ERA suggested that the Christmas shopping season may have boosted figures. The rise in total sales was also attributed to the growing number of supermarkets which now stock vinyl.
Since 2013, the streaming trend has increased by 500 per cent. Over 2016, 45 billion audio streams were served. Streaming success has had a domino effect on vinyl sales.
Music lovers are streaming to discover new music prior to collecting their favourite music on physical formats such as vinyl. There are increasingly more ways for fans to enjoy music and vinyl is thriving in the “multi-channel ecosystem” alongside other physical formats and digital music platforms.
In the recently published BPI music report, Vanessa Higgins – CEO Regent Street and Gold Bar Records, and an independent label member of the BPI Council – commented on this phenomenon, which appears to cross generations: “Millennials, who’ve grown up digital, are increasingly choosing to experience both current and heritage artists on vinyl also. Meanwhile older baby-boomers are embracing streaming alongside their record collections.”
Nick Barnes, 26, a music producer, considers the vinyl format to have an “authentic” sound quality:
“As a producer, I do admit that the sound you get from a vinyl record is hard to beat in terms of warmth and quality. On the other hand, listening to a vinyl record through, say, Apple headphones, won’t be that much different than a normal MP3. The sound is as much dependent on what you listen on as it is to what you listen to.”
The rise in the demand for vinyl can only be partly attributed to sound, Bennett says:
“Old records have a crackle that is undeniably attractive, and new records have a depth of sound that, on the right system, can be great to hear. That said, there is a weird pleasure in playing old records on those little old portable turntables, which seem to be selling all over the place. They sound awful but it just feels fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the key: the fun factor. It’s just really enjoyable to rummage through record shops, junk shops, and markets, and it’s nice to be able to read the sleeve notes and look at the patterns of the grooves on the record. There’s a magical feeling of transforming plastic into sound which never diminishes.”
A 2013 BPI consumer survey, showed that 63.8 per cent of respondents who didn’t own a turntable said they bought vinyl because they liked the artwork and packaging whilst 32.8 per cent said they bought everything that their favourite artists releases.
Goldsmiths PHD student, Pete Gofton, 41, is writing about the vinyl revival – and is exploring how vinyl buyers perceive themselves:
“People have always used consumer goods to signal who they are, it has always been part of the hipster culture. The idea that vinyl says you have style, is not negative, it’s the most obvious answer. They [records] can get damaged – that’s why we got rid of records. Often, people will just have them on display, like a piece of art.”
Although the vinyl revival has been fuelled by the hipster scene, the continuing growth of record sales, suggests that it is more than just a passing trend. Vinyl buying is no longer restricted to baby-boomers for whom the analogue format affords nostalgia. A new generation of engaged music fans value the tangibility of the record, which offers them a retreat from the passive experience of streaming and downloading. Vinyl’s rising popularity, particularly in the digital age, has confirmed the format’s timelessness.
Top ten best-selling vinyl albums of 2016
*Official figures from BPI, the UK labels’ association, based on Official Charts Company data
This article is part of a three-day Eastlondonlines series celebrating vinyl records in London: Celebrate Vinyl. Click here to find out more!
Follow Sundus Saeed on Twitter