To a casual music fan, it may seem as though vinyl records have run their course. They sit still, resigned to the walls of antique shops or dusty boxes in people’s attics never to be played again. Although there has been a consistent demographic of vinyl enthusiasts, the classic album format has launched a comeback “fuelled by that unique sound quality and a nostalgia wave” as Chris Morris describes in Fortune. They are a symbol of the good old days of music with their warm sound and physicality that cannot be attained with digital downloads. These aspects of vinyl are just some of the reasons the pull of nostalgia has drawn more interest towards records, says Megan Gibson in Time. A record revolution has started to rumble in the streets and people are dusting off their record players and being enveloped in the soundtrack of the 60’s once more.
According to the ARIA wholesale figures for 2016, demand for vinyl has risen 70% in the last year. This is the sixth consecutive year that vinyl record sales have risen and this trend is likely to continue. While streaming and digital downloads are dominating the music scene, physical formats are still holding their own as they account for approximately 30% of the market.
This escalating interest in old school records has been reflected all over the world with the British Phonographic Industry’s UK Music Market Report for 2016 presenting similar inclinations. Over 3.2 million LP’s were sold which was an increase of 53% from the previous year; figures like these haven’t been seen since 1991.
A key catalyst in the growth of vinyl record sales is Record Store Day which, according to Spinning Star Records’ owner Nic Musumeci, is a “celebration of independent record stores”. On this day, record enthusiasts flock to participating stores all over the world to get their hands on classic and new albums as well as those that are exclusively pressed for the event. Mr Musumeci says the day “is a great opportunity for people to explore new stores, look in different collections, and be in a celebratory space with like-minded people”. Now in its tenth year, Record Store Day has gained so much momentum that even pop music’s biggest names, including Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber, have begun getting in on the action and releasing exclusively pressed records.
In addition to more recent artists getting back on the vinyl train and driving up sales, it is the legends that remain at the top of record sale figures. After David Bowie’s death last year, he became the top selling vinyl artist for 2016 and had five of his albums in the Top 30. Buying classic records by artists who have passed away gives fans the opportunity to grasp onto a remaining piece of that person’s soul through their music. Having a physical relic that you can touch and admire as you walk past it on your shelf is just another way to keep the music alive, although vinyl isn’t the only way this is done. Ann Powers, NPR Music’s critic and correspondent, shared in an article for The Record that her writing led her to explore music archives and “in these quiet rooms, [she] held history in [her] hands”. Whether rifling through old sheet music or vinyl records, having a tangible form of music will always be a way to hold on to a physical piece of music history.
The physicality that a vinyl record possesses instils much more sentimentality than one might think. Mr Musumeci previously sold records at the West End Markets in Brisbane and then went on to open Spinning Star Records. He knows how important the physical aspect of a record can be, saying that when you buy a record, you “get something palpable for your money – you get a physical object to play, and a work of art … in a large, beautiful format”. Mr Musumeci says that listening to vinyl is all about “matching the two senses of hearing and touching”. The process of looking at the art on the cover while flicking through a collection of records, “lovingly drop[ping] the needle on something you physically chose” and listening “to a deeper sound” is how vinyl should be experienced.
Looking at a pixelated version of an album’s cover art is never truly the same as seeing it blown up on 12 square inches of cardboard and being able to scrutinise every individual detail. Being able to move the record around in your hands and see how much effort that can sometimes go into an album cover is something special that cannot be experienced through a screen or a CD. Catherine Baldi, an 18-year-old from Brisbane, has been listening to vinyl since 2013 and enjoys looking at vinyl just as much as she enjoys listening to it, “I love album artwork so I love seeing it in a bigger form compared to a CD”. DJ Bacon, a renowned Brisbane vinyl DJ, agrees with this sentiment saying, “the artwork is bigger and better, vinyl is a real thing not a computer file that is invisible”.
Walk into any record store and the walls will be plastered with album covers instead of posters, a whirlwind of colours and musical history. Even the records inside those plastic covers have become wall hangings, the large black discs spotting walls or being hung from ceilings. As Miss Baldi says, “walking in is really exciting, physically seeing thousands of records and knowing there might be some hidden gems around is so cool”. Mr Musumeci says that record stores “have a particular smell, and there’s a particular kind of excitement” when you walk into one and see the “treasure hunt” that awaits you. “Large and messy stores are some of my favourite, they feel like a challenge.”
DJ Bacon has been DJ’ing for the past 20 years and continues to work with and specialise in spinning vinyl records. He is just one of a number of DJ’s who have never truly lost touch with the classic vinyl and turntable combination, “DJ’s traditionally have used vinyl as the king of formats”. DJ’s who utilise this vinyl in their line of work have kept turntable sales up and “vinyl DJ skills intact” he says.
Although the tangibility that records offer is a big drawcard for vinyl enthusiasts, in the end it will always come down to the sound quality. The hissing and crackling of an age-old vinyl record rotating on a turntable is one that listeners can’t seem to get enough of. As DJ Bacon explains, “analogue equipment has a warmer, more robust and authentic sound” whereas digitally mastered music “sounds a lot cleaner and sharper but not necessarily better”.
Even though pop musicians are jumping on the vinyl bandwagon, “some genres suit the vinyl format better than others” DJ Bacon points out. Vinyl has some recording limitations, the biggest one is that it does not handle heavy bass very well. “Vinyl handles more traditional music better than say EDM or House that is very bass heavy”.
Popular culture in recent years has seen the resurrection of many throwback trends, from flares and Lennon-esque shades to chokers and jelly sandals. The new generation of youth seem to have a desire to step back in time and claim they were born in the wrong generation just because they might enjoy listening to The Rolling Stones. This separation of themselves from mainstream culture may be another way to mark their territory as alternative and ‘individual’.
There is a key difference between those who buy records for the music and those who buy records for the aesthetic. One will excitedly go into a record store and rummage through the multitude of records to take one back home and envelope themselves in the vibrations. The other will take a look around at the records available, find one whose cover art is appealing to the eye and make sure it features on their Instagram profile.
This is not to say that all those under the age of 25 are faking an interest in vinyl, there are so many young people who are reconnecting with the way music used to be played. It is a shame however that some are, as David Sax says in an article for The Guardian, “deifying outdated things and repackaging them as contemporary culture”. A 2016 ICM poll showed that 48 per cent of people who bought vinyl in that past month were yet to play it and 7 per cent of those surveyed didn’t even own a record player. Jordan Katende, a student from Manchester shared this sentiment with BBC News, “I have vinyls in my room but it’s more for decor. I don’t actually play them”. Whether or not someone truly appreciates the vinyl they are buying, in the end it still benefits the independent record stores they are buying from as Mr Musumeci says, “the trendiness of it does mean more stores open [and] more records are released”.
The argument over digital versus vinyl boils down to what people value most when it comes to sound quality. Some prefer the accuracy and sharpness that digitally recorded music offers while others, including Miss Baldi, prefer the “atmosphere” that vinyl showcases. Original records bring a wave of nostalgia as the needle navigates every groove and indentation, tracing the twists and turns of music history. It is at the point now where vinyl’s past has fully played out and it is time to turn over the disc, drop the needle and see how the B side of its’ story decides to play out.
This piece was written for KJB224: Feature Writing, a unit in my Journalism degree at QUT.