Vinyl Revolution in a Digitised Age
Written by Kelvin Slesser-Marriott on 1st March 2018
The way we experience music has been subject to a series of revolutionary changes in technology over the past half-century, yet there is one format that has stayed the course in the face of increasingly consumable digitisation – vinyl. revolution.
Dismissed on countless occasions, ten years ago Steven Wells asked if “you know anybody who still buys vinyl that isn’t a total dick” in a hugely sardonic article calling for the curtain on vinyl records. Wells refused to accept that the reasons for buying vinyl are manifold and beyond elitist nostalgia, that so many see value in the experience of collecting per-se and are not ready to submit “unfettered by physical possession into the neo-Buddhist digital future”. Fortunately, collectors failed to adhere and we now know that the past decade has been, at the very least, an encore for the vinyl industry.
Though its halcyon era pre-1991 could only return under inconceivable circumstances, the latest figures tell a very positive story for physical records. In the UK, vinyl sales in 2017 hit four million for the first time since the early 1990s. The British Phonograph Industry marks this as a 27% increase over 2016, and the tenth consecutive year of such an upwards trend. Discogs, likewise reporting comprehensive growth in its mid-year report, also announced that new releases grew an astounding 124% versus 2016. This confirms that not only are we buying more, but record labels are also increasingly turning their attention to wax as vinyl becomes the only purchased music format in growth.
However for a sustainable vinyl future, the format still needs to be even more widely embraced. To build progressively on the last decade’s new foundation requires pressing plants that can meet the expectations of labels inclined to press records. This is mostly important for the smaller independent labels who sometimes find themselves shunned in favour of the majors who are pressing in greater numbers, particularly for the contentious annual Record Store Day. The biggest scepticism around vinyl’s comeback is this reissue culture, suggesting that once the major labels (Warner, EMI, Sony etc.) have repressed classic albums and our reminiscent parents have picked them up in the supermarkets, then vinyl will have ultimately have seen its day.
For that to be avoided, the chain of production needs to see re-investment. Globally, the supply chain is at overcapacity. In short, the output of vinyl pressing plants cannot keep pace with the volume of records that labels are wanting to press, given its new found demand.
This is caused partly by the relative inexperience that comes naturally with the re-emergence of an industry. Without even considering the availability of operable machinery that could’ve been dormant for a decade or more, it’s an incredibly technical manufacturing process where expertise is in short supply. With reliable logistics, the smaller labels benefit from accurate production schedules, avoid frustrating delays and can effectively market new records.
We could expect that it’s only a matter of time before this supply/demand conundrum is resolved. Sony are reopening a pressing plant in Japan and elsewhere the turntable manufacturers recognised the trends and have already responded. Rega, the UK manufacturer of smart, affordable home turntables have increased output by almost 500% in the last decade. Technics, maker of the indestructible SL-1200 first released in 1972 and still synonymous with club culture today, last year released the SL-1200GR aimed at DJs as well as a premium edition of the deck for the audiophile market. These sit amongst a hoard of high street alternatives with plug-and-play models for the lifestyle consumer unconcerned with pre-amps and turntable calibration. See the Vinyl Factory’s latest guide to the top 15 turntables for all budgets.
Technics’ resumption of turntable production is significant in that it had given up on its flagship model in 2010, around the time when most industry spectators would’ve been sharing the sentiment that vinyl’s day was over. To have such an institution back involved in the trade is precisely both the confirmation of a resurgence and the investment in its future that all involved will welcome. Demand is up, buoyed organically by the purists through the turn of the century and compounded by its re-emergence into mass media as the experiential good featured in advertising by fashion brands, E4 and more.
Sadly buying vinyl as a lifestyle good often comes with the ‘hipster’ criticism, yet regardless of the questioned authenticity in such consumption, the simple idea that more people are spending on wax should be celebrated. Vinyl in retail space was once commonplace, so its high-street re-commercialisation in Urban Outfitters and Sainsbury’s is a promising signal that it can once again become an everyday experience. We can’t avoid the fact that behaviours are shaped through such mainstream channels, it’s often the avenue through which many sincere music enthusiasts come to access the ‘underground’ in the first place, a scene which itself has acknowledged the advent of mainstream social media. Globally, promoters have grown out of having an instant audience online and they’re the ones showcasing DJs who still play records, DJs who aren’t doing it just because it’s back on trend.
Vinyl really began as the product of an American R&D race in the 1940s between RCA Victor and Columbia Record Company, both striving to provide the first affordable consumer format for home listening after previously failed attempts to commercialise music through the Great Depression. Both made significant and lasting contributions; in 1948 Columbia gave us the 12” long play albums (LPs), shortly followed by RCA’s 7” singles in ’49. These are the two formats that, along with the extended 12” singles built for DJs, are still in production today.
Twenty years after its inception, vinyl played centre-stage in replacing live musicians in clubs with the genesis of the DJ. It’s a gross oversimplification, but the late David Mancuso’s reverent New York Loft parties were part of a scene that refocused nightlife culture. Fuelled by a lack of pretence and serious attention to acoustics, Mancuso brought together a diverse underground community centred around continuous dancing, made possible by the use of his own vinyl record collection. Unlike most establishments around 1970, these nights ran early into the next morning and by using two or more turntables to segue between records, introduced a discotheque culture that still informs global nightlife almost half of a century later.
So we can partly credit the arrival of an affordable music format for designing the spiritual clubbing experience. Parties like those at The Loft were the product of a lifetime’s record collecting and something much more tacit in the creation of community – providing a means of escapism, plus a safe space for expression that was particularly imperative for those oppressed elsewhere by means of race and sexuality. Mancuso collected from the age of 15 in New York, London, Amsterdam and probably wherever else he travelled, acquiring an international array of sounds to be presented to his local audience in New York in what became a transcendent experience of inclusive and uninterrupted dancing. Night-time entertainment was shifting from a more sophisticated and exclusive arena of live musicians, into the hands of vinyl collectors with an ear for ‘dance’ music and an indiscriminate attitude towards social progress.
It’s an art form that current DJs including Theo Parrish still defend vehemently. The veteran gave a lecture for RBMA in which he reflects on digital music as a simulation of the analog experience, suggesting that a files (mp3) DJ imitates the one that works with records. In Parrish’s opinion, the professional is one that “goes through the trouble of maintaining, collecting and dealing with these fragile pieces of wax”. For many DJs there’s almost this role to play in keeping alive those roots of the party from New York. The argument may be that to play using this format pays homage to the legacy of the DJ, and that playing a collection of records to a crowd is a proof that you’ve done your homework and are worthy of your place within a fragmented profession between the authentic and commercial ‘underground’, remember the talent is on the turntables.
However, in the context of clubbing, it will be inconsequential to most people whether the DJ is playing from vinyl or two USBs – despite their being something reassuring about the credentials of an artist who is still committed to the craft despite its obvious inconveniences. But the advent of CDs and then the mp3 is representative of technology making the collecting experience accessible in an increasingly consumable mode, to a point where most music is free. David Bowie predicted it, forecasting in 2002 that “music itself is going to become like running water or electricity”.
Spectators might feel that with such immediacy, music has been reduced to a commodity that can be far too easily dismissed. What’s been lost with the newer mode of collecting, or playlist-ing, is deep listening to music where you don’t skip the skits on a hip-hop record, overlook a B-side or selectively download only the hits from an artist’s catalog. Going to a record store, making your selections and listening to them in their entirety is what gives each record a personal narrative. It’s what makes you want to share your collection, obsessively organise and reorganise, plus revisit records time-over to a point where they become classics. Never mind the inexplicable warmth of a vinyl’s crackle.
Experience aside, it’s the extra space for artistic expression with vinyl that equally demands attention, plus its quirks that contribute to such tacit satisfaction in collecting. Besides the obvious canvas for artwork on record sleeves, labels like Floating Points’ Melodies International featured a 16-page insert with their recent Maurice Moore reissue; including artist interviews, a scene report from Japan and choice cut musical recommendations. These are the elements of ‘use value’ that Kevin Moist notes as the differentiator between vinyl records and other collections. Whereas most objects are set aside to be preserved, you do not buy vinyl for the disc itself, but instead for the experience of its contents.
This rediscovery of the format might be typical of a greater social introspection toward the value of spending time offline. With vinyl as the antithesis to Spotify, its resurgence might be attributed to such reclaiming of offline and off-screen time that the CD doesn’t quite satiate. However, that’s not to vilify music streaming or downloads, free access is undoubtedly a good thing so that when the luxury of a £20 record is unaffordable, you’re not denied a platform for discovery. Given its premium nature, vinyl’s renaissance is therefore all the more remarkable when placed alongside the timeline of a global financial crisis. Considering that 70% of UK workers are reportedly “chronically broke”, it’s a motivating thought that we’re still turning to vinyl with what little disposable income might be available. Though with long-term financial security and job satisfaction presenting a dichotomy for many, and when a mortgage might seem like a distant milestone, it should be unsurprising that we’re turning to avocado toast, artisan coffee and vinyl records, rekindling a gratitude for life’s most rudimentary pleasures.
The fact that many record stores also still exist is testament to the resilience of the owners who weathered each technological innovation that should’ve rendered them obsolete. Evidently there’s just something irreplaceable about the human element of vinyl, the inarticulate added-value in going to a store and discovering music at the hands of the vinyl cognoscenti once at the centre of music communities. Although much of the industry’s growth will have come online, through the supermarkets and in HMV’s growing record aisle; there’s promise in the future for these independent record stores so long as we keep turning out. As part of the wider vinyl ecosystem contemplated above, our responsibility as consumers is to support record stores whenever possible. Partly because they deserve our acknowledgement, but mostly because there’s no more rewarding approach to collecting music than digging through a record crate.
Though the return of vinyl falls short of society returning to the retrograde 1950s lifestyles of the Time Warp Wives, it’s an exciting prospect of a future where it exists as the prevalent physical format. It can, should and no doubt will exist in harmony with the luxury of discovery afforded to us by digital streaming, plus rebut whatever presently inconceivable tech might refashion music consumption and question the existence of vinyl next.
In terms of its place in nightlife, the ship has sailed on a utopian analogue existence where digital technology doesn’t continue to revolutionise the capabilities of a DJ. So whilst it does no harm to commend the artistry and dedication of a vinyl DJ staunch in his/her defence of the trade’s purity, there are certainly no performance limitations in opting for its modern equivalent.
Perhaps it makes for a healthier discussion to refocus on the purpose of the party itself; not the chosen format, rankings or public profile of the DJs.
So although industrialisation alleviated us of most material poverty, maybe in return we became afflicted by a poverty of spirit in what feels like an increasingly fast world. Vinyl, alongside yoga and books on mindfulness, are popular because they provide a means of tuning-out and breaking the noise. With records, there’s a romanticized, tangible experience in taking one home and actively listening through its every groove, plus identity to be found in investing time and resources into building and sharing a collection. It’s these cumulative experience elements that present such a singularity with vinyl culture that’s assured it’s existence when we quite conceivably could’ve been talking about records as fondly remembered relics of the past.
Quite simply, there’s yet to arrive a medium of music that reproduces the live experience as fully as vinyl. This has been the story now for almost seventy years, guarded from the ordinary life-cycle of capitalist commodities by its unparalleled soul. Vinyl is back and its future looks more promising than it has done for decades, perhaps you’d be a dick to predict otherwise.