The vinyl record is back, but you already knew that. The resurgence of what is now ironically referred to as a ‘dead format’ has been the subject of countless news articles, features, and editorial for several years now. Everyone from commentators, audiophiles, and your average Joe and Jane have speculated why this might be. Some (myself included) tend to reach the somewhat muddy conclusion that, in an age of backlit screens and compressed data, physicality has value, novelty, and can be sold at a premium. I think at this point the real reason is that it’s trendy. Antique-chic, as a critic far wittier than I put it.
To give an example of the so-called ‘vinyl revival’, this week the UK Vinyl Chart was announced amid rising sales figures and continual slew of articles appearing on online publications discussing the how, the why, and (perhaps most pertinently) the how long. Clearly, this has led to a certain fatigue that the Daily Mash were more than happy to satirise with an article entitled ‘We get that f*cking vinyl is back, says everyone’.
Which leads me to Record Store Day, the ‘annual celebration of the independent record shop.’ Every year RSD offers a new catalogue of exclusive albums, singles, and reissues, cut to vinyl and sold to crowds who will wait, en masse, from the crack of dawn to buy them up. Certainly this event has contributed massively to the sale and renewed popularity of vinyl, and I think part of what has made it such a success is that people feel that they are doing something good. By buying vinyl records, and by taking part in Record Store Day, everyone wins – the shop, the label, the artist, and you, the consumer, who gets to go home with a piece of recorded music that sounds great and can be added to a collection. It’s a win-win. Right?
The problem with selling music is the same as selling anything. If vinyl records are selling then you can be sure that the major labels will want to get involved, and sooner or later, smaller operations will be squeezed out and their sales will be diminished. This is how free enterprise has always worked. But I think there is a certain irony in an event which was established to celebrate independence that seems to have been hijacked by industrial giants who clog up pressing plants and push the release schedule of smaller labels back, just so they can have a reissue of a David Bowie album to sell for Record Store Day.
With 9.2 million sales of vinyl in the UK in 2014 and only 20 active pressing plants in the world, there is nowhere near the right amount of facilities to cope with the demand for vinyl, less still to accommodate the smaller labels forced to compete with the majors. Added to which, many of these companies have the rights to a wide range of music, from motion picture soundtracks to the beloved back catalogues of famous artists, so it’s very easy for them to commission a ‘one-off’ repress of a movie soundtrack or classic album. This year the RSD catalogue seems particularly devoted to reissues, and while I cannot pretend that the thought of owning vinyl copies of Steve Reich’s ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ or the Wu-tang Clan’s Protect Ya Neck (yellow and black pressing!) on vinyl is incredibly tempting, it’s harder to justify when the demand for these items might be preventing new music from getting out and finding an audience.
The cynical would put this dilemma down to that standard adage of ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’, citing how the most pure of intentions are inevitably corrupted by corporate influence and mass consumption. I suppose there is some truth to that. Clearly the controversies surrounding RSD and its effect on independent labels ought to be addressed. Some shops have decided not to stock RSD releases at all. Tom Lawes, one of the founders of YAM in Peckham, stated this stance was motivated by a desire to support independents. ‘It’s independent labels we want to be celebrating,’ Lawes said, ‘the ones that have contributed to the growth of the vinyl industry and have kept the format alive, not those pressing special releases destined to be bought for their novelty factor.’
Ultimately, I think the resurgence of vinyl is a good thing, but it’s hard to say how long it will last. Record Store Day will undoubtedly see huge crowds, but who is to say whether those same supporters will be there next year, or the year after. An ideal (albeit unrealistic) solution would be the creation of more pressing plants to better accommodate the needs of smaller labels. If the popularity of vinyl continues perhaps that won’t be so radical a proposition. However, most people are fickle, and it’s debatable whether those with the money and influence to fund such operations are likely to gamble on what could be seen as another fleeting trend.
I like owning records for the same reason that I like reading books. It’s something I can touch and feel and own. You just don’t get that with an MP3 you bought from iTunes. For that reason I think that, as our lives become more and more entwined with digital technology, the hard copy will prevail. The labels will too, as they always have done, but not without support. So by all means, get up early on April 18th and go out and cop that reissue, if you want to. But maybe spare a thought for the other guys, stop by a different store, and check out something else as well.