The tables have turned: on the revival of vinyl

The tables have turned: on the revival of vinyl

4th February 2018 By Lea Hugo

For a long time, vinyl was the go-to source for music reproduction dominating much of the 20th century. Eventually, it was outsold by the compact disc in the late 1980s and its popularity began to decline dramatically from there. At its low point in 2007, as few as 205,000 vinyl LPs were sold in the UK. The introduction of the CD marked a point of incredible technological advancement and the CD had an advantage over vinyl in terms of portability, combined with the clarity of digital music. Both vinyl records and cassette tapes started to be phased out in favour of the CD, much like the CD is now being replaced by MP3 and streaming. Throughout all these years, however, vinyl never really ceased to exist and is now making a big comeback.

Since the first Record Store Day in 2008, the vinyl record is experiencing a renaissance. Record Store Day is an annual event in April celebrating the culture of vinyl and independent record stores. In each participating country, a unique list of records is pressed and released specifically for the event. Record Store Day has been a huge success every year so far and has certainly played into the new increased demand. While part of this demand stems from the older generation that grew up with vinyl and is having a nostalgic moment, there is also a new demographic: For our generation, vinyl is a new and fairly unexplored medium but it has succeeded to win a substantial group of young fans. Besides the traditional local record stores, Amazon and other retailers like the clothing chain Urban Outfitters, with a much younger audience, have jumped on the vinyl bandwagon and helped the trend grow. Vinyl hasn’t been this popular in a long time. In fact, sales hit a 26-year high in 2017, with over four million sales. And while streaming is shredding the market for physical music as a whole, vinyl sales are still growing.

Purchasing the vinyl record means ownership of a piece of music as something physical and visible.

Vinyl records have come back into fashion as part of the retro trend, much like we experience the same fashion trends every 20 to 30 years or so. According to a BBC/ICM survey, almost half of the people buying vinyl records these days don’t actually listen to them. 7% don’t even own a turntable. Instead, records are seen as a piece of art that is worthy of being collected and displayed. Owing to its format and size, a record allows for much greater appreciating of the album artwork that any other medium. It is tangible and there is something to the experience of going to a store and flipping through records that people seem to thoroughly enjoy. Besides listening to the music, actually owning something the beloved artist produced has an appeal of its own. Why else would people want to buy for example the original lyrics to their favourite songs? This is why streaming and vinyl seem to be in some kind of symbiotic relationship rather than competing for demand. Streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music supply people with access to millions of songs and are a great place to explore and discover new bands. But purchasing the vinyl record means ownership of a piece of music as something physical and visible.

In a way, vinyl never really lost its appeal; it was simply overshadowed by the exciting new possibilities of digital music for a while. There is, however, one considerable difference between now and then, which is the price. Even accounting for inflation, prices show that vinyl has become more of a niche luxury good these days. Besides the increase in demand pulling prices up, vinyl also has a rather labour-intensive production and print runs are still small. Even though it has the highest growth out of all physical forms of music, vinyl still only makes up around 7% of album sales overall. By March of this year, electronics giant Sony will have opened a new factory in Tokyo, three decades after ending vinyl production. Nevertheless, it seems highly unlikely that the vinyl record will return to be the mass-market product it was in its prime. Lacking the benefit of economies of scale, costs are high and so are prices. With music labels and retailers adding their profit margins on top, vinyl collecting can be an expensive hobby.