It’s been touted ‘the Vinyl Revival’ and, whether you’ve felt the nostalgic pull of owning records or not, you probably know people who have. 2016 saw vinyl’s popularity soar, with approximately 3.2 million records sold in UK, the highest figures since 1991. Supermarkets like Sainsbury’s and Tesco began stocking them, and in December, for the first time, record sales overtook digital music. Collecting records was once a middle-aged man’s hobby, but it seems we’re all doing it now.
So, how has vinyl made its comeback? Vinyl enthusiasts will tell you all about the superiority of the sound quality, which gives in a fuller, truer sound than compressed MP3 files. They will also talk about enjoying the process of spinning a record, which gives listeners a different, more ‘active’ role in consuming music. At this point you will often perceive a feverish glow in their eyes, as they discuss the peculiar excitement of unrobing a record from its sleeve, watching lovingly as it begins to spin and waiting with bated breath for that signature ‘crackle’. It’s a little frightening, actually.
But while we might not take all of the claims seriously, there may be a point in questioning the way most of us now listen to music. We consume digital audio files, which are pumped directly into our ears through earbuds. This is certainly efficient, allowing us to browse an endless stream of songs and albums, in an instant. On the flip side, our growing detachment from the process means that few of us will actually make it through an entire album in one sitting without skipping songs, or using the music as background for more important tasks. And this is the experience that vinyl might be able to offer us – the chance to engage with music in a different way. A way that encourages us to appreciate albums as whole pieces of art, with carefully curated tracklists, and subtle messages to convey.
However, not everyone that buys records is in it for such audiophilic ideals. The fact is that for many, the music matters less than the aesthetic appeal of vinyl. Whether that’s hipsters searching for a cool, retro vibe, or art-lovers who enjoy the iconic album artwork on record sleeves, an ICM poll revealed earlier this year that 48% of buyers don’t regularly play their records. 7% don’t even own a turntable; they just like the look of records. And it’s understandable, since record sleeves are bold showcases for album artwork. They are impressive in a way unlike the crummy little CD cases and iTunes icons we got used to in the Noughties.
Is it really important whether those buying the records will actually listen to them, or is it just another way to support your favourite artists?
Then there’s also the oldy-worldy nostalgia of owning records. When we look at the highest selling vinyl albums of 2016, this is clearly a theme – David Bowie’s 2016 album Blackstar topped the charts, and Prince’s Purple Rain also featured in the top ten. 2016’s victims included classic artists of the vinyl era, and so it’s hardly a surprise that many have been attracted by the format’s renaissance, as a way to honour and remember their dead idols.
But it’s not all dreams of days gone by – contemporary artists have also found success in the vinyl charts, such as Radiohead coming in fourth with their recent album A Moon Shaped Pool. Many musicians are fed up with making a pittance from streaming services, and have turned to releasing albums on vinyl to supplement their earnings. Nowadays, the internet presents myriad opportunities to stream and download for free. The choice to spend £20 (the price of Radiohead’s latest) on a contemporary album is a clear gesture of support from fans, even if the product will just sit in its sleeve.
Is it really important whether those buying the records will actually listen to them, or is it just another way to support your favourite artists? It might seem pretentious to collect vinyls as room décor or nostalgic time capsules, but let’s face it, there’s no harm in it. In fact, the rebirth of records might help us see the weaknesses of our current habits when listening to music.