From room service menus in London’s hottest hotels to humble supermarket aisles, LPs are everywhere right now. So how did vinyl make its way back from the brink of extinction?
Words: Christian Koch
Photography: Baard Lunde
It’s a sound that goes straight to your heart – the warm crackle of the needle as it finds its place in a groove; the rich, full peal of the music that sings out from the dusty record player. Listening to a well-loved LP is a thing that envelops all the senses: the decades of stuffiness that scent the air as you pull the record from its sleeve, the soft indentations of the message that your mum’s childhood sweetheart wrote lovingly on the cardboard.
Wrapped up, as we are, in the sentimentality that they afford, increasing numbers of us are using our disposable income to stock up on records. And have no doubt, this is a true, back from the almost-dead revival. Last year, 2.1 million vinyl albums were sold in Britain, the highest sales figures since 1994 when Whigfield and Wet Wet Wet ruled the charts. By the end of this year, sales of 3.5 million are predicted. It’s a far cry from a decade ago, when only 200,000 LPs were sold and vinyl seemed doomed, thanks to the dominance of CDs and digital downloads. Such was the High Fidelity nerdiness of LPs back then that a music article in The Guardian even asked, “Do you know anybody who still buys vinyl that isn’t a total d**k?”
Today, vinyl makes £20million a year for the British record industry (up from £3million in 2009) even though the average LP costs around £20, more than triple that of CDs or downloads. And it isn’t just old school collectors replacing scratched Fleetwood Mac LPs either; around a third of buyers are 25-34 year olds who have fallen for the joy of manually playing an album – snapping up records by everyone from Taylor Swift and Jamie T to Madonna and The Beatles.
They are, quite literally, becoming part of the furniture too. Old school turntables are a key feature in many of the rooms at London’s Ace Hotel, where cult record store Sister Ray has an outlet in the lobby. Three miles away, W London’s ‘vinyl room-service menu’ sees LPs carefully curated by DJs Lauren Laverne and Annie Mac, delivered straight to guests’ rooms on demand. But the trend isn’t just confined to London hotels. In Urban Outfitters, you’ll find racks of records between the plaid shirts and Breton tops – the store now sells more vinyl than anybody bar Amazon. Even Sainsbury’s and Tesco are fuelling the vinyl revival, with shoppers now able to pick up classic LPs with their milk and cornflakes.
So it’s no coincidence that we’re experiencing a ‘Crosley Cruiser’ phenomenon. This record- player-in-a-case has leapt off shelves at stores from John Lewis to Argos, thanks to its retro style, affordable price tag and take-to-a-picnic portability. Audiophiles might bemoan its sound quality (experts recommend turntables like the Pioneer PLX-1000 or Numark TTX), but the Crosley appeals to all ages (partly thanks to special versions, including a One Direction edition for the youngest demographic), thus tempting fresh generations into the world of vinyl.
But what actually triggered vinyl’s ascent from Oxfam bargain bins to millennial-coveted objets d’art? “There’s certainly a pushback against the throwaway manner of digital music,” says Verity Burns, multimedia editor at What Hi-Fi? magazine. In an age when experiences are frequently given more social weight than possessions, the perceived authenticity of vinyl can allow listeners to feel ‘closer’ to the artists. “Digital natives discovering vinyl for the first time are appreciating vinyl for what it is – a crafted moment of creative self-expression between artist and audience,” says Stephen Godfroy, co-owner/director of Rough Trade, whose pioneering record stores have played an important role in vinyl’s renaissance. Will Higham, consumer futurist and founder of trends consultancy Next Big Thing, adds: “We live in an age of access rather than ownership. Young people aren’t owning houses or cars… But the few things they do own need to be beautiful.”
Which is partly why Jack White, ex-frontman of The White Stripes, has become something of a vinyl superhero. His label, Third Man Records, continually reinvents a format many assumed was drawing its last breath. The resuscitation has come in the form of the label’s highly desirable and experiential glow-in-the-dark records for Halloween, vinyl pressed with rose petals, and albums with blue liquid sploshing around inside. This summer, the label even succeeded in playing the first phonographic record in space when a specially adapted turntable spun John Boswell’s A Glorious Dawn inside a high-altitude balloon 94,000ft above Earth.
The only downside of all this visual excitement is, arguably, an overshadowing of the musical content of the discs. A survey earlier this year found nearly half of all vinyl buyers never actually listen to their purchases. Many are buying records simply because they love the cover art and want to frame it for their homes.
Vinyl junkies would probably argue that the Vinyl junkies would probably argue that the 41% of owners not using their turntables are missing out on a magical, fuzzy spot-hitting feeling that strikes long before the stylus drops. The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess tells Stylist of his love of “the ritual of a sleeve coming out of the cover. Reading the label. Swivelling the record over to look at the other side. Blowing any dust off. Then the thud of the needle hitting the vinyl.”
Of course, there’s vinyl’s sound quality, too: arguably superior to the mechanical feel of music channelled through laptop speakers or tinny smartphone headphones. “Music was originally produced to be listened to on vinyl,” says Burns. “Analogue has a different sound, a crackle you don’t get from CDs – there’s a warmth to it.”
Collecting records can be a joyous experience too – even if you don’t take it to the same lengths as Brazilian music fan Zero Freitas, who recently demolished three homes to create a warehouse for his six million-strong stockpile of vinyl.
“Online, you just click ‘add to cart’, but in a shop you can talk [to an expert] about anything, like the bass player’s previous band,” says Burgess, whose new book, Tim Book Two – Vinyl Adventures From Istanbul To San Francisco, charts his lifelong passion for records. His travels allowed him to observe how independent stores – many facing extinction until recently – have adapted, such as Norfolk’s Holt Vinyl Vault (doubles as a post office) or Southsea’s Pie & Vinyl (the clue’s in the name). But for many these shops have always held a special place in our hearts. Yes, Spotify may have a ‘discover’ function, but you just can’t beat moseying into an off-the-beaten-track record shop and getting six new recommendations from the guy that was actually at the gig in ’79 and has spent his life surrounded by mountains of well-thumbed LPs.
So could the vinyl vogue also be a backlash against the stranglehold that technology has over our lives? Streaming services such as Spotify (100 million users, and rising) and Apple Music may offer infinite jukeboxes to carry in our pockets, but shelling out on a piece of vinyl is to some seen as an act of defiance against the digital age’s unrelenting speed.
“Streaming services are like being in the world’s biggest sweet shop,” says Burgess. “They’ve created shuffle culture, swiping songs like musical Tinder… Records are like ‘going steady’. You can listen to an album maybe 10 times before making up your mind, but [with streaming] you end up rejecting songs halfway through. There’s an immersive element to albums. Skipping a track on vinyl means getting up and walking across the room.”
This tangibility trend isn’t limited to groove-lined 12-inches of course – sales of physical books swelled by four million this year, while ebooks declined. The desire for physical objects has seen the revival of rickety typewriters, old-school cameras and even VHS tapes, after decades festering in pop-culture dustbins.
Higham believes it chimes with the ‘Slow Living’ trend: “Vinyl’s a reaction against a world [focused] on the easiest, most convenient way of doing things. There’s this idea of slowness, savouring and stepping outside this fast-forward, press-a-button world.”
Perhaps then, vinyl’s fetishisation is driven by nostalgic yearning for a more comforting age? A time when post-Brexit uncertainty, cataclysmic terrorism and strangely coiffed US presidential candidates didn’t yet exist?
In 1970, sociologist Alvin Toffler coined the term “future shock” to describe a psychological state, whereby sufferers have experienced “too much change in too short a period of time.” Indeed, experts have argued the advance of technology is making us less literate and able to concentrate. Arguably, listening to vinyl offers a nostalgic balm against such anxieties.
“There’s some truth in that,” says Dr Joost Leunissen, psychology lecturer at University of Southampton. “Our research shows nostalgia is created by negative psychological experiences. When people experience positive change, they don’t become nostalgic. But if they feel lonely, they feel nostalgia as it creates a sense of social connectedness. By reminding yourself of the past, you’re able to cope with negative changes.”
Vinyl’s timeless appeal and never-give-up spirit – not to mention the romance of music not found in Spotify algorithms – has seen it outlast Sony Walkmans and even CDs. But just like cocktails in Mason jars, does the vinyl revival risk being just another temporary fad? “Some might move on to the next ‘cool’ thing, but many more will stick with it,” reckons Burns.
Perhaps vinyl’s biggest enemies are record snobs themselves. “There’s a danger of getting all ‘Comic Book Guy’,” says Burgess. “Lots of kids call records ‘vinyls’, which doesn’t half rile some music dinosaurs. I saw two record shop owners moaning about it on Twitter, rather than realising these kids were their future.”
In fact, many releases come with download codes while the Crosley can also convert vinyl into MP3 files, indicating a new ‘phygital’ (physical-digital) future where LPs and streaming co-exist. As Godfroy says, “Vinyl has emerged as one of the first consumer products to prove its post-digital worth, justifying itself in a world where consumers are no longer satisfied with 24/7 mobile-streaming alone. It’s here to stay for many decades to come.”
Photography: Baard Lunde/trunkarchive.com