Groove armada: The stunning rebirth of vinyl

Vinyl is shedding its image as a retro novelty as a new generation discovers cover art, liners and great sound

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The Independent Culture

If you grew up with vinyl and imagined that one day it would be a piece of musical history, superseded by CDs and unknown to the youth of the future, you’d have been wrong. Last week, the BPI and Official Charts Company released their end-of-year figures showing the state of the recorded-music industry. While CD albums continue to make way for digital sales and streaming (which doubled last year), sales of vinyl were positively booming.

And it’s young people who are causing its resurgence. Sales of the 66-year-old format may have been steadily rising over the past nine years, but last year saw an explosion in which vinyl sales doubled what they were in 2012. The 780,000 LPs shifted in 2013 meant that sales were the greatest since 1997. “The LP is back in the groove,” stated BPI’s chief executive Geoff Taylor. “We’re witnessing a renaissance for records – they’re no longer retro-mania.”

A week doesn’t seem to go by without another band or pop artist releasing a special limited-edition vinyl. This week it was Jack White’s Third Man Records that announced the release of a collection of singles from The White Stripes’ fourth album, Elephant, as a vinyl box-set. In a further pointer of how fashionable the format is, in November Bloc Party frontman Kele Okereke released a single on the first 3D-printed vinyl in a promotional project with rum brand Bacardi.

Vinyl is, without a doubt, trendy again. Far from being the preserve of heritage acts’ catalogue reissues, it belongs equally to a younger generation of artists. And you only have to look at the Top 10 of vinyl sold in 2013 for confirmation that a wide age range of music fans are buying it. Alongside Arctic Monkeys’ AM, the most bought LP of last year, are records from David Bowie, Daft Punk, Boards of Canada and Vampire Weekend. And if you look at the Top 40 vinyl bought last year, you’ll find a raft of hip young acts including Savages, Jake Bugg, Alt J, Foals, Kings of Leon, Bastille, Disclosure, Haim and James Blake.

Part of vinyl’s renewed success is thanks to Record Store Day, an annual event in April since 2008, which last year saw the remaining 300 UK independent record stores take £2m in one day – for vinyl sales alone. But above anything, it’s the popularity of vinyl among younger music fans.

“A new generation is discovering the magic of 12-inch artwork, liner notes and the unique sound of analogue records,” says Kim Bayley, director of the Entertainment Retail Association, pointing to a survey in April showing under-35s discovering and buying vinyl. The most responsible for the rise in sales are in fact 18- to 24-year-olds – the generation that has grown up with CDs and online downloads. In that age group, 14 per cent had bought vinyl in the last month compared to nine per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds and five per cent of 35- to 44-year-olds.

It’s a trend that’s been welcomed by the UK’s biggest independent record shop, Rough Trade, where vinyl sales are up 45 per cent, year-on-year. “It is a staggering amount when you consider we have always sold significant quantities of new vinyl,” says Stephen Godfrey, the store’s co-owner. “We’re seeing younger generations being the most format-savvy, streaming music on their phones whilst on the commute, but playing a record when they’re back at home. That’s not to say the over-25s don’t buy vinyl, they most certainly do, but the growth in sales is the younger generations adopting vinyl as a post-digital  behavioural response.”

The draws of vinyl are obvious: a fuller, more raw and warmer sound compared to the inferior compressed quality of MP3s; the tangible nature of the physical product as a collector’s piece, with its sleeve and cover art, in opposition to an impersonal click on the computer. But some may be disheartened to learn that it’s not always the musical qualities for which many young fans are buying vinyl, but vinyl’s artistic value. Fans buying the vinyl are not necessarily listening to it, since 27 per cent of them don’t even own a turntable. Since most vinyl releases also come with a code to download the album digitally, there is the option to collect and admire them as artworks, showing commitment to supporting music and connecting more closely with an artist’s work, while listening to the music digitally.

But for many more, listening to the vinyl and digital download gives the best of both worlds. Sales of turntables, in particular the USB turntable – which enables the fan to record the vinyl capturing its sound quality for digital listening – have been on the rise. Rough Trade alone sold hundreds this past year, and the surge of vinyl sales has prompted them to work towards introducing a new turntable in the near future.

That vinyl is appreciated for its artistic value is demonstrated by the existence of the Best Art Vinyl Award. White Lies’ LP Big TV – which features an oil painting by Michael Kagan on its cover – was last week announced as its winner, and is currently being showcased alongside 49 shortlisted others at Malmaison Hotels until the end of January. The award has been going for nine years – as long as our current vinyl resurgence. But with younger generations catching on, even the sales of 2013 are unlikely to be the peak.

All In a spin: 10 years of No 1 on vinyl

2004: Tiesto – Just Be

2005: Oasis –  Don’t Believe the Truth

2006: Arctic Monkeys –  Whatever People Say I Am,  That’s What I’m Not

2007: The Coral – Roots and Echoes

2008: Bon Iver –  For Emma, Forever Ago

2009: Bon Iver –  For Emma, Forever Ago

2010: Jimi Hendrix –  Valleys of Neptune

2011: Radiohead –  The King of Limbs

2012: The xx – Coexist

2013: Arctic Monkeys – AM

Courtesy of the Official Charts Company