Vinyl: Let's get back in the groove

In the midst of the download revolution, why are some of rock's biggest names returning to vinyl? By Chris Mugan
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The Independent Culture

In an unprepossessing industrial estate on the fringes of west London, the fight back of a much-loved music format is being plotted.

Based in Hayes – handy for Heathrow Airport – the Vinyl Factory pressing plant is taking on the relentless rise of downloads and streaming services. Rather than mass producing vinyl, as in its heyday, the premises offer a bespoke service for discerning customers, one helping to carve a niche for vinyl as a desirable, collectable artefact.

This month, the business is releasing high-end versions of Air's latest album, Love 2, and Splitting the Atom, the current EP from Massive Attack. The French duo's box set retails at £75, comes on heavyweight vinyl and includes glossy prints, while the Bristol group's edition showcases the artwork of band member Robert Del Naja. Such limited editions (only 300 of Air's album) are a far cry from the ex-EMI plant's peak period. Gramophone records have been manufactured here since 1907, vinyl pressings since the Fifties; and looking at Vinyl Factory's floor, with wax ingrained like chewing gum on a pavement, you get a sense of that history.

Much of the machinery is just as venerable, custom built for the plant's former owners, and flexible enough to handle an endless variety of limited runs, from white labels to collectors' editions. EMI sold off its plant in 2001, when vinyl sales were at their lowest ebb, falling from a late-Seventies peak of 89 million 7-inchers a year to 180,000. Vinyl Factory took over the presses and within 12 months they were back in operation, just in time for a comeback that, if not quite Lazarus-like, has put the company on a firm footing.

Creative director Sean Bidder explains that his company took over the plant to service the dance market that still relied on DJ-friendly 12-inchers; then came a new wave of guitar bands keen to promote their own brand of authenticity. "We were sure that vinyl had a sustainable future, on a smaller scale that wouldn't make sense for a multinational company. Then bands like The White Stripes and The Libertines came along, seeking that feeling of authenticity and the indie spirit that vinyl provides." Understandable, really: as a recording artist, you can't beat the thrill of holding the fruits of your labour in your hands, especially in as tactile and perfect a form as vinyl.

It gives fans something to collect, display and hoard that is more tangible than a ticket stub. This, in turn, has encouraged artists to pursue the idea of vinyl releases as desirable artefacts. Radiohead led the way when they followed the infamous pay-what-you-like digital release of In Rainbows with a limited-edition, double-12-inch "discbox". Now Vinyl Factory is taking this strategy to a higher level with its "art editions" that come on high-quality, heavyweight vinyl with plush packaging and prints. Yet album sales on vinyl have halved since 2004, with a slight increase between 2007 and last year, while sales of vinyl singles collapsed in 2008.

Martin Talbot, the Official Chart Company's managing director, is dismissive of the scale of the revival. "This kind of talk has long been overplayed because the figures begin at such a low base. I don't think vinyl will become extinct, but it will only occupy a small niche." He also notes the rising cost of new equipment, so the Hayes mob had better look after their machinery. "There are issues because so little equipment is being built. It's going to become even more expensive to make vinyl." Dearer to manufacture, perhaps, but growing ever more covetable.