published: 8 /
Ben Howarth in 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' looks at the recent rise in vinyl sales and asks how this will effect CD sales
Vinyl album sales have “soared”, the BPI tell us in a press release, handily timed to persuade anyone not already part of this revolution to become part of it sharpish.
This revelation received plenty of attention from an evidently bored media, despite it being neither a surprise nor a significant development. Yes, sales are up, but they remain tiny. Six of the top ten selling vinyl albums of 2014 date from 1994 or earlier. When vinyl sales were higher than they are today.
It doesn't take a wild leap to conclude the many of today's vinyl customers are the ones who grew up buying vinyl before it went out of fashion, and now have the riches needed to make what have become laughably inflated prices (the typical mark-up on vinyl in high street retailers being 150-200%).
These statistics are worth smothering in plenty of salt. Their 'million sales' figure appears to have been plucked out of thin air – the press release contains no footnotes, so we have no idea where the number came from. Has the BPI really surveyed the many small labels releasing vinyl runs of rwo hundred or three hundred copies? Have sales at gigs been counted (that being, after all, when we are most likely to buy an album at full price without wondering if there is a way to download it for less)? I very much doubt it.
Vinyl fetishism is hardly a new phenomenon. I remember my copy of Slint's 'Spiderland' coming with the label 'This album is meant to be listened to on vinyl'. Slint can perhaps be forgiven, given that they made the album in 1990, when plenty of listeners would have been clinging on to their original collection of vinyl.
But they were still mistaken. Given that ‘Spiderland’ was only six tracks long, it was – in fact – ideally suited to the CD format. Having to get up and change the record over after only three tracks would be a surefire way to convince you that Slint's masterpiece is, in fact, rather too short. It takes the uninterrupted CD version for the album to truly make sense.
It's worth reminding ourselves that consumers weren't forced to stop buying vinyl. I grew up, like many Pennyblackmusic readers, in a home filled with vinyl. Scratched vinyl, warped vinyl, dusty vinyl, broken vinyl. Sometimes one of the two sides played all the way through properly – but not often.
It may only be twenty-five years ago, but it seems we've all forgotten that when CDs came along. They were a godsend. Only a tiny minority of maniacs resisted. They were harder to break and easier to store.
They were also user friendly. Making mix tapes suddenly became an enjoyable experience – you could flick to the track you wanted to at will, and didn't need to spend ages rewinding or desperately trying to slot the needle onto the right part of the track.
That's not to say that being nostalgic for vinyl is always wrong. Indeed – especially given the current trend for inserting CDs inside the vinyl package, giving us the best of both worlds – it is a welcome antidote to the short attention spans foisted on us by Spotify and its evil accomplices.
But is all this healthy? The BPI are probably right, however dodgy their stats, to conclude that a new kind of music consumer has emerged, happy to stream most things, while wanting to collect the physical copies of albums by their favourite acts.
But what will happen to those bands you don't know are going to become your favourite? I fear that one of the best parts of music fandom - taking a punt on an album you are not sure about, and enjoying it become an all time favourite over months or even years of listening – is about to disappear. Vinyl is too expensive and bulky – invariably, these are albums you only dig out on special occasions. Downloads are too disposable – invariably you play each new purchase a handful of times, and then move on.
This all seems like part of a broader plot to kill off the CD format, which nobody seems to want to defend (it is telling that, while the BPI do compare vinyl and download sales, their statements do not mention CDs once). The fact remains that – at least for anyone who doesn't habitually steal music – it remains a viable format, especially for purchases at gigs (which many smaller bands absolutely depend on).
Bands are understandably keen to promote the trendy (and thus money-spinning) vinyl revival. But they will live to regret conspiring to kill off the CD when they find it almost impossible to sell records to anyone other than their most determined supporters.