Going Vinyl: Investigating the Format

It’s time for me to come clean. After numerous conversations with fellow music fans, nodding my head forcibly, keeping my mouth firmly shut all the while… I’m going to admit it. I don’t buy vinyl. And I don’t want to.

Why does this admission make me feel like an anomaly, like there’s something crucially important I don't ‘get’? Buying vinyl has become something of a badge of honour amongst music fans: “You don’t get vinyl? You’re not one of us”, I imagine them saying. I personally prefer to fork out for gig tickets and experience my most loved artists live, rather than possess a physical artefact. I hold my hands up; the reasons I don’t buy vinyl are as follows: To start with the obvious, I don’t own a record player. It’s pricey. Looking now at the digital albums I’ve bought over the past month, the vinyl versions cost at least £10 more. And mostly: I dislike this fetishisation of music. To sum it up, think of those wall-frames they sell in Urban Outfitters, which are specifically for records… Why buy audio when it’s just going to hang obediently on your wall forever?

So what am I missing out on?

In 2014, vinyl sales leapt over the one million hurdle for the first time in eighteen years. Following on, in 2015, vinyl sales grew around by 56% according to a BPI study. But despite these positive statistics, vinyl sales in 2015 only make up 9% of total physical music revenues. As Jamie from my local record store puts it: “The percentages sound decent, but it’s a percentage of fuck all.” Music sales continue to be a tricky business. My investigation takes place in the Music and Video Exchange in Greenwich, an Aladdin’s cave for vinyl lovers. The store sells an array of second hand collectible vinyls, as well as a bargain basement and CD and DVD section. As I explore the store and observe the collectors in their haven, I can sense this is a special place; a place of joy and escape. Music blares and people leaf through the offerings, completely absorbed in browsing this eclectic selection of music. I note that I am the only woman in the store, and, the only person aged below 30 (thereabouts). Despite the cliché of the twenty-something hipster snooping around the record store, the largest percentage of vinyl buyers is made up of middle-aged men. This is evident as I chat to resident experts and proprietors Jamie and Dylan. As we talked all things vinyl, the customers making purchases fit the above description.

So why do people buy vinyl? Many vinyl lovers have ardently assured me of the wonderful sound vinyl brings, far superior to the sound of a digital mp3. This ‘warm’ sound is due to the limitations of an analogue recording. Digital recordings capture everything, whereas analogue misses bits – and this is where listeners’ ears will ‘fill in the gaps’. This perhaps makes the record seem somehow more human and less clinical than a digital recording. There’s also the old-school nostalgia of the clicks and ticks of a record player. But Jamie disputes the idea that superior sound quality is a reason for the rise in sales: “People may say this but I think it’s a load of nonsense unless you’ve got a really, really expensive record player.”

The other reason people buy vinyl is of course due to its sentimental value. It’s a treasure, a physical manifestation of the artist’s work, topped off with beautiful cover art. “I just like having a physical copy of the records I love,” Dylan tells me. “If I’m honest, my record player is currently under a pile of books.” Jamie agrees, suggesting the owner’s records are a “shorthand” way to get a sense of someone’s personality. “If a girl comes back to your room and sees your record collection, she sees maybe a sense of your identity. But she’s hardly going to go and look through your computer files.” Well, I hope not.

Whatever your motivation for purchasing vinyl, we can all agree on one thing: Giving your full attention to music is a wonderful thing. The act of putting on a record provides more of an obligation to stay in the “same space” as the vinyl. “You don’t want it getting stuck and making a racket so you stay there, pay attention, and listen to it.” For me, this depends on people’s attitudes towards music – too often is it treated as a disposable commodity. So, now we’re talking. Maybe I’m coming around. Vinyl cultivates a healthy attitude towards records.

Still, it’s the sense of showmanship that still rubs me up the wrong way a valid concern? Dylan agrees with my sentiments, but provides a useful angle. “It’s a fetishization, of course it is. But if it wasn't for this fashion trend, we’d have shut down by now. It’s still enthusiasm for the artist. I don’t get why hardcore vinyl fans in here are so disgusted by the idea of vinyl records being fashionable. It’s not like we’re going to run out of records.”

Jamie jokes about my generation paying a penance for killing the music industry. But maybe he’s right. Vinyl is certainly bucking the trend. Whilst vinyl sales continue to rise, the purchase of other paid music formats is falling: Last year CD sales fell by 6.5% and downloads dropped by nearly 9%. Streaming, meanwhile, was up 78%. I’ve been convinced: Enthusiasm about music, in any form, can only be a good thing. For now, I’m sticking with digital. But all you vinyl buyers can keep on showing the love.

Words by Ellie Duffield