A quarter of young adults buy records they never listen to, a survey of British music fans discovered last year.
Some might take this as baffling or pretentious behavior, but the future of vinyl may rest on its ability to find selling points beyond its basic function as a music format.
Having long since lost the battle for cost and convenience to rival formats, vinyl is nonetheless enjoying its most prolonged revival since the introduction of the CD.
Sales have been rising sharply each year since 2007, with a peak increase of 54% in 2014 – driven by strong figures in the heartlands of the United States, UK, and Germany — although records still account for just a fraction of total music sales.
Independent British retailer Rough Trade has typified the medium’s rollercoaster fortunes. The company rose to prominence in the 1980s golden era with a record label that signed global stars such as The Smiths and a renowned store in West London, where A-list artists including Talking Heads performed, which led to a global distribution network and new stores from Paris to Tokyo.
The empire crumbled dramatically as new formats emerged. The distribution network filed for bankruptcy in 1991, and the foreign departments closed.
But after relaunching in 2007 with new management, Rough Trade is soaring again. The record label is signing major acts, and new stores have opened in the UK and New York, the latter a 15,000 square foot warehouse which became the city’s largest record outlet, at a time of many bricks-and-mortar stores shuttering.
This audacious move relies on delivering a “third place” experience between home and work, says co-owner Stephen Godfroy, which other formats could not offer.
“(This) was the original role of a record store,” says Godfroy. “Being more than a point of purchase … a place of congregation for independent, creative minds, a place that rewarded curiosity with serendipitous discovery, appealing to all ages and tastes in music.”
Growth has been supported by the plummeting cost of music, Godfroy believes.
“The last five years have seen a particular resurgence thanks to cheap access to music as if it were a utility, and younger generations discovering the merits of vinyl for the first time.
“Accessing music has become virtually free. This has put into sharp relief the value derived from owning a recorded music artefact, of which vinyl is the most attractive. Younger, ‘format savvy’ generations listen to music on many formats and devices, but increasingly choose to invest in vinyl for their most loved recordings, given the multi-sensory value vinyl uniquely provides.”
Rough Trade has sought to broaden its appeal through wide-ranging but carefully chosen commercial partnerships, with its stores hosting spaces for book publishers, bicycles and even skincare.
“We’ve been bolder than most when it comes to redefining what a record store can be,” says Godfroy.
The end of vinyl?
But the core product is increasingly threatened by capacity limitations. Vinyl production relies on equipment that has not been modernized since the golden age and vital skills are in short supply.
There are around a dozen pressing plants in the United States and a handful in Europe that must serve the whole industry, and as demand grows the turnaround times can stretch into months.
Just two companies worldwide produce lacquer needed in mastering, one of which is a one-man operation in Japan. When his business was affected by the 2011 tsunami, so was the global industry.
“The whole business is based on 50-year-old machines and technology,” says Raik Hölzel, head of web and social media at Handle With Care, a Berlin manufacturer of physical media that specializes in vinyl. “The solution is to invest in developing new machines but there is still not so much money in the business to encourage the global players to invest. Everyone is waiting to see how the market will develop — 2015 could be the end of the vinyl run. For now, old machines mean more profits.”
Sales are up but spread across more, smaller orders says Holzel, who is encouraged by the proliferation of vinyl businesses across new genres. The Berlin Philharmonic orchestra is a new client. International sales have also been strong, with Holzel citing valuable partnerships with UK labels.
One way to compensate for problems in delivering volume has been to vary the product, and novelty releases are on the rise — ranging from bespoke artwork to colored and patterned vinyl. Manufacturers also receive requests for bizarre variations such as vinyl pressed from coffee, blood and cremated remains.
“These details are important now, we see many more limited editions,” says Holzel. “It’s important to the real enthusiasts to have something special … we try to make very individual releases.”
Given the relative expense of vinyl and the time required to maintain a collection, its future could be as a luxury niche, believes Dominik Bartmanski, a sociologist at the Technical University of Berlin, and author of “Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age.”
“Vinyl is unlikely to recapture the mainstream market but it can stay as an important medium,” says Bartmanski.
“Digital music is unquestionably very convenient, it is now a standard and thus routine way of consuming music on everyday basis. Analogue music requires more elaborate ritualized attention. It is routine vs ritual.
“Vinyl has a potential for being a better ‘ritualistic’ medium … you don’t want to download your favourite food, you go to a good restaurant to experience that food. Certain experiences are neither downloadable nor possible to save on a hard drive.”
If the record surge is to continue, the industry may need connoisseurs more than consumers.