When compact disc first made its introduction into the mainstream market somewhere in the late 1980s, few people would’ve predicted that the then dominant audio format — vinyl — would still be around almost thirty years later. Clocking in at eighty minutes of music, CDs had a much longer running time than LPs, which could (and can) carry just twenty-odd minutes per side. Convenience won out over quality, for there was no more need to get your lazy ass off the couch when a side had just finished playing. In retrospect, however, it appears to have only won the battle, but not the war, because vinyl is currently making an impressive comeback, commonly known as ‘the vinyl revival’.
One manifestation of this surprising recovery is Record Store Day, an annual event that celebrates the culture behind — and, in a sense, the very existence of — record stores across the globe. Saturday, April 16th saw the ninth edition of this event, which brings together fans, artists, and thousands of independent record stores from all over the world. In a broader sense, it’s a celebration of the fact that there’s still such a thing as ‘the music industry’ at all, which — although it might sound trivial — is not as straightforward as it seems, especially in view of all the streaming services that are quickly gaining ground on the more traditional (i.e. physical) means of listening to music.
Record Store Day can be thought of as a swing back in the other direction; an attempt at getting people to appreciate records again — and the record stores that sell them, of course. On this day, held on the third Saturday of April, many record stores organise intimate in-store performances. On top of that, highly limited special editions of classic albums go on sale that you can only get your hands on through the event, and there are discounts on the regular collection as well. It just goes to show that vinyl isn’t dead, even if it looked like it was soon going to be. A short overview of history.
The origins of gramophone records, as vinyl is formally called, date back to the early 20th century. While initially coexisting with phonograph cylinder records, which saw the light of day as early as 1877, vinyl started replacing them in the early 1920s. While sales were initially quite tender, they reached a peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when popular bands like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones — just to name a few — came along and stole the hearts of many. The resulting snowball effect solidified vinyl’s position in the market, and it soon became the dominant audio format. The birth of this industry saw bands become less financially dependent on touring — a process that has completely turned around on itself in recent years, primarily due to downloading and streaming services. But before we get there, vinyl first had to be defeated by CDs — at least temporarily.
The 1980s saw the start of a new era in the music industry: that of CDs. While more convenient, many so-called experts were quick to express their doubts; was this really a positive development? In terms of audio quality, most people would say that yes, it definitely was. Although much has been said about the supposedly ‘warmer’ sound of vinyl records, CDs have much more storage space than LPs. This not only allows for longer playback, it also means that the music can be released in much higher bitrates than vinyl has space for, thus maintaining a higher audio quality. This is very much an ongoing process, because we actually have albums being released on Blu-ray nowadays, pushing up the audio quality even further — for all you audiophiles out there, you hear?
There seemed no purpose left for vinyl, whose sales quickly started dropping, while CD sales rose. However, there always remained a market for real enthusiasts, who continued to prefer the tangible nature of vinyl over the convenience of compact disc. And just when CDs seemed to have found their place in the market, these funny things called ‘computers’ came along to change the world for good. More specifically, the internet did, and this would prove a blow too tough to handle for the CD industry. It didn’t take long before mass file-sharing became a big thing — so big, in fact, that entire artist discographies started being shared on The Pirate Bay, a website that provides torrents. To make matters even worse, streaming services have become more popular in recent years, sucking even more money out of the music industry. At this point, all hope seemed lost for record stores, which slowly but surely started to fall, one by one.
However, if you look more closely, you’ll notice that it’s mostly the more generic record stores — the ones that also sell DVDs and whatnot — that struggle to survive. And that makes perfect sense, because practically everything that’s for sale there’s being shared online. However, while it’s true that the internet has done damage to more than one market alone, it hasn’t solely been a bad thing; it has also liberated markets, and such is the case for the music industry. One of the good things about the internet is that it has created a situation now where artists no longer have to rely on the music business mainstream; things like major record labels, music television, and commercial radio are all losing their power to the internet, thus creating more of a level playing field. It doesn’t matter if you make music that isn’t necessarily commercial; you can still reach an audience through the internet. This has given birth to a whole new generation of musicians who aren’t concerned with selling records, because they know all too well how difficult it is. This has proven to be a liberating thing, and it means that music again becomes about creativity, and less about trying to make a career.
Record companies have also had to do their part. By releasing beautiful special editions of albums, they’re trying to offer something that’s more than merely a bunch of songs put together on a disc, stuck away in a sloppy jewelcase. Instead, they’re trying to make sure that this is something that you want to own. And then, of course, there’s the vinyl. Although it seemed unimaginable a decade or two ago, it’s actually becoming more and more common for albums to be released on vinyl again — a modest sign of recovery, perhaps, but a sign of recovery all the same. And make no mistake: it’s us — the younger generation — that’s buying most of it, despite having no nostalgic attachment to it.
Only time will tell whether or not vinyl has any chance of surviving in the distant future, but there are good reasons to be mildly optimistic at the very least. One noticeable trend of the last few years is that the music business has diversified into two very distinct halves. On the one side you have popular mainstream culture, on the other side basically everything that’s completely outside of the mainstream. It seems to me that the more extreme the one becomes, the more there is a swing back in the other direction, which stems me hopeful for the future. This idea is nicely illustrated by the following quote from one of my own favourite artists, English rock musician and record producer Steven Wilson: “We’re in the midst of a revolution, and nobody really knows where it’s going to end up. We’ve moved from the golden age of the single — you might say the 1950s into the 1960s — into the golden age of the album, which kind of started with albums like Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper… The golden age of the album went right through until MTV came along, and then MTV changed everything and made it all about how you look, how you present yourself in three minutes, and how many beautiful women you can get in your video. That ended the great era for the album, and it all became about the pop video then for a while. And now we’re in completely another era, in which it seems that even the idea of music as a physical, tactile experience has gone. Now music is simply something that streams from the aether — through your laptop, your phone, or whatever — and you have no physical relationship with the music. To me personally, that’s really ugly, but then I’m old… I have nostalgia for the times of vinyl and even CD. I still love the physical product; I love the tactile experience of taking records out and putting them on the turntable. But here’s the thing: I see a lot of kids bringing me vinyl to sign now. I’m thinking that that’s a really positive development, because it says to me that the current generation, which has been born into the age of the internet — streaming, downloading — are rebelling against it. Not all of them, but a substantial minority, because there’s one thing that kids do really well, and that’s rebel against whatever is the norm. And the norm is streaming and downloading these days, so what’s really interesting now is to see young kids — rock fans, hip-hop fans, whatever they are — rebelling against that, and buying not CDs, but going back even further to something that has even more of that romantic, tactile, physical presence: the vinyl album. And that’s really encouraging to me, I have to say.”
Most of you will know that being a musician is no lucrative business; it’s very hard work (49-hour workweeks being the average), yet the yearly income of most of these musicians doesn’t even pass the 10,000 euro mark — a truly appalling figure. Therefore, I’d like to encourage everyone to keep buying music, particularly in its physical form. It’s the only way that musicians can make a living through doing what they feel so passionate about: making music. The downfall of the physical product would be an enormous loss to the entire industry, because no record could ever be replaced by ones and zeros. Fortunately, we can already see a small shift taking place, which will hopefully prevent that horror scenario from one day becoming reality…