The vinyl panto
Vinyl’s back! No, it’s not! Yes it is! No, it’s not! Etc
There are certain music business stories which re-occur with the kind of regularity which makes you realise some people really know how to use their Google Calendar alerts. Last week saw the latest iteration of that vinyl revival story which has been doing the rounds for years since it initially fell out of mainstream favour with the advent of CDs and other digital formats. The BPI announced that vinyl sales had crossed the one million sales Rubicon for the first time in decades in the UK. Across the Atlantic, it was also noted that vinyl sales were on the up. Hurrah all round for 12-inch round discs.
However, as Michael Hann pointed out in his piece for the Guardian, the numbers are nothing to write home about when you parse beyond headline. “The combined sales of all vinyl in the UK have matched the sales of the second Ed Sheeran album”, he said, putting things neatly in context. Vinyl’s position as a niche product remains unchanged. There may be stirrings of commercial interest here and there, but these are mere stirrings in the greater scheme of things which are unlikely to give Spotify shareholders sleepless nights over market share.
The vinyl revival business has become one of those stories which plays out in much the same way every time. You get an industry body trumpeting how vinyl sales are up. You then get a flock of stories about how this is a great thing and some nostalgic stuff about turntables, record players and how it’s far easier to roll a joint on a record sleeve than on a MP3. You also get commentators pointing out that it’s still a niche product with low-line sales. The positions remain the same. Nothing changes. Nothing new emerges from the discussion and we all move on until the figures are rehashed in a few months’ time. It’s a kind of pantomine without anyone from TV3 or any members of a failed boy band in the cast.
What’s truly interesting about the vinyl story is that, like all the best pantos, it’s such a long-running saga. I can recall pieces back in the late 1990s which saluted the return of vinyl just as the record labels were thinking the bonanza windfall profits from the CD boom would never end. Vinyl was something to be lovingly revived and championed long before owning a turntable and over-priced vinyl albums became the hipster accoutrements of choice we’ve seen of late.
There is absolutely nothing the matter with liking or purchasing vinyl. There is also nothing wrong with maintaining that the sound of your vinyl record sounds way, way, way better than a stream or that the physical act of listening to a record makes you appreciate the music more. It’s always good to be passionate and positive about stuff, rather than cynical and negative.
But despite the regular headlines and palaver, vinyl remains a minority interest and this is something which is rarely emphasised or underlined. It’s the stuff of nostalgia for the mainstream who’ve long moved on from that format to more digital, portable and convenient ways of listening to music. Constantly talking up a non-existent vinyl revival is not going to save anyone, bar labels’ profit margins on lavish, expensive reissues.
Yet you know and I know that there’ll be another vinyl revival bandwagon around in a few months’ time. Best make a note on the work calendar to revive this piece as well at that time.