It is more than a decade since the death knell was sounded for one of music’s best-loved formats but vinyl is back.
In an age when downloads dominate the marketplace, the very antithesis of the digital age is alive and kicking.
First it was cassettes and then along came CDs. Most recently the dreaded download has emerged as the greatest threat to the very survival of the vinyl record and yet there has never been a better time to forge a relationship with a format favoured by platinum-selling bands and besotted collectors alike.
This year everyone from U2 to the Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode to Bat For Lashes is jumping back aboard the vinyl bandwagon. However one genre, more than most, has always stayed true to battered 12 inch sleeves and dusty turntables.
Perhaps it is because the world’s greatest rock and metal bands have been written off so many times themselves that these enduring dinosaurs of the music world are largely responsible for keeping the culture of vinyl alive. Or maybe many had generated so much more money than sense by the time CDs were in the ascendancy that they persisted in propping up the ailing record making industry in spite of rising costs and falling sales. Now that blind faith is being repaid in the shape of a most unlikely revival.
Last year AC/DC, Metallica and Guns N Roses were among the top selling bands in the world. Coincidentally all three groups released their latest records on vinyl and sales more than justified the time and effort which went into manufacturing and marketing the most unwieldy format money can buy.
The trio’s releases followed hot on the heels of Universal music’s decision to celebrate 60 years of vinyl with their acclaimed Back To Black series and preceded a raft of reissues from German rock specialist SPV/Steamhammer featuring the likes of Rose Tattoo, Accept and Iced Earth.
“Vinyl is and always has been collectible,” explained Rob Byron of Newcastle’s Steel Wheels record shop. “As soon as you buy a CD it loses a lot of its value but many records, especially the limited edition pressings, are worth more as soon as you buy them. And the vintage stuff is still just as popular as the new releases.”
So what makes a piece of cumbersome and plodding vinyl so appealing in a world which has been conditioned for speed and ease of use? Where it clearly triumphs over downloads is in its tactile nature – the fact you can purchase a physical record, enjoy the feeling of ownership and pour over the artwork, lyric sheets and credits to your heart’s content. Staring at a postage stamp size image on a tiny iPod screen hardly has the same heart-warming effect.
During his time with The Darkness, and in the tradition of his favourite rock behemoths from the past, the irrepressible Justin Hawkins insisted his former band release festive single Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End) on shaped seven-inch picture disc vinyl. Earlier this year his new project Hot Leg released their debut album Red Light Fever on a rather flashy piece of red vinyl and Hawkins admitted: “It looked so good I bought a copy! I don’t think you need a more glowing endorsement than that.”
Hot Leg’s record may have been released on standard vinyl, played at the traditional 33rpm, but canny music companies are bidding to tempt back old fans and attract the new generation with what they describe as 180 gram audiophile quality records. In essence the plastic is heavier and less prone to damage but its greater volume allows for a far deeper sound. On the downside each record boasts far less capacity than traditional 120 gram or 140 gram vinyl and the cost of purchasing an entire album is as much as 10 times greater than buying its online equivalent.
Last month saw Universal re-release Metallica’s definitive ‘Black’ album on four pieces of 180 gram vinyl, packaged in a glossy box, for around £65 and yet 18-year-old songs are given a new lease of life on what has traditionally been viewed as an old and tired format. Or are they? Scott Gorham, guitarist with Thin Lizzy, is a huge fan of vinyl but remains unconvinced by the argument that audiophile quality releases more than justify the hype.
“I really miss that 12 inch album cover, the weight of it and the packaging,” explained the American responsible for reviving Lizzy’s fortunes in recent years. “Back in the day bands were prepared to spend a huge amount of money on artwork because they knew it would be seen it all its 12 inch glory and make a real statement. Sound wise I don’t know whether the man in the street will notice much of a difference on the new 180 gram vinyl. But I’m glad it’s making a comeback. I really am.”
For many independent labels and smaller bands the prohibitive cost of 180 gram vinyl means it remains out of reach and even standard records still make very little commercial sense. However, as a PR tool and as a thank-you to the legions of loyal fans and collectors it still has a key role to play in 2009.
Jarrow-based Global Music has produced 1,000 copies of Northern Irish band Therapy?’s latest album, Crooked Timber, on sparkling white vinyl but co-owner Ged Cook explained: “The profit margins are tiny at that level and unless you’re shifting huge numbers it’s something you do for the love of the music. But a band like Therapy? has a long tradition for putting out music on all kinds of coloured vinyl and we wanted to give them the opportunity to do that with Crooked Timber. It’s certainly added to the buzz around their new record.”
For as long as rock bands steeped in tradition continue to strike record deals and sell albums it seems vinyl is here to stay. So dust down those old boxes, clear some serious shelf space and buy a new needle for your turntable today. You won’t regret it.
* This feature appears in the May issue of The Journal’s Culture Magazine.