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Vinyl records: timeless format or just a fad?

vinyl record

Last week, the amount of money spent on vinyl music in the UK overtook digital downloads for the first time. Records are now firmly in the mainstream, but are they back for good, or is this just a stay of execution?

Ten years ago, the only people buying LPs were a few musty record collectors and the occasional aspiring DJ, but the £2.4m spent on vinyl in the UK last week proves that things have changed.

In a turn of events few, if anyone, would have predicted back then, that figure outstripped the £2.1m spent on digital downloads in the same period.

In an industry that often obsesses over the ‘next big thing’, it seems almost absurd that 15 years after the launch of the iTunes store, we find ourselves returning to a format that’s been around since just after the Second World War.

So why has this happened? Is there something about the LP that makes it truly immortal?

New ways to consume

The latest sales figures do make a good story, but don’t be fooled – vinyl is still nowhere near the most widespread way of listening to music.

According to the British Phonographic Industry, in early 2016, LPs represented less than 2% of overall music consumption.

So if people aren’t really listening to vinyl much, and they’re not downloading music either, what are they doing?

The answer is streaming of course – the UK streamed 26.6 billion songs on services such as Spotify and Google Play in 2015, and the figures from 2016 will no doubt be even higher.

If you include the numbers from free video streaming on sites such as YouTube, it’s over 50 billion plays.

Why vinyl?

In my opinion, this is the real reason that vinyl sales have overtaken digital downloads.

Through streaming, we’re spending more time listening to music we don’t own and can be pickier with what we spend our money on. If we really like a song, we’ll buy it. However, we like owning physical objects such as vinyl – we feel more attached to them, more emotionally invested than we do with something we can’t see.

Why would I buy an MP3 when I can have something lovely and tangible like a record?

We’re also willing to spend more on each individual record because it’s a more occasional and sentimental purchase.

Do you own vinyl? Have you rekindled your passion for it after its recent resurgence, or has your love for the LP never wavered? Maybe you went digital and never looked back, and now you’re waiting for this fad to blow over?

Alun says:
1 January 2017

Hmmm……I’m suspicious that the resurgence of vinyl is a scam…..with the main target victims being those of us who grew up with vinyl and are thus supposed to see it as a link back to our halcyon days?
I found these interesting reading:

Alun -no scam , as someone who watched the “downfall ” of vinyl in the 80,s due to an intense CD advertising campaign and then watched the comeback via many high end hi-fi mags where top end vinyl players sell for £1000,s and old players like LInn , Pink Triangle, Thorens 124 .Garrard 301 ( I had one ) -now circa £1000 are in demand . Vinyl sales in -2014 reached a 20 year high in the UK of 1.29 million and sales in first quarter of -2015 up again by 69 % compared to the same period in -2014 . I know this goes against -out with the old -in with the “with it ” gadgets -get modern attitude but reality and pushing products doesn’t always convince many discerning audio buffs in the UK and the US/Europe is no different . After decades of rubbish digital sounding equipment being sold many said -enough already and went back to vinyl. The problem is the usual problem -rip-off merchants punting rubbish decks to cash in on the so called “craze ” for analogue decks, which “craze ” has lasted 20 years.

Aaah! Memories! Thanks for reminding me. I had a Thorens deck with a Shure cartridge and stylus but I can’t remember whether the tone arm was a different make nor the rest of the set-up. I wasn’t sorry to say good bye to vinyl records, though, in favour of CD’s.

Halyna says:
6 January 2017

Don’t normally take part in online debates but as a life long music lover the subject of this one has caught my attention. Duncan I am so impressed with the hardware that you have acquired and put together yourself. Envious to say the least. As a child my love for music was so great I was bought a record player and a reel to reel tape. (just given my age away). Spent endless hours lying on my bed with my fingers on play and pause with a microphone held in front of the radio. “Hello pop pickers” and my heart would start racing. Moving on in time to student life vinyl was at its pinnacle. (God bless the student grant). For music lovers vinyl and the hardware you had was a cult in itself. Saving went on frantically to buy good Wharfedale speakers. You learned not to have ‘all in ones’ but to mix and match. I would change a piece occasionally and buy from the high end of Marantz, Denon, Arcan, Technics, Aiwa, Mission etc. The LP and its cover was a piece of art. The amazing artwork of genuine artists, We would gather together to drool over the new acquisition. We would smell it, touch it, glue ourselves to the lyrics and the new poster placed with pride on the wall. I remember the thrill of buying the LP the day it was released. I can still see the amazed looks when we first heard a new ‘Yes’, ‘Led Zeppelin, or ‘Pink Floyd’ album. Needing music in the car brought on the cassette. Now what a laugh that was. Who remembers unraveling lengths and lengths of tape, cutting out destroyed parts and sticking the tape back together, and machines clogged up with ferric oxide? Oh great! we could move on to chrome oxide. Didn’t stop them from eventually becoming tangled though. Yes I have joined today’s world MP3s and I stream a lot of music from spotify and I have a huge cd collection. However the digital world is cold and does not play to all your senses. It does allow you to hear more but if you want to listen to the best at its best have the best equipment and vinyl that you have kept in mint condition. Nothing or nobody would make me get rid of mine.

Halyna we have spiritual bond in music , the same wavelength, the same thoughts on this subject .Of coarse I remember all those names , who could forget the Mission 770,s ? , loved at the time by Alvin Gold and others , LInn Isobariks , exotic Japanese cartridges , hand made , I still have several Hi-Fi Choice books on best buys of the era and a large collection of original LP.s of the 50,s/60,s I was never out of W.H Smith buying hi-fi mags . The 60,s/70.s was the height of the love of vinyl cities were full of music shops with listening rooms better stop there or I will go on forever. Good”potted history ” you gave . Those eras will never be repeated, you had to feel the atmosphere of that time personally.

Margaret says:
15 January 2017

I have a Decca deccalian Record player with a separate amplifier giving stereo music….circa1962. Still working but don’t know what I could do if a valve failed.Any ideas ?

Margaret – Decca were ahead of their time in introducing “the full frequency” Decca cartridge, they were a big company into radar / early mobile communications / supplied the Armed Forces in the days when this country was a proud engineering export country British built -British made , I am glad I lived through it. If its valves Margaret – I am your man ! I live and breathe them started in the mid-Fifties onward and never looked back . If it had valves I repaired it radios -TV,s – communications receivers-oscilloscopes-test equipment hi-fi power amps -fifties Juke boxes -transmitters- you name it . A 1957 Deccalian record player valve line up is= ECC83(2)-EL84(2)-EZ80 I have all those valves , they are standard Mullard /etc valves. I can test any valve with my AVO VCM MK4 ( upgraded by myself ) valves are still easy to obtain , you can even get a needle replacement for your cartridge. Vinyl is big business now so are old record players I have a few including original Dansettes , and “ladies ” versions of portable 50,s record players , don’t sell your deck its worth money Margaret If the valve line up is different for your later model just let me know I can help with any valve (tube ) problem. Have a look at : http://www.radiomuseum.org/r/decca_2_deccalian_88.html Margaret and tell me if that is the model you have ?

It used a push-pull amplifier, hence the two EL84s. An EZ80 rectifier, somewhat inadequate smoothing and screening and authentic mains hum. All these valves created a fair amount of heat so record sleeves warned against leaving records on a stationary turntable to avoid warping.
Happy days.

I was always amazed at how companies like Decca made everything from pioneering navigation systems and radar technology to early consumer electronics like records and transcription systems. I think they were also pioneers of quadraphonic sound which required extremely clever cartridges, tone arms and speakers.

English Electric was another such company that made everything from fighter planes and diesel locomotives to fridges and fan heaters. Truly, those were the days.

Margaret I didn’t know this country no longer has large numbers of valve sellers/manufacturers , after wading through the rip -off merchants at VERY high prices I have found a company that I have dealt with in the past that sells them at reasonable prices (small number of audio ones) – try – rapid on line its a British company . Valves have different numbers but the same characteristics depending on the the company who manufactured them I have equivalents going back to the late 20,s as well as a large number of equivalent manuals.

eBay traders sometimes offer cheap valves, though you might have to take a chance on condition unless they are ‘new old stock’.

Reminds me of Ever Decreasing Circles…

🙂 In the 70s, I remember a friend telling me about end-of-side distortion when playing LPs. He was able to demonstrate the problem, which I had never appreciated. Thankfully I was able to get back to listening to the music rather than the imperfections. A few years later, another friend told me he had several LPs of piano music which he did not enjoy but he had bought them because they were good for demonstrating wow and flutter.

Many, many years ago I used to record VHF radio broadcasts onto reel-to-reel tapes and one of my recordings was of a Beethoven symphony concert in which, during the slow movement, something that sounded like a ping-pong ball dropped on the floor and bounced its way down a flight of steps, the sound perfectly captured on the live transmission. I would play this tape from time to time and always anticipated the additional percussion instrument’s dramatic entrance. When I bought my first hi-fi record-playing set-up and some LP’s I was anxious to replace this tape with a studio recording. When I played the new disc the ping-pong bongs were absent and I just couldn’t get used to it for quite a long time. My enjoyment of music is better when there are no imperfections to notice.

I’d avoid anything by Schoenberg, then 🙂

Yes, Ian, good point; Gerard Hoffnung did it properly with orchestra and vacuum cleaners [although the piece was written by Matthew Arnold and dedicated to president Hoover].

I watched one of his concerts on tv (b+w). I seem to remember a hosepipe and strings orchestration of Mozart. His festival concerts are still available, I think, on CD from EMI. Will they seem as entertaining now as then?
I also remember him for the Bricklayer’s Lament delivered at the Oxford Union. and his cartoons – the opera singer with his waistcoat buttons labelled “bass”, “treble” etc.

It still makes me laugh, Malcolm. The Bricklayer’s Lament wasn’t all that funny as a story but the way he told it had the audience is hysterics. From memory, so apologies if not word-perfect : [Bricklayer shifting some bricks to the ground on a pulley] “After loading the bricks into the barrel I went down to the bottom to release the rope. The barrel was much heavier than me and it started to come down. . . . As I was going up . . . (long pause) . . . I met the barrel coming down. . . . When it got to the bottom the barrel broke and the bricks fell out. . . . I was now heavier than the barrel . . . (long pause) . . . so — as I was going down — I met the broken barrel coming up. . . . When I landed at the bottom on top of a pile of bricks I lost all presence of mind . . . and let go of the rope. . . . The barrel was now heavier than the rope. . . . . .”

I remember this being played on good old steam radio, as well as Bob Newhart’s clever half-dialogues where imagination is the key to the comedy.

It was very funny the first time I heard it but like a shaggy-dog story it’s a bit drawn out and you might have to turn over the record half way.

As a kipper I was present at a Hoffnung concert, and saw first hand the various bits and pieces he used. Laconic and very dry, his humour, as I remember it, anyway.

It was the timing…..and the anticipation, I agree. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZUJLO6lMhI

Derek says:
23 January 2017

I bought my first LP in1952 at cost of £1-19-6, equivalent to more than £50 today. As an apprentice my weekly pay was a little over £3 for a 44 hour week. I played it on a Collaro deck with interchangeable heads for 78s and lps (33rpm). The amplifier was homebuilt, using valves of course. The speaker was in a very large cabinet (also homebuilt). The quality of reproduction seemed marvellous compared with that from 78s.

Music and the means to reproduce it are very cheap today. The quality of reproduction provided by a relatively modest radio/CD player is good enough for all but the most fanatical listener and CDs are much more convenient than lps. The cost of a system to give similar quality to that from a CD is much greater; each time one is played the LP is degraded, and the discs need very careful handling and storage. It should be noted too that in the last decade or so of the LP the production process involved a digital step; the term “digitally mastered” was used as a selling point. The eventual acoustic output is, of course, always analogue.

I would not dream of returning to Lps, but I wish those who do the best of luck. They will need it unless they have very deep pockets!

Graham Fisher says:
2 February 2017

I have just finished “digitalising” my music collection – 408 vinyl albums and 38 cassette tapes. I acquired a turntable to USB converter from Lidle on special offer about 18 months ago. The project has taken about a year to complete including labelling all the files (artist, album, year, gender), plus after problems with auto imaging I decided to photograph all the albums myself (Galaxy x21 zoom in macro mode) and stamp the images to the music files manually. More recently I acquired a Lenovo Tab2 A10-70 which I have dedicated to playing music after adding a micro SD (I have 33Gb of music). Earlier I acquired from Sharaf in Dubai a Bluetooth receiver that connects to my “old” but brilliant JVC hi-fi via its RCA sockets.

I understand while new collectors want vinyl – my own collection looks great in their made to measure music centre and impresses visitors like a classic car might as some a rare, some forgotten, and mostly 30 to 50 years old. But they are time consuming to play and I worry about wear and tear. But I am now in paradise playing my music with a touch screen complete with perfect reproduction of those old vinyl crackles.

But what about new music ? Well my music centre is fully loaded – everyone will eventually reach their physical space limit, and then the other day a friend persuaded me after listening to a couple of tracks on his iPhone to add the latest Rolling Stones releases (Blue and Lonesome plus Havana Moon) . He lives 10 minutes away but before he arrived home I had already downloaded both albums and was pumping the latest “Paint in Black” through my old hi-fi and sound-to-light unit – how cool is that ?

The only decision that remains now is red wine or white ?