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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?

Comments

We have a huge vinyl collection, although mostly music prior to the 20th C. I’ve digitised it all, a very long drawn out process, and managed to get most of it approaching the quality of an AAC copy. But now it all sits in a cupboard – or two – and we listen to music on our server or iPods.

I think I’ve written this before, so, very briefly, I like CDs to have and to hold and put on. Streaming leaves nothing in the hand and everything at the mercy of clouds and computers which will eventually fail. Back ups then have to be found and that’s hard work. Besides, I have a good music system which is not connected to any other media and doesn’t need replacing. Vinyl? I thought the silent background and good (if not quite the best) sound reproduction meant that Vinyl had had its day. I can still remember records getting thinner and warping, off centre pressings with real vibrato on every note and a constant battle with dust, static and blunt needles. Perhaps the new vinyl has improved, but for me? No thank you.

I pensioned off my turntable and fairly modest collection of LPs when I moved home, mainly because the turntable and record cabinet would have to be in front of one of the radiators in my lounge, which did not seem like a good idea.

After listening to LPs many times I sometimes get up at the right time to turn over the record – and then realise I’m listening to a CD.

I know, I’ve listened to some albums so much (Sgt Pepper’s one of them) I still think, “this is where I would turn the record over” when I listen to a CD, but I’ve stopped short of getting up… so far.

I prefer vinyls because there aren’t any pointless, so-called “bonus” tracks added at the end of the record where I would expect silence after musical bliss. A record is like a painting or a scupture or a film, when it’s finished, it’s finished. I hate having to rush to the hi-fi after the cathartic Day In The Life to that I don’t hear the utterly inappropriate piece of nonsense added after it by some musical vandal somewhere. You can tell I feel strongly about this :0). See another convo on how they are vandalising Buffy.

Not only have I pensioned off my turntable but I still have not set up my HiFi separates since moving home earlier this year. I’m using a micro-‘Hi-Fi’ bought as an alternative to a soundbar for the flat-screen TV. My old Philips CD player, which must be nearly 30 years old , has a ‘favourite track selection’ that can be used to omit selected tracks. I don’t know if this is now a common feature but it is a very effective way of dealing with unwanted tracks.

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Scottie says:
31 December 2016

So, you’ve taken a compressed format, copied it and using expensive equipment expect it to play brilliantly.

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robert C says:
22 January 2017

Agreed, CD is WAV and lossless, but they are 16 bit 44.1kHz, so up-sampling to 24/96 does nothing for the music. WAV ripped carefully to disc is as good as that recording will get.

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One of the problems with having very high-specification audio equipment is that the acoustic properties of the listening environment might not match and it becomes necessary to carry out various, and perhaps costly, alterations to provide suitable damping or attenuation in the surroundings to approximate to an anechoic chamber. Good headphones will do it but are not very sociable.

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My vinyl system was built over many years and still lives on the massive cabinet I bought for it way back when. A mixture of manufacturers including Acoustic Research (record deck & speakers), Marantz amplifier & CD player, Denon cassette deck, Kenwood(!) FM tuner. Expensive cables (which DID make a difference in those mostly analogue days). It doesn’t get used much but Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl still makes an impact that the CD fails to do.

A new buyer who might have one of the new, cute, suitcase record players will not get anything like the same experience but hopefully they might get to hear a decent system that is in their price bracket and go on from there. Not many people would pay £30,000 for the Kronos Turntable but we can all lust after it… Or the Pathos Adrenalin Monobloc amplifier at £33,000. Each. And you do need two of them…

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You’re talking my music Banjo !

Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here are probably my all time favourite albums.

I’ve been given a small collection of EMI 78’s from the ’50s – opera, brass band, big band if I remember correctly because I cant play them yet. I’m on the lookout for a reasonably priced turntable to play 78 rpm – mine only does 45 and 33. Even an old record player would suit. I’ve written to Father Christmas.

I like vinyl and I’ve also a small collection of mainly classical. Isn’t the problem the hiss and crackle and clicks from small scratches if you’re a bit careless, however good the equipment?

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If the 78s were of sentimental value or historically interesting, I would be tempted to buy an old gramophone. I enjoyed my childhood visits to see my grandmother, partly because the house was filled with interesting old objects including a Dulcetto gramophone with a colourful parrot logo inside the case. The speed could be varied with a lever until it sounded right and among the 78s were some single-sided ones.

I have no idea what a 78 would sound like on a modern high quality turntable, but probably not very good if it had been used on old equipment with a high tracking weight. I’m amused that the first recommendation from Duncan’s second link is marked Best Buy – but not a Which Best Buy of course.

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I was just amused by the Best Buy label, Duncan. I try to avoid marketing and was only familiar with Which? using the term.

duncan, thanks 🙂

robert C says:
22 January 2017

REGA (which is UK designed and made) specialise in record decks and offer a dedicated 78 rpm player that plugs into most hifi. My father has one. One of the cheapest decks they make. Its 45-33 brother got good reports in Which recently, which I was pleased to see.

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I statred out with B & O decks, speakers and amps, and we now have several systems around the house, which use Pioneer, Arcam, Tannoy, Cambridge Audio, JBL and even down to Sony. But I’d never return to vinyl, simply because – as Vynor put it rather neatly – it’s an unending battle with dust, needles, static, levels, vibration and just about every other delight of the modern world. As we get older, too, the frequency range we’re able to discern becomes ever narrower, so forking out huge sums on amps and the like is simply a waste.

The Intro seemed to suggest that there was nothing between vinyl records and downloading or streaming, but CD’s have been [and still are] incredibly popular. Purists might not consider them faultless [although to some extent the quality depends on the replay system] but they represent an accessible, visible, versatile, portable and convenient way of storing and playing music while still having the desirable physical attributes.

Having gone through mono, stereo, and quadraphonic [remember that?] on vinyl, with some reel-to-reel and cassette tapes thrown in, and having had a fairly elaborate hi-fi set-up, when CD’s were launched it coincided with a change in my circumstances and I jettisoned all the gear and the albums in favour of a much more compact system and a small collection of CD’s that would actually be played frequently rather than sit on a shelf for most of their existence. Apart from in the computers and the car, the only means of playing the CD’s now is a couple of Bose radio/CD players and a cheap-&-cheerful system in one of the bedrooms but this suits us fine. We are no longer looking for the acme of hi-fi transcription; we listen to music on the radio as much as on CD, and – the same as for books – I have disciplined myself to discard one for every new one that comes into the house. I have never knowingly streamed.

Even if I could afford it I wouldn’t wish to go down the road of the high-end kit that Duncan refers to; I probably wouldn’t be able to appreciate it sufficiently nowadays. Bring back the stereogram, I say; there was a certain sense of style and performance when relaxing one’s guests with the latest Horst Jankowski album while the fondue simmers and the Hock swirls in the tumblers.

We still have a large vinyl collection that rarely gets played. We always intended to digitise them but never quite got around to it. All our favourites have now been rebought on CDs as birthday presents or stocking fillers so they have become rather redundant.

In an earlier Convo (first link in the introduction), Daniel posted a fascinating observation: An ICM poll of people who’d bought vinyl in the last month found that 48% of those surveyed hadn’t yet played their recent purchase. And a further 7% admitted that they didn’t even own a record player.

My guess is that people enjoy having something tangible, and even if you listen to music on Spotify etc. it is nice to own the record. Even if vinyl records are not played the sleeves may be on display, like pictures. I know of one pub that numerous records and sleeves adorning the walls. It’s not something I have done.

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That’s one way to look at it, but the people using streaming services are unlikely to lose access to their favourite music for long. For a monthly subscription you can have whatever music you want, when you want it. No need to look to look after records or CDs and no danger of losing a precious collection. I can see the attraction.

I was thinking along the same lines. If I were starting out afresh I wouldn’t want a tangible music collection if I could readily access any track from any piece of music either through a download or a streaming service and increase my repertoire without leaving home. The much vaunted physical attributes and proprietorship emotions were only making a virtue out of a necessity. The downsides of vinyl and the apparatus required to play it were not inconsiderable. One could still make a bit of a performance out of selecting and playing a piece of music if that’s the way to impress the neighbours on cocktail night.

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I agree, Duncan, but I can also understand the attraction to those who have not built up a music collection.

I’m not going to pay a large monthly or annual subscription to Adobe for the latest versions of InDesign, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Acrobat etc. I don’t need the latest versions and will carry on using the versions that were part of CS4, which I bought years ago, even though I have to use a computer with an older operating system to run the software. I’m also happy to stay with Word, Excel and PowerPoint 2011 rather than pay an annual subscription.

Companies want to maintain a revenue stream, whether it’s with monthly subscriptions, phones that become outdated and washing machines of dubious build quality.

robert c says:
22 January 2017

I agree the subscriptions are not cheap, but a new one is TIDAL. Like spotify but high res (it really is far better quality, I tried it) and was started by the artists themselves. Worth a listen.

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Yes, that’s another plus point.

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I have come through all fads in my life , vinyl, cassettes, CD’s and now mp3’s, I do think though that vinyl LP’s with their designed sleeves are still the best if not the most convenient for today’s lifestyles. My LP’s at present are stored away still in mint condition and I really pride myself in my full collection of ‘Beatles’ LP’s [giving my age away now]. What I do miss though is being able to buy these days is the one piece music centre which had turntable, radio, two cassette decks, CD player, and of course 2 separate speakers, which would fit in my home cabinet perfectly.

I’ve slowly been working on my vinyl collection over the past few years, and I agree with Daniel. I like to own physical products, and I like browsing my shelves instead of scrolling on my screen. But it’s not just the music. I love the artwork, the effort that has gone into the whole product.

Also, as my music taste seems to prefer smaller/independent bands I feel that purchasing their vinyls or CDs is somehow more of an investment in the band… ??

I gave up on vinyl when I moved into a tenement flat the floor of which was so bouncy you couldn’t sneeze or a car couldn’t pass by without the needle jumping.

My goodness. Maybe the tracking weight was a bit low.

Until I got a B&O deck I had the same issue. The B&O deck was balanced evenly through 360 degrees, so could be used in any orientation – even vertically. But most decks suffer from vibration issues.

Let’s face it, vinyl is an analogue format and whatever else us humans are we are analogue (although I have from time to time come across what appear to be digital versions of humans!). This is why an interim measure needed when changing a digital stream to an analogue one (for us humans to understand) is a converter. As I understand it, a digital format is a ‘sampling rate’, the higher the rate, the more accurate the representation. By definition, this is still not pure analogue- it mainly works because us humans are far from perfect (colour TV works by the eye being tricked into viewing white when presented with a stream of red, blue and green light, but I won’t delve into that). I personally find CDs (as an example of digital) a bit ‘bright’ but convenient. There are many forms of cutting down the size of musical ‘files,’ perhaps the most common being MP3. This works by taking out bits of information that the ear is supposed not to register anyway, plus reducing the bit rate by varying degrees. The higher it is, the more accurate it is. But it still is not total analogue, which a vinyl record is. I personally find a well made, well produced record played on a good system the most satisfying to actually listen to. And I use all systems and enjoy all systems. And I am, after all, a rather faulty analogue human, living in a digital world!

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There’s a very simple reason I buy vinyl – it sounds better than all the others. I’ve also got very good digital replay system but when it comes to the crunch you cannot beat a good LP, particularly one of the original early pressings.

Love all the comments. One big factor is that when you get older (yes I bought 78’s before EP’s came out) your hearing loss negates part of the quality of your system. I have a good system with arcam, linn etc and can remember when an LP, oops vynil, sounded better than a CD. I even have some of my old 78’s still both 10inch and some 12inch classical ones of my fathers maybe someday soon I’ll get around to connecting the other deck that does 78/45/33. Might even get around to making some tape copies to play in my classic car too, ah dreams.

Chris says:
22 December 2016

I have always only purchased Vinyl Records since the year dot (1950’s). I do have CD’s where there were unobtainable tracks in the 70’s that I wanted to listen to at home (pre Spotify days) and would only get any future music if it appeared on Vinyl. To hold, smell (a new purchase) and then place on the turntable is a joy that CD’s and Downloads(?) cannot compare to. The Sound is superior to any other. Sadly, the Valve Amps are not generally available and are the best for Sound Reproduction. Transistors are not as “Alive” as Valves. I have a Valve Amp for my guitar.

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Does anyone have any technical information about what records are made of?

‘Vinyl’, I assume, is PVC – polyvinylchloride. Most PVC contains various additives including plasticisers. Plastics often deteriorate with age. Loss of plasticiser and exposure to ultraviolet light are common reasons. We use unplasticised PVC (UPVC) for window frames and this is fairly durable.

What I’m wondering is whether records are made of UPVC, presumably with some colourant, usually black. Whatever ‘vinyl’ records are made of, it does seem to be more durable than most plastics. I have some older records and they have less surface noise than ones manufactured in the 80s, towards the end of the first vinyl age.

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But do you know that only ‘pop’ records were subject to the thinner vinyl? Serious music aficionados (music pre-20th C) were considered by the record industry to be ‘more discerning’ so their discs remained at the full weight and thickness.

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DG vinyls are incredibly thick – about 140gm, I think. But pretty good reproduction.

Duncan – The site you mention does not seem to have any detailed information, but does refer to ‘vinylite’, which seems to be a copolymer of vinyl chloride and vinyl acetate, so not simply PVC. By controlling the amounts of these monomers and making a low molecular mass polymer, the plastic does not need a plasticiser, which I had assumed on the basis of the long life of records. Vinylite has long gone so I still don’t know what is used in modern vinyl records.

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Duncan – Your link resulted in a ‘cannot be found’ message. I suspect the spelling of “shellac” and the duplicated “org” were the reason. Once I dealt with those I found an interesting, if arcane, treatise on record pressing.

There are hundreds of websites about vinyl records but it is almost impossible to find any information on the actual composition of the material. The nearest I have come without spending too much time searching is the following :
The plastic or vinyl for the records is produced by melting plastic powder in a heated mixer. The plastic is melted and mixed until it has the consistency of jelly. It is then fed through a roller press that produces long, thin sheets within strict tolerances for the thickness and brittleness of the plastic. When the sheets are cooled, they are cut into squares called biscuits. An automatic press is fitted with the nickel stampers—one for each of the two sides of the record. The biscuits are reheated to soften them slightly, and they are fed into the press. The operator makes sure the biscuit is seated properly and activates the press. The grooves and the sound pattern are pressed into the soft plastic.
Read more: http://www.madehow.com/Volume-5/LP-Record.html

Perhaps each label or pressing plant had their own formulation.

robert c says:
22 January 2017

In the last popular times, including my 70s/80s LPs, they were 80gm, and the comeback has resulted in initially 120gm (esp for 12″ singles for DJs) but seems to have standardised on 180gm as we are charged £20 each, so they can afford it. As to the UV degradation……. they are kept in a cardboard sleeve, away from the light of day. Some early CDs failed with age as the ink from the printed side affected the digital music side.

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I’m well aware of the RSC, which publishes journals as well as the magazine Chemistry World, destined for a wide audience. So it appears that records are simply black PVC nowadays. Thanks for that.

Edit: Here is another news article that refers to records being made out of PVC but goes on to mention the percentage crystallinity, something which greatly affects the properties of plastics: http://cen.acs.org/articles/94/i24/Groovy-chemistry-materials-science-behind.html

I see that John has also identified the errors in the URL you quoted. Out of interest, is there a reason you don’t use copy & paste?