Written in Wax

Vinyl records occupy a very curious space in the musical landscape – but is it a dying format kept on life support by die-hard fans, or is it a sign of something bigger?

When Jason Draper was 16-years-old, he got hold of a copy of David Bowie’s album Hunky Dory. The album was on a vinyl record, and holding it in his hands, Draper realised the kind of power it could have.

“It’s much nicer than the CD-sized sleeve, right?” says Draper (b. 1983), now a staffer for Record Collector Magazine. “It’s four or five times as big. These are iconic things. It was an original artefact from that time – the 1970s – and I was born in the 1980s so I’m holding a record that was made 17 years earlier. I was 16, and that’s the time when you start to encounter the things that will help form you as a person. And so at this time you feel like you’ve got this amazing link to this thing that at that age you’d heard so much about. There’s something very exciting about that.”

Vinyl is a quandary in the current musical landscape. In many ways, people like Draper are something of an anomaly – there are comparatively few people around today who attach the same cachet to vinyl, or even to music as a physical product. But even as music sales have suffered (Nielsen Soundscan, the industry sales data standard, estimates a physical sales fall of 7% in 2009 alone), vinyl seems to be the little format that could. Soundscan clocked over 2.8 million vinyl sales in 2009, and that’s just the new release market. It doesn’t take into account the enormous trade in back-catalogue vinyl that takes place at market stalls, car boot sales and online. Not bad for a medium that has been declared dead many, many times over.

Of course, this still leaves a couple of questions as to vinyl’s role. Is it in? Is it out? How important is it, really? Is this an industry on its last legs, as several reports in the mainstream media have claimed, or is it surviving, even thriving, in a recession-hit market?

According to Draper, vinyl is very much here to stay – and the reason, he says, is because labels are beginning to exploit it in new and interesting ways. “I think that record companies have realised that they can make money from the release of lots of different things in lots of different formats; I think it’s a natural progression of that, that people try and work out different ways of releasing [albums] – or rather cynically putting it, making money from the same thing.”

Vinyl has become important again because the rules have changed. The old cycle that artists went through of studio, album, tour, rinse and repeat has been hugely disrupted, not only by the current economic circumstances, but also by the rise of digital media and MP3s. Artists are making a lot more money from tours and one-off releases than they ever did from CD sales. Labels are starting to exploit this: Madonna recently signed a groundbreaking deal with Live Nation, referred to as a 360 deal. The essence of this is that the label makes money from everything the artist does: tours, merchandising and, yes, physical releases. But what that means in turn is that artists are under less pressure to make sure an album does well by itself.

And while Madonna might not be looking to get her stuff pressed up on exclusive vinyl, several small acts are. Even as far back as 2003, The White Stripes pressed up copies of Elephant on vinyl – a risky move at the time. These days, according to Draper, Jack White will “play a gig in his Third Man store, which he cuts to vinyl in real time, sells to exactly the amount of people who are in the store and want it. And then that’s it, gone for good. People spend literally thousands on these records on eBay.”

Ultimately, the current musical climate is one in which vinyl has thrived. The increased reliance on touring and live appearances has meant that it can often be advantageous for bands to press up vinyl versions of releases to accompany their shows. Because labels aren’t relying on physical media as much anymore, artists have more flexibility to release their material on any format they like. Some, like hip-hop artist, Jay Electronica, seem to be forgoing the release of a traditional album entirely, choosing to release sporadic singles on vinyl.

Of course, there’s the fact that even if you don’t own a turntable, vinyl has a totemic value that has a great deal of power. “We’re already a generation removed from when vinyl was the norm, but it’s a nice link to the golden era of music,” says Draper. “It seems cool and somewhat antiquated – and not in a negative outmoded way. It’s the same as going vintage clothes shopping. Things have this dated coolness to them. For young bands, in a world where the norm is downloads and giving things away for free on Myspace or whatever, there are a lot of guys who think, that doesn’t work for us. There was certainly a time when releasing a seven-inch single really set you apart from other artists who are all selling their stuff through iTunes. It’s a reaction to what’s going on in current trends.”

Of course, one might argue that Draper comes from the particular position of a commentator. How are the real shops doing? This is the coalface, the place where this avowedly physical product is sold. If you’re in London, that coalface is hottest in Soho – particularly Berwick Street. There, you’ll find legendary stores like Sister Ray and Reckless Records (although they answer the phone as Revival Records). And when Aesthetica visits Reckless, they’re not just busy: they’re pounding.

Several buyers are hunched over the bulging racks, flicking through the dusty vinyl. “I’m afraid you’ll have to come back later,” says Duncan Kerr, the store’s jazz buyer. “We’ve just got too many people in right now.” Fortunately, Wyld Pytch Records, a few minutes away, is a little bit quieter. It’s a tiny room in Lexington Street specialising in hip-hop vinyl. Damien Smith (b. 1976), who helps run the store, is upbeat about vinyl’s future in a tough market.

“Last year there was an album by [rapper] Raekwon, called Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Volume 2. The first one came out 10 years before that. Last year, it was CD only. Now for a hip-hop album, you’d expect it on vinyl… and sometimes you have to wait or hope it gets pressed on vinyl. For six months, I got asked so many questions about it, I ended up making phone calls to EMI who distributed it, and looking on the net to see if there were even any pirate copies of it. Nobody had done it! And then they did a few limited edition purple vinyl ones, and they were gone. You can’t get them anymore! There were people buying vinyl and buying the CD, and not even opening the vinyl. Keeping it wrapped up – and I understand that. It was the same when Wu-Tang Forever came out; the American edition was four vinyls, and the English edition was three. People were like, I have to get both.”

For Smith, vinyl is a very personal thing. Like Draper and the punters who hunt down new releases on wax, it’s something he seems to take a great deal of pride in. “Because I come from the days where there was nothing else, I’m used to vinyl,” he says. “Then there’s the argument where it’s what sells better; most people in the club don’t care. They just want to hear the music. But as the person playing the music, as a vinyl collector or crate digger, as I like to call myself, vinyl is – holding it, seeing it, smelling it. It feels better. They all smell so different. With CDs or a computer, flicking through files doesn’t work for me.

“Most DJs who use vinyl, they’ll tell you, you can see…” He bends down to a crate of records on the floor, idly rifling through its contents with practiced fingers. “You can see a pile of tunes like this, and you’ll know what this blue cover is, this red cover is.” On the screen, it’s just words. And if it ain’t in alphabetical order, you aren’t going to find what you’re looking for!”

Vinyl won’t last forever. At some point, a generation that grows up almost entirely on digital media will become the main buyers, and it simply won’t be viable for anybody to press it up anymore. But at that point, physical media as a whole will become an antique concept, meaning that CDs and, to a much lesser extent, cassette tapes will be permanently out of print. For now, vinyl seems to be spending its retirement years in fine fettle. And whether you consider its current resurgence to be a fad or not, there’s no denying that for millions of people, it represents more than just music.

Rob Boffard