The Future Of Vinyl Music

by Kaya Johnson

Since the turn of the last decade, vinyl has been reported to have something of a resurgence. Whilst that’s undoubtedly heartening news for a commercial sector of the industry increasingly desperate for validation, does this bode well for the long-term health of the vinyl medium?

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Physical Appeal

This resurgence can be seen in no small part as a backlash against the ubiquity of digital music outlets. Among the online ether of mixes, streaming radio, and mp3s that are always only a few clicks away from our grasp, vinyl records’ immense appeal is their contrarian analogue form relying on the ownership of a lot of bulky non-portable hardware. It feels more real because it is. You can see the grooves themselves and hear the tune scratching with your ear to the platter even when your speakers are unplugged. These aesthetics dovetail nicely with, for lack of a better term, the rise of the hipster, a buying demographic self-consciously defined by rarefied tastes distinguished from the cultural masses. Nowhere is this more loudly signaled than in the record collection, so in that sense, curating a vinyl collection corresponds with that general pattern of music consumption. Another group accounting for the upswing in sales comprises itself of (mostly) middle-aged men purchasing, sometimes for the second time, music from their youth that a greater abundance of disposable income has placed within their reach. From this perspective, then, everything looks roses for the future of the vinyl format. However, if we actually take a look at what vinyl is being sold, the forecast becomes considerably more muddled.

Winners And Losers

An analysis of the records topping the vinyl charts ever since the so-called resurgence reveals a clear trend: the best selling vinyls are resolutely big albums by heritage rock and roll acts of yesteryear, like Ziggy Stardust, The White Album, and The Wall. Whilst albums of this ilk all vary from great-to-essential, they do more good for the artists’ estates and major record labels than for music and the vinyl culture at large. Journeyman bands with members still in full-time work dragging merch boxes from car to stall are still very much the victims of the wider downturn in music sales, piracy, and the ongoing balkanization of the way we listen to and discover music. The only contemporary acts that seem able to make a dent in the vinyl charts are mainstream bands like Arcade Fire and Radiohead that occupy that slim Venn overlap between indie-minded aesthetics and major label backing, along with the occasional Beggars Group breakthrough. As such, it would be a shame if vinyl, with its expensive production costs, became the preservation of heritage acts and the odd mainstream success story.

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Vinyl Culture

While vinyl itself is enjoying a rise in popularity, the same can’t be said for the kinds of record shops that foster the vinyl culture in the first place. A telling microcosm of the wider problem is Record Store Day. Initially conceived as a chance to get people into their local independent record shops with some attractive one-off pressings, the event has been enthusiastically co-opted by the major labels as a chance to sell some fairly dispiriting content, like Justin Bieber picture singles or limited edition Status Quo reissues. None of which really serve the interests of the retailers themselves. If people are mostly buying diamond selling albums by rock dinosaurs, who’s going into record shops leaning on proprietors’ decades-long experience in individualized and eclectic recommendations? Especially when a lot of the vinyl is going to be bought on Amazon anyway.

The Record Keeps Spinning

While the rise in vinyl won’t turn back the sea in terms of the music industry’s wider problems, its recent success is nonetheless heartening. Increased demand has lead vinyl pressing companies to widen their operations, which should mean money saved for both consumers and the artists pressing records. Certainly, it’s hard right now to envisage a future where Exile On Main Street or Led Zeppelin IV will be out of print. The same can be said for indie touchstones like Marquee Moon or The Queen Is Dead. There is a very real danger, though, that the vinyl culture that nourished the creation of such albums will have scattered to the winds, shattered into a million pieces, and dispersed to the far corners of the internet.

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