Resurgence - organic or marketing-driven?

(May 07, 2015)

The continued resurgence of the LP, that dinner-platter sized chunk of black plastic, has moved beyond an oddity used by some artists to promote their work to become a re-established and growing medium once again. The LP, or to describe it accurately: the double-sided microgroove vinyl record format of phonography for analogue sound storage (try asking for that in a record store) began life when ‘records’ were made of a hard but frangible shellac compound, with cavernous grooves cut into the surface and rotated at 78 revolutions per minute, a format that meant a playing time of under five minutes each side. 

The vinyl, finely-grooved LP rotated at a more leisurely at 33 13 revolutions per minute (33 was enough of a description for most people) extended each side of a 12-inch disc to over 20 minutes playing time. Actually, the ‘microgroove’ was the real breakthrough more than the rotation speed but ‘33’ became the magical number, especially as the album took precedence over the single, otherwise known as the ‘45’ (for obvious rotation-speed reasons). Initially, it was considered that classical music would be the home of the LP because its playing time allowed uninterrupted listening, however it also allowed artists to gather ten or more songs together and the ‘album’ was born, quickly maturing into the ‘concept’ variety.

Enough of the history or we’ll be into the problems of scratches, needle jumping, static charge and contaminated playback. Suffice to say the arrival of cassette tapes, eight-track tapes (remember them?) CDs and latterly digital downloads, together rang the death-knell of the LP, but what about the resurgence?

The resurrection of the LP has actually coined a term, apparently aficionados call it ‘vinyl revival’ and it has been underway since early 2008.Obviously this is no flash-in-the-pan with steadily increasing LP sales, dedicated music charts and outlets, and even a burgeoning LP record culture. Some may argue that this ‘vinyl revival’ is part of an ever-growing hankering for the past and a love of retro style, the desire to return to the ‘rawness’ of recording heard on LPs, while others maintain it’s simply driven by the desire for another generation to ‘want something different’, an alternative view is that the ‘vinyl revival’ is nothing more than a fad. So who is right?

Retro style has been around for years, many modern retail outlets and manufacturers have retro lines in everything from clothes and furniture to cars and motorcycles. Perhaps for many people the modern world is so soulless the only way is backwards. Although returning to a fragile, bulky, easily-scratched music format is rather like dispensing with your car’s independent suspension and returning to the leaf spring. Part of the retro-style argument is that some LPs come in opulent fold out sleeves that give the purchaser far more for their outlay than a jewel case and small insert. Without doubt, the artwork of artists such as Roger Dean and others looks less impressive on a 12x12 cm booklet than a 12” x 12” album cover. And it would take thousands of CD inserts to paper a room, something that was relatively easy with album covers (hands up anyone else who did that).

Consider the ‘rawness’ of sound argument. Primarily it states that the LP has a less ‘antiseptic’ and ‘sanitised’ sound that represents more accurately what the artist actually sounds like, ‘pops and clicks’ included. That may be, but does that mean foregoing the clarity of sound currently enjoyed in favour of a more ‘muddy’ sound to get the raw experience? Not sure I really want to return to those days. And does that mean artists really want you to stuff a sock in the speaker just to help their music sound ‘authentic’? Not sure many would agree.

The next-generation desire to be ‘different’ from anything that went before is an argument that blatantly stands, any look-back over time shows an ongoing refusal to adopt style, function and format from a previous generation (even if it worked better) in favour of change and independence. Nothing new there then. However, the LP continues to increase sales albeit slowly but steadily, which is hardly the realm of fads, which tend to come and go like the snows of early spring. Recently it was reported that more than a million vinyl LPs were sold in the UK in 2014, hardly a dent in the figure of total UK music sales, yet some major as well as minor artists have decided to launch their latest music on vinyl LPS, for example, Pink Floyd released their latest work, ‘The Endless River’ as an LP and sold 6,000 copies, nothing earth shattering but sales nonetheless.

So there we are, the vinyl LP have been resurrected, and it appears to be on a roll (albeit a somewhat restricted one right now). In all probability we’re eventually looking at what is best described as a thriving niche. Growing yes, but destined to remain a niche.

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