May The Circle Be Unbroken – The Continuing Success Story Of Vinyl

“It’s high time someone took a look at the way records are being sold and distributed and changed it. People, Third Man Records is all about the future. For us, the future means democracy, fellowship, community and – God help us – bespoke vinyl.”

A manifesto there taken from the website of Jack White’s just-this-year-opened label and record store in Nashville. Their slogan is ‘Your Turntable’s Not Dead’. Snigger if you like, as many have done, at The White Stripes’ leader’s supposedly Luddite ethics. But the truth is, as time goes on and the music industry descends further and further into a quagmire, the views of purists like Jack are making more and more sense.

One only has to look at the fact that – in stark contrast to every format – worldwide sales of black plastic have been on the increase. Through the first five months of 2009 alone, sales of vinyl are up 50 per cent on 2008. And this shows no signs of slowing down.

It’s a fairly simple equation: with digitisation and specifically the rise of file-sharing and Spotify, music is becoming increasingly disposable. Everyone knows this. The major labels are right now looking into ways of reversing the situation, but the simple truth is that once people can get something for nada, no matter how draconian you get about it, they’re not gonna go back to paying for it.

In this environment, accepting that yer casual music fan is now out of the equation, the only way to make any money is to appeal to the fetishistic sensibilities of the obsessives, who still view music as art and releases as artefacts. These people – the people who actually give a shit, who actually see music as something tangible and something to show off in one’s living room – are the only true “consumers” left in “the marketplace”.

Witness all those preposterously lavish ‘Deluxe Edition’ boxes that are popping up – a trend begun with Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’ and utilised most recently for the reissue of ‘The Stone Roses’. In truth, though, a set of 600 CDs, 12 vinyls, a USB stick and a 50-page book may be over-egging it. With the most space-efficient way of presenting music now reached – the MP3 – there won’t be any more formats being created. Thus we can now look back at all of them – eight-track cartridges, cassettes, MiniDiscs, CDs and so on – and decide which is the most aesthetically pleasing.

And the winner, hands down, is the gatefold 12-inch vinyl. Bulky, impractical in the extreme, easily damaged… but beautiful. And, as Roger Daltrey of The Who adds: “With a CD, you start with a nice plastic box and end with a scratched plastic box. It has no character whatsoever. But with vinyl, we threw away an art form that was so much more than the record… Sometimes the covers were more important than the music. The more fingerprints you got on it, the more it was a part of you.”

Of course, this is still a niche thing rather than a revolution. Sales of vinyl still ultimately account for less than 1 per cent of overall album sales. Recent figures from Nielsen Soundscan may have suggested that vinyl sales had risen while CD and digital album sales have fallen, but the scale is worth noting to anyone who might be getting carried away. Vinyl sales have risen from 700,000 in 2008 to 1million this year. And in 2009, 121.8million CDs have been sold, versus 33.2million digital albums, compared to 151.01million CDs and 27.52million digital albums for the same period last year. So yeah, still a drop in the ocean.

But give it 20 years, and what’s going to happen? Is the love for vinyl a generational thing that won’t stretch to the music fans of the future? Quite possibly. But it feels more likely that – while CDs are totally and utterly forgotten – vinyl will inhabit a similar place that comic books do, with a select group of people obsessing over the medium as much as the content.

Hopefully, anyway.