Setting the record straight: Music's greatest comeback revolves at 45rpm

Today FM host Ian Dempsey

Saturday is Record Store Day - and with viyl sales on the up, Ed Power wonders, in an era of streaming and music on demand, just why we are still drawn to the humble LP

Nevermind the boybands — one of music’s greatest comebacks is taking place not on the stage in front of screaming audiences but in living rooms across the nation. Even as Westlife, Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, and more prepare their lucrative returns, the true pop renaissance involves a humble flattened disc revolving at 45 rotations per minute.

Thirty years ago vinyl indisputably teetered with one foot in the grave. Cassettes and CDs had thoroughly trumped it for convenience — to the point where the record industry was actively encouraging consumers to bin their records and upgrade their music collection to shiny new compact discs.

Yet as we celebrate Record Store Day 2019 on Saturday, vinyl has benefited from an extraordinary renaissance.

Vinyl sales surged 12% last year and currently account for nearly 14% of all physical music purchases (if you’re wondering, the biggest selling vinyl recording 2018 was the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy 2). Within the business, a tradition of disdain for 12” and 45” records born in the ’80s and ’90s has slammed into a hard reverse.

For any artist wishing to be taken seriously, a luxury vinyl release is now clearly essential.

“In a world of playlists and shuffling the ritual of sitting back and really listening to an album the way the artist had intended is a wonderful experience,” says Hugh Scully, managing director of Dublin Vinyl Record Pressing and founder of record subscription club Lovesvinyl.com.

“The artwork, the credits, and the process of turning the record after 20 minutes really focuses your attention. “

Against a background of unlimited choice, says Scully, the physical strictures of the vinyl format have their own charms.

“For artists, the album is the original way of structuring their work, ensuring it is made up of the best tracks and telling a story in 40 minutes,” says Scully.

“There are also some physical limitations to a vinyl record that also contribute to the music, like having louder songs at the start and the quieter ones as the needle moves to the centre of the record. This is due to the stylus having less space to move around so less bass means smaller grooves. The process of recording and manufacturing a record hasn’t changed in 70 years which really says something about the format.”

“Vinyl re-establishes this idea of what 40 minutes of music is supposed to be,” agrees Paul McLoone, Today FM radio host and lead singer with The Undertones.

“You have side one, side two. Back in the day artists had to think about how they sequenced their records. It’s also a nice object to own — as opposed to a CD. Or a Spotify playlist, which isn’t really an object at all.”

Vinyl at its peak wasn’t just about music. It was a passport to an entirely different world, says Today FM host Ian Dempsey. He recalls poring over David Bowie gatefold LP as a teenager. The longer he gazed the closer he felt to the Thin White Duke. You won’t get that kind of connection gawping at your Spotify recommendations.

Today FM host Ian Dempsey
Today FM host Ian Dempsey

“You’d get the lyrics sheet, read all the sleeve notes over and over. You’d go through the whole thing with a sense of wonder,” says Dempsey.

“Somehow they managed to squeeze in so much information. With digital you don’t get that.”

Even vinyl’s wonkiness had its charms. “When you were DJing you’d have to put a coin on the stylus to stop it wobbling,” he recalls with a laugh.

“With digital, a lot of the magic is gone.”

One surprise in this story is the degree to which the rise of streaming has potentially contributed to vinyl’s rebirth.

Nowadays music fans can sample an LP digitally before deciding if they wish to plonk down cold, hard cash on the physical version. Oddly, that makes many of us more likely to commit to vinyl.

“Streaming is actually contributing to vinyl sales with over 50% of people who purchase a record listening online before doing so,” says Scully.

“Playlists and artist radio on the streaming channels are also leading to listeners discovering artists that they might never have heard before. Technology is making it easier than ever to purchase a record directly on the platform and have it delivered within a few days.

“Jack White was recently quoted as saying ‘I definitely believe the next decade is going to be streaming plus vinyl — streaming in the car and kitchen, vinyl in the living room and the den. Those will be the two formats.’ I agree, vinyl is here to stay.”

As for who is buying records, Scully explains:

The resurgence in vinyl is often perceived as a youth fad. Young people are indeed buying records in greater numbers than ever. Yet they by no means are alone, says Scully.

“The most recent research shows that compared to the average buyer of music, buyers of vinyl records are 50% more likely to be aged under 25. However, a majority of our members are 35-plus.

“So-called superfans buy more than two-thirds of all vinyl, according to the BBC, and if you speak to the record stores, they’re seeing more and more people getting into the format or rediscovering it again. A lot has to do with the growing range of turntables on the market, with some starting at just €150.”

Record Store Day is an important component of this new eco-system. First held in 2008 as a rallying cry for struggling independent stores, it has since been co-opted shamelessly by major labels and retail chains. In 2019, hundreds of limited-edition record will be unleashed including a triple-vinyl version of Suede’s 1999 Head Music; an alternative of Fleetwood Mac’s 1975 self-titled LP, and exclusives from David Bowie and Queen.

With so many big bands involved, there has been criticism that Record Store Day has diluted its original independent principles. Yet musicians continue to be big supporters.

“In my life, music has been a balm for loneliness,” Iggy Pop said recently.

“It was in the cheap ass little record store that I found a way to connect with other people. I was 18. It was a theatre, a glimpse at the world of commerce, and a cultural library; and my experiences as a teenage clerk were full of humour, and curiously warm.”

“So-called Superfans buy more than two-thirds of all vinyl according to the BBC, and if you speak to the record stores, they’re seeing more and more people getting into the format or rediscovering it again. A lot has to do with the growing range of turntables on the market with some starting at just €150.”

Paul McLoone
Paul McLoone

Every music fan has a favourite record. Paul McLoone’s was a David Bowie 7” purchased at a flea market two days before Bowie’s death in 2016 — rendering the object poignant and bittersweet.

“One album that really stands out is the 1997 release of Nuyorican Soul on Talkin’ Loud Records,” says Scully.

“It was produced by house DJs Masters at Work, and brought together legendary R&B, soul, and jazz artists including George Benson, Roy Ayers, Tito Puente, and Jocelyn Brown. I must have bought around 10 copies to give as presents. And the artwork was incredible – based on a Cuban Cigar Box. The promo even came with two cigars!”

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