Part 11 – The current state of the vinyl world
The current state of the vinyl world- circa July 2011
It remains interesting to note that vinyl records are still gaining in popularity on an annual basis, with sales bearing testimony to the growth. Obviously sales figures are not directly comparable to general digital format sales and downloads but it still remains amazing to think that a software format that was openly derided a few years after the advent of CD, one which nearly disappeared completely in the 80’s and 90’s, has now made a complete turnaround, is increasing annually by at least 10 to 15% per annum, and is even reaching a new and younger audience. The following few points are worth noting:
Many of the more influential artists or groups are making it compulsory to release their music on the vinyl format as well. In the case of really well-known artists, signed to major record labels, they certainly have the power to demand vinyl releases as well, in addition to the more normal type of software formats like CD or downloads. One cannot discount the effect of marketing as vinyl clearly creates a very unique opportunity to sell more music, even if it reeks of opportunism with very little regard of the actual process of playing and using records. However, be that as it may, it is actually the independent labels that are forging ahead and creating a big buzz in the marketplace. Smaller labels have become the darlings of the music world and the critics alike due to the fact that they are releasing unknown and obscure music from artists that have far more integrity and are releasing critically acclaimed music that do not capitulate to the pressures of commercialism that ultimately only serve to feed mediocrity with poor and mindless music. Many of the smaller labels can not be faulted for their strict enforcement of vinyl pressing quality, and in certain instances are not even worried about releasing any of their catalogue on formats other than vinyl. It seems that the lesson learnt is that if you give the public what they want and it is good quality, they will support and pay. It might be pedantic to think that it nearly borders on pride, but that is the impression that is created and reinforced. Good examples of smaller companies that continue to release wonderful records are Barsuk, Sub Pop, Matador, Rounder, and many others.
We all know that some of the major companies were very glad that they could afford to dump vinyl records in the 80’s. How times have changed! Many of the older companies have now started re-releasing older back catalogue recordings themselves (for example Warner Brothers), or through highly specialized smaller companies (for example Sony has given exclusive rights to their music to Music on Vinyl, http://www.musiconvinyl.com/ ). In many cases these companies then gain access to and have exclusive rights to wonderful back catalogue material via the parent company, and in many cases recordings are now even being released on vinyl for the very first time, whereas they were not originally released on vinyl at all. These are certainly very exciting times for vinyl users worldwide.
New and innovative formats still sprout up from time to time, but unfortunately the gimmick value has to be taken into account. One of the more interesting formats to hit the market a short while ago was the introduction of a dual format disc with CD on one side, and a vinyl single on the flipside. Unfortunately the amount of vinyl contained on the vinyl side is severely restricted due to the size limitation of the CD disc at 5”, therefore not leaving much space on the other side for vinyl grooves and content, but still an interesting concept nevertheless. The first example of such a nature was by Jeff Mills with his release of The Occurrence. Exactly what one calls this is still probably open to interpretation. Would you call it a CD Vinyl single, or a 5 single CD? Curious, for certain. I do not see people buying it in any great quantities, even if the market was really flooded with them. Please see the example herewith below:
It would seem that some of the older artists are welcoming the return to vinyl, with wonderful new titles having recently been released by rock groups like Uriah Heep, Yes, and others. With the return of a decent sized sleeve and the space to do something proper on there is some excellent sleeve art available again. I mean, who can ever forget Roger Dean’s covers, the wonderful work that Hipgnosis did through the years with Genesis, Pink Floyd, and others. It certainly is true that while many re-releases are always welcome (if you love ‘em you play ‘em, and you most likely will want to replace ‘em after many years of using ‘em), the truly exciting prospect of getting to listen to older and more established groups who really can still play instruments well and are still releasing new material always leaves a warm feeling in your tummy.
With the unique demand for all things vinyl there has also been a strong and very important new market that has sprung up that did not exist before on any great scale. Special box sets and compilations have become so numerous and they offer superb packages for the fan and collector alike. There tend to be three basic special package releases, e.g. the conventional box set re-release of an old official release, which is being re-released (e.g. George Harrison – All things must pass), the re-release of an existing box set but with added trimmings (e.g. The Band – The Last Waltz, with ticket passes, new book, extra editorial, etc., or Woodstock – a five album vinyl release with all the original material plus added outtakes and music not released on the original release and photobook), and then finally the new compilation where a very comprehensive grouping of the original studio albums, with or without new material (e.g. The Abba Box Set, featuring all their studio albums, or Led Zeppelin –The song remains the same).
There is still continual improvement of turntables and related hardware, with diverse designs still seeing the light of day from many numerous manufacturers. Cartridge technology has never been better and new flagship designs are still being released. New arms, motor units and power supplies are all getting more advanced. The amount of phono stages is increasing and there is a definite indication of a return to moving coil cartridges. Budget turntable designs have become really good and in certain cases even offer a basic yet important upgrade path. Budget designs of a few years ago were cheap and nasty affairs and only barely managed to get away with their bad sound representation, or were purely intended to be a stocking filler for an insurance claim, to play a handful of old clapped out records. That is no longer the case – budget designs are now really good and certainly outperform budget CD players.
The value of vinyl is on the rise. The collectable nature of vinyl has seen to values for special releases and limited vinyl series really getting top dollar. It cannot be ignored that a combination of factors add to the high value of vinyl, and these would certainly include the fact that vinyl will not remain in exactly the same condition with repeated playing, the fact that it is a medium that needs to be treated carefully and stored properly, and that they can not be pressed by the millions without some input cost. But certain limited and special pressings have literally increased in value by an alarming rate, with evidence like Mobile Fidelity pressings, and other special pressings and issues being sold for more than double their value (or even much more than that that) value after only a moderate time period. The New Black Gold and fresh investment opportunities, perhaps?
Secondhand vinyl stores are experiencing booming business worldwide. With a well-established and workable international grading system and quick and efficient service and delivery business has never been this good, and this all in an admittedly digital age. The power and exposure of the Internet and the global on-line business community is making it easy to find that previously elusive copy of The Beatles or Frank Zappa. With safe and secure credit card transactions on offer from virtually all vendors business is easy and reliable, and shipping times are generally short, even from fairly remote places.
With a new users profile and the support of the Indy music market, one could argue that the current hip and funky generation of new users might forsake vinyl later, but very often the biggest mistake that market analysts make is the fact that people who use turntables (even young people with new and modern music), actually listen to music and can without doubt tell good music and sound quality apart from bad music and poor quality. Nobody will ever deny the fact that there is a certain perverse pleasure that is gained from being able to tell people that you actually listen to a turntable and enjoy it, just as they invariably also enjoy it when they listen incredulously to the sound on offer from even a modest setup. But at the current rate of growth and expansion, and the general positive perception that vinyl has created, it seems extremely unlikely that vinyl will die a slow death again any time soon. Turntables and vinyl remain the ultimate anachronism – we are using old outdated technology to enjoy music in its purest form, where the music actually sounds like natural and flowing music, the way we recognize it from previous memory and comparison to what our reference is, and also the way it stimulates us because of it sounding so real and believable. We have never had it so good. Let’s enjoy it!