Why Our Relationship with Vinyl Isn't All That Romantic
In 2013, Foals frontman Yannis Philippakis appeared on Channel 4 to deliver his opinion on music consumption: “I'd rather someone stole the record on vinyl than bought it or streamed it on Spotify. I think you should listen to music on vinyl and I think basically anything is better than [Spotify]. … It's like going to a restaurant when the chef and all the waiting staff have worked their asses off, and you leave coppers as a tip, and you don't even pay the bill. That's basically what Spotify's like, I think.”
It was no surprise to find that artists were dissatisfied with the free streaming service. Months before, Atoms for Peace removed their music from Spotify with a lengthy and angered Twitter explanation from Nigel Godrich, stating: “Small meaningless rebellion. Someone gotta say something. It’s bad for new music.” He added, “if people had been listening to Spotify instead of buying records in 1973 I doubt very much if Dark Side [of the Moon] would have been made. It would just be too expensive.” Frontman Thom Yorke also chipped in, after removing his solo album The Eraser from the service: “Make no mistake new artists you discover on #Spotify will not get paid. Meanwhile shareholders will shortly being rolling in it. Simples.” Whilst these might have seemed like the fussy protestations of indie musicians far detached from mainstream consumption, it was only when American Sweetheart Taylor Swift removed her catalogue from the streaming service because “there should be an inherent value placed on art” that users really began to sit up and take notice. Suddenly you had to launch YouTube mid-party to hear about T-Swifty's next mistake.
So what's the alternative? Along with his damning review of free music streaming, Philippakis was defiant in what he considered to be the 'right' way to consume music: over a turntable. In a similar vein, last year Paul McCartney told The Guardian that he thought listening to vinyl was “more sophisticated”. In the UK, 2014 saw vinyl sales reach their highest figures in 18 years, with over one million records sold before the end of November (BBC, 2014). Worldwide, Nielsen SoundScan revealed that vinyl sales were up 52% from 2013, with 9.2 million sales. Pink Floyd's 2014 release The Endless River won the title for fastest-selling vinyl record of the 21st century with 6,000 copies sold by late November (BBC, 2014). One Direction's total streams on Spotify, however, exceeded one billion. Whilst free, digital consumption still clearly trumps the LP industry, if you're going to release an album on vinyl, the time is now.
After a decade of stagnation, it's surprising that vinyl should make such a fierce comeback. After all, records are not the most practical way to consume music. They require care, attention, love, dusting, a lot of shelf space, no greasy fingers, no sunlight, and they're not exactly portable. There are so many things that can trash a good piece of vinyl. However, for all the warping/scratching/thumping/fizzing/weight, there's something seriously satisfying about the ceremony of placing an LP on a record player: choosing it from the shelf, admiring the album artwork up close, delicately pulling it from the sleeve and balancing it between your two index fingers to place it over the metal rod, and pulling over the stylus to let the needle drop. There's no doubt about it — the turntable is the most romantic way to listen to music. I unashamedly use a large proportion of the space in my college bedroom for housing old vinyl copies of classic records like Rumours, Dark Side of the Moon and Never Mind the Bollocks.
Ask someone why they choose new vinyl over digital and you’ll see their face visibly soften into dreamy eyes and a wistful smile. “It just sounds better.” “It’s nicer.” “It’s physical.” This is usually accompanied by some verbal or physical intimation of nostalgia. Never mind the fact that most of these individuals were under 10 years old when vinyl sales came to a crashing halt. Phil Barton, owner of Sister Ray records in London and Rounder Records in Brighton told The 405 in 2012, “kids think CDs are what their parents have, but they know that vinyl is what collectors get. People who are really serious about music have vinyl, so to have vinyl is a symbol of cool.”
As with many consumerist articles of romance, vinyl comes at a cost. It’s an expensive hobby. For one month of Spotify Premium with a student discount, you could afford around one sixth of The Endless River double LP edition. Coming in at a whopping £31.99 on Amazon.co.uk, Pink Floyd may have created a brilliant record, but it’s certainly not one that is universally accessible in that format. Nigel House, cofounder of Rough Trade told the BBC last year: “The major labels, their albums are so expensive – £25!… You get someone coming in, they could buy 10 CDs for £100, or four vinyls. Yes, they are expensive. For me, I don’t think that’s good at all.”
When Foals tell their fans that they “should” listen to music on vinyl they show a complete unawareness of the implications of that statement. Poorer fans are made to feel guilty about the way they consume music to fit their personal budget, whilst rich kids gain a sense of superiority by purchasing vinyl, seeking some sense of approval or validation from the artists who call upon LPs as their medium of choice. It’s “more sophisticated”, as McCartney would say. Newly bought records come with download codes to enable purchasers to listen to the album without even removing it from the packaging. Now more than ever, vinyl has become a bourgeois status symbol; something to have, not something to use.
When Kanye West came to speak to the Oxford Guild back in March, he deplored Steve Jobs for keeping ideas to himself and not sharing them. “The middle class is being denied art and beauty. It is then sold back to them as luxury.” It seemed like a remarkable turn-around in attitude for West to present a pseudo-Marxist analysis of American consumerism, but it still raised the question of whether artists should decide just how much value is put on their music. Maybe great music should be one of those services which is shared with society for the common good, rather than for personal profit, a convincing argument for free downloads. But musicians and record store owners need to make a living, and to suggest this would be possible for smaller artists by way of Spotify alone would be naïve.
Most modern vinyl lovers will be familiar with the LP’s international holiday, ‘Record Store Day’. Every third Saturday in April for the past eight years, artists all over the world have supported the independent music retail sector with special release singles and EPs only available in physical formats from participating stores. It was a stroke of genius for a dying industry, a means to reinstate the value we put on some of our most beloved members of the high street. Whilst ex-music retail giant HMV has had its outlet on Cornmarket Street completely gutted, down in Cowley the independent retailer Truck Store is thriving. But here, again, the issue of elitism rears its head. Participating in RSD makes you feel like part of a celebration of the values music lovers should hold most dear. Woe betide you if those record stores are out of your reach or you can’t afford the time and money to stand in queue all day for a meet, greet, and record. It’s an awkward dilemma, but for someone who would rather see the continued existence of Truck Store over Spotify, I was one of the many waiting to pick up a limited edition LP this year.
The romance of vinyl is its greatest asset, but when it gets too caught up in profits and elitism, what is there to separate it from Spotify and online streaming, a world it seems so desperate to distance itself from? Striking the balance between supporting artists and sharing ideas is something the music industry will continue to struggle with, but £31.99 for a record is no place to start.