In recent years the vinyl record in all its formats has risen, Phoenix-like, from the ashes. Once again, just like in the heyday of the mid-20th century, it is now close to being the desirable and much sought-after format it was before the advent of the compact disc in the mid to late 1980s.
There are a number of reasons why this has happened. When the BBC’s ‘Tomorrow’s World’ programme first introduced the CD to a curious public in 1981, there were promises of a new, indestructible format – lightweight, reliable and above all, durable. However, after the strawberry jam had been rinsed from the disc and the British public had bought the format in its millions, people began to realise that claims the format was imperishable and would give perfect results time after time were, in fact, something of a fib. Sound quality apart, it became apparent that these discs were, just like the old vinyl record, prone to wear, sound problems and degradation. As the medium also replaced magnetic tape as the recordable format of choice, it also came to increasingly be seen as disposable – many unmarked discs were left out of their protective cases picking up physical damage which reminded us of the sticks/repeats and skips/jumps we had come to know from vinyl.
Meanwhile, come the beginning of the 1990s, the future for vinyl looked bleak. All the best selling artists were shifting most, if not all, their sales on CD and music lovers were unloading their record collections by the truckload – to concentrate on reinventing their collections on CD. During that decade, the only music genre which kept the vinyl flame burning was that of ‘dance’ music (in all its myriad forms). The era of the CD disc-jockey (CDJ) initially struggled to find a foothold as repetitive beats on vinyl spewed from huge sound systems throughout the decade. And it still sounded good. Vinyl was still being produced in more mainstream areas during this time but in increasingly smaller, more limited runs. This is now borne out by the collectability of some releases from this era – original pressings (particularly from the mid 90s) are quite scarce because the major companies just did not see a market for vinyl at this time.
However, during its years in the doldrums, there was indeed still a thriving collectors market in the vinyl record. Increasingly, certain titles, rare to begin with, found their way into serious collections (the type of ones where they remain until death) – making them even harder to find and thus upping the desirability. This collectors’ market was, though, a niche and insular world and it was only with the advent of the Internet and particularly the transference of many vinyl sales on to digital platforms that vinyl would slowly see its journey turning full circle and once again becoming ‘cool’ and ‘in’.
When internet sites such as the ubiquitous eBay started gathering sign-ups towards the end of the millennium, many folk were amazed to see there was still a demand in some circles for the good old vinyl record. They were even more amazed to discover some of the prices people were willing to pay for this black plastic. Not to say the premium price tags on some records have been the sole inspiration for some to start buying vinyl again but without a doubt it has been a significant factor in expanding the collectors market and this has, to some extent, trickled down into a more mainstream demand for LPs (long players) and seven-inch 45rpm singles. Indeed, these days it seems the CD single format is all but dead in the water and if new bands wish their latest release to be released on a physical format, it is precisely the 7” vinyl they look to.
In addition, many music devotees are now stimulated by the thought of ‘building’ a serious vinyl collection. Young and old are finding there is much joy to be had in the hunt. There is a great satisfaction in seeing the collection grow. You can read the sleeve notes without eye strain or magnification, you can flip the disc to reveal the other side, you can open and luxuriate in the gatefold sleeve, you might even get a good-size poster included or an interesting inner sleeve or fascinating label design. Everything in a satisfying 12-inch square. Everything with decent weight. And, as long as it’s properly looked after, everything still sounding good. Snap, crackle and pop? People are learning to live with it. People are learning that if you care for your vinyl collection it doesn’t have to be that way, anyhow.