What is the greatest double album of all time? Highly subjective of course, but for a few pointers here’s the top 5 from Rolling Stone magazine readers’ poll: Physical Graffiti (Led Zeppelin), The Wall (Pink Floyd), White Album (The Beatles), The River (Bruce Springsteen) and Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones). What do these fine works have in common? Well, 4 of them are from British artists, 4 of them were released in the 1970s, 4 of them are from bands rather than solo artists – but all of them were released during the golden age of vinyl, when vinyl was king and rock ruled… with the volume set to 11.
The music industry has declined significantly since these heady days with the major players falling victim to technological advancements compounded by their own complacency. A complacency fuelled by the successes and excesses of the 70s, 80s and 90s when making huge sums of money was virtually guaranteed. The global vinyl market was generating over $10bn a year by the early 80s.
By 2006, the vinyl market had reduced drastically with global sales down to just $36m – die-hard vinyl junkies and old-school DJs were the only people still buying the black discs from an ever decreasing number of outlets. The music business effectively gave up on vinyl in favour of the digital gold-rush that, so far, hasn’t really materialised, not for artists anyway. Roll forward 10 years and, to the music industry’s surprise, vinyl sales have grown to over $600m in 2015, a compound 80% per annum increase since the 2006 low point – could 2016 see a return to a $1bn market last seen around 25 years ago?
Interestingly, vinyl sales also generate more revenue than the combined ad-funded streaming services provided by the likes of YouTube and Spotify, where music consumption is considerable, but costs the listener nothing other than the inconvenience of advertising.
Why is this happening? Why such an amazing turnaround for a format that is little changed in over 100 years? Vinyl is expensive, fragile, takes up considerable shelf space, and is less than convenient to play compared to click and listen digital and streaming formats.
The answer lies in the minds, and consequent actions, of the people buying vinyl.
A loyal hardcore of fans want to be immersed in their favourite artists’ music. Vinyl enables this immersion in a way that other formats don’t. The artwork, the pure physicality of the sleeve, the disc, the liner notes, the effort required to place the disc on the turntable and then listen sequentially to the tracks as the artist intended. This investment in time and effort is pure joy for the superfan, knowing that the effort will be rewarded, but totally bewildering for the casual digital listener.
These same fans want others to know what they love – to discuss it, get feedback, exchange opinions, share and recommend their favourites, maybe even debate what is the best double album of all time! Record sleeves can be displayed – either on shelves in strict alphabetical order, of course, or wall-mounted in easily accessible frames. Part of our identity can be defined by our musical taste and the passion we display for our favourites. Try showing your friends what you are streaming right now – not much fun in that!
Who are these people? Are these growing hordes of vinyl junkies simply old men reliving their youth? Some, but not all. Record Store Day in mid-April each year is a great day. Participating artists release vinyl exclusives only available in independent record stores – from my own record store day visits in each of the last 3 years I estimate at least 50% of buyers to be under 30, and around 25% female. Vinyl buying is a young person’s game…
Why are young people buying vinyl? Because they either want to know what it’s all about, or they totally get it, just like the generation before them. They want to experience what their parents experienced (and no doubt still talk about!). They’re not satisfied with digital music and want to explore the better, more fulfilling, alternative. And it’s about so much more than just the music. 7% of vinyl buyers don’t have turntables, and many don’t play the discs, but just want to own, hold, and examine a physical product while listening to the music via their streaming service of choice. When albums were created there was often a story behind the music, the creation of the album, and the two (or four) sides of vinyl were carefully tracklisted and meant to be listened to in order, with no skipping. Engaging with the vinyl and sleeve in this way yields a deeper experience connecting fan and artist in a way that streaming can’t and won’t – ever. This experience underpins superfandom which is built on an emotional connection and involvement that is powerful, personal and valuable. The superfan is more loyal, will spend more, engage more, and tell their friends more.
Then there’s sound quality – is vinyl better? Lots of debate on this one – vinyl is said to produce a warmer sound, and a purer sound, due to the analog nature of the recording and pressing processes. Much depends on the equipment, from turntable and stylus to amplifier and speaker setup – and, of course, the listeners ears. Shortcomings in any step in the journey from vinyl to brain will diminish quality. My belief is that the perception of sound quality is what counts, and that is dependent on the ear and thoughts of the receiver – if you think vinyl sounds better, then it probably does, to you! So if thoughts are determining perceived quality of sound, then again it is the minds of people, and core fans in particular, that are driving demand and opinion.
The phenomena of the vinyl resurgence is simply a response by real music lovers to the consequences of the music industry’s complacency and incompetence. An excellent example of the power of people showing the way to an established, but lost, industry struggling to make sense on its own.
No-one is suggesting that the vinyl resurgence on its own will be the saviour of the music industry, an industry that has shot itself in the foot so many times that it is must have thought it had bullet-proof shoes. However, redemption exists through understanding what’s driving the vinyl revival – the core fans, the music aficionados, their passion, their emotional connection and their influence on their friends and networks. Right now these amazingly valuable people are treated the same as the casual listener, just numbers in the log book of the age of digital streaming yielding a fraction of a cent per listen (and declining) yet worth a whole lot more. For music to be an effective industry again, it needs to know these core fans, treat them differently, engage with them, bring them closer to the artists they love, and reward them for what they do.
Get this right and the industry could return from its self-inflicted Exile on Main Street, just like the Stones did in 1972 when they released the greatest double album of all time.
® Dan Allen