Sunday, February 10, 2008

Vinyl Record Resurgence: Check Out EMI's Former UK Pressing Plant, now PortalSpace Records

Back in the groove

The strangest thing about EMI’s former record factory in Hayes, west London, is not that it has been lying derelict for years, but that in a ramshackle outbuilding once occupied by the packing and shipping department, 11 of the 120 record presses that immortalised the music of groups such as The Beatles and Pink Floyd are again in full production, turning out singles and LPs.

The presses are no longer owned by EMI but by a small, independent company called Portalspace Records, which acquired the factory and the last 20 surviving machines when EMI pulled out of record pressing in 2000. On a grey January afternoon, one machine was pressing copies of the classic punk album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, re-released in a special 30th anniversary edition by Virgin Records, an EMI label, last autumn. Others were stamping out new singles with titles such as No Sale No I.D. by The Emperor Machine and Worry About It Later (Switch Remix) by The Futureheads.

The plant’s general manager is Roy Matthews, who ran EMI’s record factory in its glory days and was brought out of retirement by Portalspace’s owners to run the new operation in 2001. “I was here during the 1960s and 1970s – exciting times, for music and for the business,” he says. “At the peak, in the early 1970s, we ran the presses round the clock and we were producing 250,000 records a day. Records were a must-have in those days – a huge proportion of the population would go out and buy whatever was the biggest hit of the week so everything revolved around the charts. We’d have a member of staff watching Top of the Pops and as soon as we knew what was number one, we’d immediately increase production.”

Today, says Matthews, Portalspace’s output peaks at just 20,000 records a week, but it is still fashion-led. “In the past four years there’s been a reduction in 12in dance singles, which were previously very strong, and an increase in classic rock and modern pop. When we started, we didn’t make any 7in singles; now, they’re nearly 50 per cent of our business. And we’re seeing more releases of classic rock in collectable formats – anniversary editions, boxed sets and so on.”

Matthews cautions against exaggeration; record manufacturing is holding its own rather than booming, he says. Even so, its very existence verges on the bizarre. It is a quarter of a century since recorded music went digital with the introduction of the compact disc in late 1982 – and now, in the age of digital music downloads and MP3 players, even the CD is in decline. What explains vinyl’s stubborn survival?

Certainly, nostalgia plays a part. Many of the people now buying classic rock and pop reissues grew up during the 1960s and 1970s and are attracted to the idea of buying deluxe editions of the LPs they played in their youth. In the past few months three of the big four music companies – Universal Music, Sony BMG and Warner Music – have started re-releasing rock LPs from their back catalogues by artists such as Cream, Bob Dylan and The Doors, often remastered to bring out the best in the music and pressed on higher-quality vinyl. EMI is also re-releasing old LPs sporadically and several specialist labels have sprung up – among them, Classic Records in the US and Speakers Corner Records in Germany – licensing pop, jazz and classical music from the majors’ back catalogues and re-releasing it on audiophile-quality LPs.

View of PortalSpace Records Type 1400 Record Presses in their Pressroom

Universal’s re-releases are coming out of Universal Music Japan, which has so far pressed 300,000 LPs across 100 titles – mostly rock but also including some classical and jazz. Minoru Harada, in charge of the project, says the records are aimed “especially at those baby-boomers who have started to retire, who have the time and money to spend on personal satisfaction and for whom vinyl connects with their earliest days of discovering music.”

But if it were only old fuddy-duddies still buying LPs, records would soon be heading the same way as the phonograph cylinder. In fact, younger music fans are helping keep the format alive. After CDs came along, dance music DJs did their bit, staying loyal to the 12in single and influencing fans to buy them. More recently, it has suddenly become fashionable among pop artists to release singles on 7in vinyl as well as in digital formats, often in limited editions that are seen as collectors’ items. The joke is, many of these singles are bought by youngsters who do not even own a turntable, but increasingly the records come with a coupon entitling the owner to a download of the same music.

So people are buying vinyl for different reasons. But one that refuses to go away is that many people believe analogue simply sounds better. This belief has grown only stronger as lifestyle changes and advances in technology have, paradoxically, led to a decline in sound quality – a retreat from hi-fi to lo-fi.

Think of it. Only a decade ago, people would sit in their living rooms listening to records or CDs played through expensive hi-fi components and speakers. Today, music has been squeezed out of the living room by visual media – the flat-screen television, satellite TV, home cinema and the games console – and is more often reproduced through iPod earphones or a pair of tinny speakers attached to a PC. According to GfK, a market research company, sales of hi-fi separates fell by more than 60 per cent, from £255m to £98m, in the five years to 2006, though the decline flattened out last year.

To vinyl purists, the rot set in with the introduction of the CD. Sound is naturally analogue, the argument goes, and vinyl preserves its natural character by recording it in an analogue format. But to turn it into a CD or other digital format, the sound has to be digitised. This means taking a series of snapshots of the analogue sound – in the case of the CD, at the rate of 44.1kHz, or 44,100 times per second. These snapshots are also taken with a predetermined degree of precision – in the case of the CD, at 16 bits.

In theory, then, something is lost during the digitisation of the music. “With a CD, the sound is broken down into steps, a series of signals. Vinyl is a lot smoother,” says Matthews. “It’s like the difference between sliding down a staircase and sliding down a slide.” Other critics of digital music call it glassy and harsh, contrasting it with vinyl’s perceived warmth.

Defenders of the CD say the format’s supposed shortcomings are inaudible to the human ear and in any case are far outweighed by vinyl’s disadvantages: the surface noise that plagues even the highest quality recordings, the inevitable wearing-out of the record that takes place each time it is played and the vulnerability of the medium to scratches and dirt. James Inverne, editor of the venerable Gramophone magazine, says classical music enthusiasts in particular are infuriated by the hisses, pops and crackles that intrude into quieter passages. “Apart from a few vinyl diehards, for whom the clicks and pops are part of the experience, the vast majority are converted to the cause of the CD,” he says.

In 1999, it looked for a moment as if the argument would be settled for good when Sony and Philips Electronics, creators of the original CD technology, came up with a higher fidelity format with a much higher sampling rate: the Super Audio CD, or SACD. But the new format never really took off. Instead, hi-fi went lower-fi: within a few months, Napster was hitting the headlines, introducing the public not to a more expensive and better quality medium than the CD but to cheap (or illegally free) digital downloads of even lower quality. In Britain, CD sales, which peaked in 2004, fell 13 per cent by volume last year, and even further by value as competition from downloads hammered down prices.

The point about downloaded music is that, though immensely transportable and convenient, it has grave shortcomings, at least in its present form. In order to reduce download times and save storage space on the customer’s mobile device or computer, MP3 files are compressed in such a way that information is lost and sound quality is compromised. “In the revolution that has hit music distribution, quality seems to have been forgotten,” Paul McGuinness, manager of the rock group U2, told a music industry conference last week. ’’The compression of the sound spectrum necessary in an MP3 file means there has been a massive deterioration in quality when compared to what a CD or vinyl record can deliver.’’

Perhaps it hardly matters. At Philips, Stefano Marzano, chief executive of Philips Design, points out that, because we now take music with us wherever we go, it has become more like wallpaper, a background to other activities. “Much of the time, people are not listening to it with the same degree of concentration as they did when they sat in front of the hi-fi at home,” he says, “so they may not demand such a high level of quality.”

Even so, Marzano believes the underlying trends are positive. In the old days of the hi-fi system in the living room, the quality may have been better but whoever was listening to the music exercised a monopoly over the available sound space. Digital technology is liberating, he says, because it gives people the freedom to enjoy the music they like whenever they like without imposing it on others, whether on mobile devices or at home. For example – and this, Philips says, is a growth area everyone in the industry is watching – there are already devices on the market allowing different family members in different rooms simultaneously to play back different pieces of music from the same central PC.

Besides, as broadband becomes faster and storage space becomes cheaper, the need for compression will dwindle and customers may once again start demanding higher quality. “Once the need to be liberated is taken for granted, then the new attraction will be recovering the lost fidelity,” Marzano says. For the critics of digital music, this would mark a welcome return to the pursuit of high-fidelity after the setbacks brought by the early days of digitisation and music downloads.

“There’s no doubt that downloads haven’t started off as a hi-fi medium, but that’s coming,” says Gramophone’s Inverne. Some music sites are already offering uncompressed or lossless downloads at a higher price. Linn Records, a Scottish company which makes audiophile recordings of classical, jazz and Celtic music, offers downloads of complete albums at standard MP3 quality for £8, at CD quality for £10 and at SACD quality for £18.

But when download quality improves, will that finally seal the fate of the vinyl LP? In truth, most non-audiophiles, even older ones, seem happy enough to dump vinyl for the greater convenience that digital formats bring. Graham Wright, a 49-year-old rock and indie music fan in Edinburgh, says he sold his collection of about 400 LPs to a friend five years ago after switching to CDs years earlier. “It seemed the more I spent on turntables and cartridges, the more my system showed up the nasties inherent in vinyl,” he says.

Now, Wright has taken the next technological leap – loading his entire collection of CD albums in lossless format on to a 500GB hard drive attached to his PC. He still listens to music in his living room but uses a device called a Squeezebox to select tracks and stream the music wirelessly from the PC to his hi-fi amplifier, which sits under the TV. “I have what I consider to be a reasonable mid-market system that gives me excellent quality at a reasonable price,” he says. “And with the hi-fi rack gone, it’s definitely a lot more wife-friendly.” For most music fans, it seems, vinyl is history.

Yet even if digital reaches the point where it becomes indisputably better than analogue, there may always be collectors who want something more than the soullessness of an intangible download; that is, an interesting artefact they can look at, handle and treasure. Paul Hawkins, proprietor of Diverse Vinyl, a specialist internet retailer, says last year was the company’s best yet for LP sales since going online in 1997 – and its top-selling albums were not just classic rock reissues but mainstream titles such as Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss and Back to Black by Amy Winehouse.

Roy Gandy, co-founder and managing director of Rega Research, a British manufacturer of turntables, CD players and other hi-fi components, says his company sold 10,000 turntables in 35 countries last year and other manufacturers are jumping into the market. More companies are making records, too. “Vinyl went through its lowest point in 1989-1990 and since then, it’s been increasing,” he says. “There’s no discussion about it going away.”

Gandy emphasises that it remains a tiny niche. “A run of vinyl now is 2,000 records. But it’s very definitely an increasing, pleasant, fun, profitable market for small companies.” It’s the same with turntables and other high-end stereo components, he says. “There’s very definitely been a niche resurgence in music-playing systems for people who care that little bit more about sound quality. It’s the same as people who care about nicer tasting food or slightly better wine. There are some people who just care a little bit more about the senses.”

Back at Portalspace, Roy Matthews thinks the CD is in greater peril than the LP. “The CD is just another digital carrier and really doesn’t have enough advantage over newer digital formats to survive in the long run,” he says. “But the LP becomes almost more attractive – it definitely sounds better and it’s such an attractive, physical thing as against something downloaded on to a computer. It’s a niche product, yes; but we think it will be there long after the CD has gone.”

Teenagers learn to love the single life

What explains the remarkable comeback of the 7in vinyl single? When sales hit a low of 179,000 in 2001, the format looked dead. But UK sales were above one million last year, and HMV, the record retailer, has quadrupled the space for 7in singles in its London flagship store.

One reason is that, with the cassette single gone and the CD single yielding to digital downloads, the 7in single is fast becoming the last tangible format for the single release. This makes it a cheap and attractive collectable for the fan who already has the band’s poster, T-shirt and badge.

HMV says the resurgence also owes a lot to the popularity of guitar bands such as The Arctic Monkeys, The White Stripes and The Fratellis which have roots in an earlier era of rock music and vinyl. Teenagers and students are the main market, HMV says, but these bands (and their records) also appeal to the well-off, ageing baby-boomer who is still into rock after all these years – the 50-Quid Bloke, as he is known in the trade.

Source [FT]

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