Vinyl Revolution: In a Digital Age, The LP Record Makes a Comeback
A group of 20-something tourists from Istanbul are wandering along London's Portobello Road when one of them, Surhan Gebologlu, walks into Intoxica, a bamboo-covered record shop with an inviting array of LPs displayed on its walls -- everything from Sly and the Family Stone's "A Whole New Thing" to "Scientist at the Controls of Dub."
"I just got a record player," he says, inspecting a mint-condition copy of "The Queen Is Dead" by the Smiths. "My girlfriend bought it for me and I want to use it."
He's not alone. The 12-inch vinyl LP record -- in decline for the past two decades, clung to only by DJs, audiophile nerds and collectors -- is back. Sales of new LPs are on the rise -- the only segment of the market for physical-format recorded music (CDs, tapes and records) to expand during the digital revolution -- and more groups are releasing albums on vinyl, often creatively packaged in combination with digital formats. For young people just discovering vinyl and older listeners indulging in a bit of sonic nostalgia, a record player is suddenly a trendy new piece of audio equipment. Sales of turntables increased more than 80% from 2006 to 2007 and are continuing to rise this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
While LPs remain a niche product -- the sales figures are minuscule compared with the amount of music sold digitally -- their resurgence is notable. World-wide sales of LP records doubled in 2007 (from three million to six million units) after hitting an all-time low in 2006, according to figures from IFPI, the international recording industry trade association. Global sales of CDs dropped 12% in the same period, after having fallen 10% the previous year. In the U.S., sales of vinyl records increased 36% from 2006-2007 while CD sales dropped nearly 18%. Those figures are just for new purchases; they don't include the vast secondary market for LPs online and in used record shops.
"Last year and this year have been our busiest ever," says Kris Jones of London's Sounds of the Universe record shop, which sells more music on vinyl than on CD. "It's really crazy."
Sounds of the Universe record shop in London's SoHo
Why the sudden interest in a bulky, old-fashioned format that costs more than downloading and requires equipment most people banished to the basement long ago? Some of it is due to increased visibility in a changing marketplace. Record companies are looking for innovative ways to make people pay for music -- often music they already have in another format -- rather than get it free or at a reduced price over the Internet. Vinyl is one way to attract buyers with something more tangible than a computer file.
"There's a reaction against the commoditization of music" that downloading represents, says Mike Allen, a music-industry consultant and former vice president of international marketing for record company EMI Group. "With vinyl there's something that has innate value -- a physical object."
LPs hitting the market in recent months have run the gamut from major acts like Coldplay and Madonna to hip new groups like Black Kids and the Hold Steady and even to indie bands who press a few thousand LPs and sell them at gigs. There's also a boom in vinyl editions of old albums. U2 just rereleased deluxe remastered LP versions of its classics "War" and "October." Earlier this year, Michael Jackson's 25th anniversary edition of "Thriller" hit the shelves in a vinyl edition with extra tracks.
Some artists are even rewarding buyers of their new LPs with digital versions of the music, effectively selling them the best of both worlds for one price. Major acts like Beck, Tom Petty and Wilco -- as well as newer indie sensations like Fleet Foxes -- have recently released albums on vinyl with free CDs or MP3 downloads included.
Radiohead's release late last year of "In Rainbows" was a watershed for the new sales strategy of value-added vinyl. The band made its new album available online and asked people to pay whatever they wanted to for it. But they also released the music in a £40 "discbox" edition, with two vinyl records, two CDs and a thick souvenir booklet. (Like the five LPs in the special edition of Metallica's new album, "Death Magnetic," the "In Rainbows" records are made to play at 45 rpm rather than 33 1/3, allowing for higher-quality sound.) Even with the music available digitally for free, Radiohead has sold more than 60,000 discboxes.
"People want to hold something," says Mr. Jones. "They like the pictures, the artwork."
So do older listeners, who remember the days when buying a new record was something special. "You forget how gigantic the artwork was, how much more interesting the albums are than CDs or downloads," says Mr. Allen. "It's a bit of a lost joy."
Sound quality also plays a role. Vinyl fanatics have always maintained that LPs sound warmer and richer than digital formats. "There has been a resurgence of vinyl among people who believe that with CDs and downloads the sound quality is not there," says IFPI's Francine Cunningham.
That was especially the case in the early days of CDs, when methods of transferring master tapes to digital formats failed to satisfy audiophiles. CD sound quality has improved greatly since then, says Mr. Allen, but there have always been people "who found digital music harsh and cold." The same is true with MP3s, which typically are saved onto players as compressed files, much smaller than the data on CDs, that sacrifice some audio quality.
There's also a novelty aspect. To a young buyer, a record is something unusual -- even something you listen to from start to finish as an artistic whole rather than on shuffle play. "People have gotten tired of downloading all of a sudden," says Chris Summers, manager of London's Rough Trade Records. "Young listeners crave something new. To them, vinyl is new."
London's Best Vinyl
The Internet has made it easy to find almost any record anywhere. Amazon's U.S. and U.K. sites have beefed up their vinyl sections in response to increasing demand (recent top sellers include the new Metallica and classics like Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon"). EBay and the online Gemm network have created a huge virtual market for vinyl records by allowing small shops around the world to sell to anyone. Retail giants such as Best Buy, HMV and Britain's Fopp! have vinyl sections.
But the most rewarding way to shop for LPs is by flipping through the racks in a great record store, perhaps one specializing in your favorite kind of music. Plenty of small record shops have closed in recent years, but most cities still have a few. Collectors and experts favor places like Croc-o-Disc in Paris, Hard Wax in Berlin, Second Life Music in Amsterdam and Runtrunt in Stockholm.
For the best shopping, though, they head to London, where around 20 record stores are still in business, concentrated mainly in two areas, Soho and Notting Hill. Collectors go crazy in these shops, which cater to every taste from acid jazz and soulful house to punk to Afro-beat. But even casual buyers can while away hours looking through the racks.
For a continuation of this article and a list of the hottest London record shops, check out Wall Street Journal