Record Renaissance

As widely reported (in the BBC and Guardian among others) vinyl sales are on the up, this year sales topping the one million mark in the UK which is the record’s best year since 1996. The music industry took a bit of a battering from the internet and sales were on a downward trend for years but there seem to be green shoots of recovery for vinyl, from a low of £3 million five years ago sales of records were £20 million this year and counting.

This is of course great news for collectors, new and old, with sales on an upward trend more and more releases will be committed to wax. The decline of the record shop appears to be turning a corner too, with more independent stores opening than closing and Record Store Day celebrating the format and taking it to a wider audience.

Earlier this year Jack White’s Lazaretto sold 40,000 vinyl copies in one week, becoming the first album to hit number one on vinyl sales since Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy back in 1994.  Bands like Arctic Monkeys have helped a new generation turn on to vinyl representing something of a reaction to the ‘own-nothing’ nature of online music streaming. You can’t love a download, it’s hard to treasure a CD and lest we forget all that classic album artwork was designed to be 12ʺ by 12ʺ.

Because the ‘music industry’ is concerned with sales of new music, not the second hand market it’s almost impossible to find reliable data on the value of the resale market. I’d love to see figures that chart the sales of used music against new, some of the worst years for record sales coincided with some of the leanest years financially like following the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent recession. I know, for example, that new cars sales declined in this period and more used cars were sold so did something similar happen with records?

The entire industry supporting second hand record sales seemed to actually improve with the internet rather than suffer from it, if you were a collector looking for a rare release you’d have to scour record fairs and shops on the hunt for it previously where nowadays sites like Discogs and eBay gave you immediate access to the world’s sellers.

The focus on new record sales is great for the record labels and a lot of record shops but for the average music fan it’s difficult to justify buying records over other formats, I did a bit of research on the current top 10 albums at the (popular independent chain) Rough Trade, all were between £10 to £12 on CD but £19 to £37 on vinyl, in most cases around twice the price. All of these albums were £8 or £9 on iTunes and one assumes, available for ‘free’ through illegal means.

If you want to get people buying music again the price point for records is a big issue, bullish pricing by the record labels won’t get the industry back to anything like its best years, one million sales is great but it was 90 million in 1975. Even when you roll vinyl, CD and digital sales into one the music industry is still a fraction of its previous size and the industry needs to adapt to survive. I genuinely believe there is traction in getting people excited about records (and CDs) again but that means getting new people into record shops and they’re unlikely to do that en masse when you’re charging over twice the price for the format.

I’ve got younger cousins who are discovering music properly for the first time and my advice for them is the same advice give on this blog, go and pick up some second hand records, get ten old records off eBay rather one new album for the same price. The (new) music industry will reap the benefits eventually, but the record was never on its knees, just the labels profits were, music fans continue to  enjoy the format and spread the word to the next generation.

My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection

A few more sites for your delectation.

All The Records

This has to be my favourite concept for a record blog, “My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection”, whereby a seemingly disgruntled wife sets about the task of listening to her husband’s record collection “one record at a time and tell you what I think”. I think this is great, mostly because it seems it was started by someone with a cynical eye but you get the impression there’s a lot she enjoys and she seems to gradually connect with her husband’s passion. Someone should set up a support group for spouses of record obsessives, or maybe write a blog or book about them, it could be the reverse of the record collector profiles, rather than proudly posing with their prize possessions the ‘other halves’ could pose with the record that really irks them, the one that makes them leave the room.

Car Boot Vinyl Diaries

Whilst an interesting read for a record collector the name of this blog makes me think of daytime TV programmes like Bargain Hunt and it does nothing for the anorak image of the record collector. The author focuses a lot on the rarity of the records and less so the music which should always be the point for me, but the artwork and some interesting anecdotes about the releases make this something of a guilty pleasure.

Cheesecake Blog

There’s a lot of sites, blogs and books that look at record artwork, a lot of collectors also have a soft spot for a type of record art and collect around it. This blog focuses on ‘cheesecake’ album artwork, looking back to more regressive times when it was common to adorn a record sleeve with a scantily clad female. It’s interesting viewing and luckily you don’t have to listen to the music within the sleeves just question whoever signed off the artwork.

The pendulum has swung

Sheila Burgel, (record collector, DJ) on the vinyl vs CD or digital debate:

I think there’s a realization that we’ve somehow been gypped by the promise of modern technology and convenience. With the CD, the artwork became less prominent, the sound colder and a bit too heavy on the treble. With mp3s, artwork has nearly disappeared and the sound quality is far worse than the already poor-sounding CD. The pendulum has swung too far and many people are realizing that, although the internet may have opened us up to music anytime and anywhere, the experience of listening to music has diminished. I’m sure there’s a scientific word for the reduction of pleasure that occurs when you’re given everything you want, whenever you want it. The internet is spoiling us, turning us into children who have all the toys in the world but not enough time or patience to appreciate those toys. I think the internet and mp3s have devalued music. Vinyl, on the other hand, demands value because it takes up more of our time. It makes us engage with it and take care of it if we want it to last. You can view vinyl as a way of life; it’s an acknowledgement that taking time and effort to do something yields far more gratifying and enriching results than what comes easy. So why are people going back to vinyl? Because there is no music format that sounds better than vinyl. It’s warmer, cozier, fuller, brighter. It comes in a sleeve. Its effort delivers fabulous results. It’s cool as hell. It combines the aural and the visual. My argument for vinyl doesn’t mean I’m completely anti-computer, I use YouTube, iTunes, and Google as much as anyone, but I think it’s important to be aware of the downside.

(via Dust & Grooves)

Dust & Grooves

Another shout out in this post, a website about ‘vinyl music culture’ called Dust & Grooves.

Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting is an inside look into the world of vinyl record collectors in the most intimate of environments—their record rooms. It all started out several years ago as nothing more than a way for photographer Eilon Paz to make use of his idle hours. Adrift in Brooklyn after emigrating from Israel, Eilon—a record collector on the side—thought it might be fun to start taking photos of people whose record collections were both larger and weirder than his own.

Adopting this as his personal project, he began traveling the world, from Australia to Cuba and Argentina to Ghana, in pursuit of intriguing and memorable subjects. Unearthing the very soul of the vinyl community, the assembly of portraits he created quickly turned into the Dust & Grooves website.

In the summer of 2012, Eilon launched a Kickstarter campaign that funded his road trip to shoot collectors throughout the American heartland, and since then, the project has been embraced by many friends and supporters who have volunteered to work with Eilon along the way. This year, Dust & Grooves expands even further, complementing the website with a physical book that profiles over 130 vinyl collectors with photographic essays and in-depth interviews.

Dust & Grooves has engaged and connected the underground community of record collectors. As well as becoming a go-to place for vinyl lovers, it maintains the integrity and history of vinyl, as well as the musical heritage that goes along with every record in these collections. As technology moves forward and many music formats go digital, Eilon’s endeavour helps keep the rich, warm, analog life of vinyl spinning.

 

 

Off topic, offline, gaming

Although I always intended this blog to be about music it seems there’s a parallel movement around gaming, with video gaming becoming a dominant force in what historically would’ve been a realm of table top and board games. Every one of us would have at some point played Scrabble or Cluedo with their families, probably fallen out over someone cheating at Monopoly. Aside from the odd game around Christmas time (at least in my family) the word ‘gaming’ would these days have immediate connotations of computer or video gaming.

There are of course differences between the music and gaming worlds, my own desires to preach the gospel of the record over the mp3 are more straightforward, it’s intrinsically the same music just a choice over format and ultimately the experience, either listening alone or with friends doesn’t change what you’re listening to (audiophile questions over sound quality aside). The idea of video gaming vs board gaming is different though, it’s entirely different experiences, one largely solitary (although you can play multiplayer games or online the majority of gamers play alone) and one based around the idea of sociability more so than winning or losing. I’m not trying to crowbar in similarities that aren’t there, ultimately video gaming and board gaming are different activities. What I observe, and what I feel is relevant is the desire not to continually run with the technological advances but to promote the idea of taking a step back, even if it’s ‘retro’ or ‘old school’ and enjoying a different sociable experience, in this case sitting around a table and playing a game with friends or family.

What inspired this slightly off topic chain of thought was a Guardian article on board game’s golden age, which somewhat interestingly appeared in the ‘Technology’ section of their website. The article claims board game designers are in a rich vein of form and that board game sales are growing, like physical music, in the face of technological advances. The quotes back up my suggestion that it’s about experience, spending time with friends or dysfunctional families and there’s some interesting articles, including one about a former Star Trek actor who now has a widely popular (over one million subscribers) YouTube series where he invites celebrity friends to play board games, attributed with increasing their popularity. There’s a whole series of articles on board games and I highly recommend checking them out here.

So as well as thinking about inviting your friends over to listen to some records and have a drink, maybe invite them over for a board game too, dust off your copy of Risk and see where it takes you.

Autobiographically…

So, when I was writing my initial post on this blog, about Romanticising Music I always had in the back of my head to refer to High Fidelity, the Nick Hornby novel from 1995 as this a) articulates what I was trying to say far better than I ever could and b) it offers some interesting (although supposedly fictional) views on the record collector, their wants and needs.

At first glance High Fidelity doesn’t sell the life of the record collector or record store owner, they’re often painted as sad losers who hang out in the shop looking for rare copies of albums, or as drop outs who never achieved career goals. That said the novel offers up one piece of relationship advice that has stuck with me since, “it’s not what you’re like, it’s what you like“. It’s truism I’ve held since and my own relationship history can attest to it, where I’ve not enjoyed the same things as someone, be it music, film, books or TV then a relationship may struggle, it’s the times when you’re staying in, not really doing too much when the common ground really matters.

The other quote that really stuck with me and feels relevant to the ideas in this blog is when the protagonist splits with his girlfriend and finds comfort in rearranging his record collection ‘autobiographically‘:

“Tonight, though, I’m trying to put them in the order in which I bought them. That way I can write my own autobiography without picking up a pen. Pull them all off the shelves, look for Revolver and go from there. I’ll be able to see how I got from Deep Purple to The Soft Boys in twenty-five moves. What I really like about my new system is that it makes me more complicated than I am. To find anything you have to be me, or at the very least a doctor in Rob-ology. If you wanna find Landslide by Fleetwood Mac you have to know that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 and then didn’t give it to them for personal reasons. But you don’t know any of that, do you?”

For me this is the crux of my own digital vs physical wrangle, if your music is all on a hard drive it loses the character of something like this, iTunes doesn’t have the option to filter by (ex)partner or by the friends you were hanging out with at the time. Digital music filing systems will tell you when a file was added to a drive but that probably isn’t when you first heard it, you probably deleted the mp3s from your short-lived foray into Drum and Bass or Jazz but having the physical copy there you can take that trip down memory lane, for better or worse, you can laugh about the fact you bought that novelty record or have a little sigh over the album you bought with that one you had a crush on at school.

Muso

A muso is a person who is obsessed with music.

Their record collection will contain music and artists nobody else has heard of, and if they believe that an artist is becoming popular they will deny they ever listened to them and quickly dispose of any evidence.

If they come around to your house they will make a beeline for your music collection and then criticise everything in it just to make sure you know they are cool.

As a sideline they will take up the acoustic guitar and then force you to listen to their “revolutionary” take on what music could be like. It will undoubtedly be dreadful and unlistenable.

You’re such a muso, if other people have heard of it you hate it.

(via Urban Dictionary)

Waxing Lyrical – profile of a music obsessive

‘Crate diggers’, ‘vinyl junkies’, ‘collectors’, ‘hoarders’, there are many labels given those who devote their lives, wallets, and most of their living spaces to collecting records.

James is one of those (although he resents the ‘junkie’ term and assures me it’s a habit he has under control). James is a 33 year old with a full-time job who spends most of his free time “either at gigs or tracking records down”. At the last count he numbers his collection at “about 12,000” records, an unfathomable amount to a generation brought up on iTunes and mp3s but still a long way short of famed collectors like John Peel who owned some 100,000 records at the time of his death in 2004. Every collector will have their own take on it, for James “it’s entirely aesthetic – there’s something satisfying, sexy even, about a record. There’s just something about taking a record home, putting this weighty bit of wax on the turntable then sitting down with the sleeve, the artwork, thumbing through the sleeve notes”.

The market for records was a huge industry with sales of over one billion singles and albums worldwide in its peak in 1981. Since then it had appeared the record collector was becoming a dying breed, the CD arrived in the early ‘80s and took the lion’s share of music sales, then at the turn of the millennium file sharing and digital music threatened the very idea of even paying for music. Vinyl sales reached a low of around three million units worldwide in 2006 but things are beginning to turn a corner, Record Store Day launched in 2008 as an annual celebration of the independent record shop and the latest figures suggest the demand for records has risen 270% in the last five years.

James keeps his records in his ‘music room’ (his girlfriend refers to it as the ‘spare room’), there’s an old futon that hints it may occasionally be used for guests but every other inch of wall and floor space is taken up by records and music memorabilia. As a 33 year old with 12,000 records that means James has averaged buying a record a day since the day he was born, “I guess I have, the reality is I went to University at 18 with a handful of CDs, then I think my first student loan payment I bought a turntable and it escalated from there. So I guess it’s at least 2 records a day from that point really then. I might not buy anything for a few weeks and then I’ll get a job lot off eBay or I’ll go to a record fair and pick up 20 or 30 in one go”.

There seems something indiscriminate about buying records in such sheer volume, does he have a plan? “I couldn’t call it a plan but I keep a list. My tastes have broadened as I’ve got older. As a collector getting into something new is great, you get to explore, you find the people you maybe haven’t heard of, the labels you otherwise didn’t know about and it becomes this untapped resource”.

A small pile by the side of the turntable are his latest purchases, the most recent an ambient record by someone called Tycho, if this number 12,001 what was purchase number 1? “It was actually ‘Do The Bartman’ when I was about nine or ten. It was about an eight year gap ‘til my second record though and I think that was Led Zeppelin at a car boot sale”. If that first one didn’t give him the bug there must have been a point where it clicked for him? “There was a point when I could just spend a rainy afternoon thumbing through my records, picking something to listen to and you don’t need anyone else, anything else going on, it became something to do in its own right”.

He raises a giggle about the “anyone else” comment; it just so happens his girlfriend has left the room after offering to put the kettle on. Has “anyone else” got in the way of record collecting? “I’ve never had a it’s me or the records conversation. I did have a conversation about what we’d do if we ever had children with my girlfriend and my answer was if we can’t afford enough space for them and the records then we probably can’t afford to have kids”.

The more you talk to James the more you get a feel for something that’s more than a hobby, there’s something compulsive about it, he reads a quote from an author of a book on record collectors that described them as having Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder (OCD), “I’d like to think I’m not OCD about anything else but I definitely get weird about my records. If someone wanted to borrow anything else – money, clothes, whatever, I’d be cool with it but if someone asks to borrow a record that’s a no no. Most of the time I just offer to make them a copy”.

He describes fellow collectors as “solitary”, mostly middle aged men who’re “definitely a bit OCD”. Although a male dominated pastime there was a recent press release by Urban Outfitters (a popular youth fashion shop) claiming to be the world’s biggest vinyl seller. Is the profile of the record collector changing? “I think young girls and boys are getting sold on the romanticism of vinyl and that’s no bad thing”.

Second Hand: Document by R.E.M.

On a one man quest to rekindle the world’s love for records (read: killing a bit of time on a lunch break) I ventured down to the ‘bargain basement’ of Music and Video Exchange in Soho with a pocketful of loose coins and a desire to find myself something new among the old. As I browse the racks of what must be thousands of albums you get a feel for what must have been a golden era for the record from the ’70s to the ’90s, the highest selling albums of all time seemed to largely come from that period and as a result there seems a far greater concentration of pre-millennial albums. As my own music buying didn’t begin until the mid ’90s I’m going to try and venture a bit before my time in the hope of finding not lost classics but classics that weren’t on my radar.

My first such journey takes me to 1987 and R.E.M.’s Document. R.E.M. aren’t a new band to me, I never owned anything by them but I’m old enough to remember their commercial hay day of the early ’90s, when the likes of Shiny Happy People, Everybody Hurts and What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? were radio mainstays. If I’m honest though I dismissed them because their big pop singles didn’t really interest me, this despite the protestations of friends who claimed they’ve a rich back catalogue that was worth exploring. So rummaging through the albums in this basement the cover of Document takes my eye, flipping it over and browsing the track list the only song I remember is the beautifully titled It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine), a song which still got a bit of airplay at indie discos by the time I was old enough to enjoy them in the late ’90s.

This felt like a good place to start and so for the princely sum of £1 I bought the album and took it home. Putting it on the record player for the first time you get a sense for how timeless their sound is, good songwriting and musicianship never ages and for an album recorded almost 30 years ago it still draws you in from the very first song. Having initially dismissed R.E.M. as pop act I’m surprised as I listen to some of the lyrics and there’s real vitriolic anger seemingly directed towards politicians – eloquently phrased and expertly delivered I like what I hear.

As the album rolls on to the final track on Side A, It’s the End… I’m taken back to my indie disco youth and despite the lightning pace of the lyrics I remember almost all of them. Flipping over for Side B it turns out I know another song The One I Love, the lead single from the album and its biggest ‘hit’, the name didn’t ring a bell at the time but again I remember almost every word. The album’s first black mark is during Fireplace, when it loses me during a saxophone solo and all of a sudden you are taken back to the album’s ’80s origins where the saxophone solo reigned supreme. Luckily they pull it back as the guitars (and songwriting quality) return over the next few songs.

As the last chords of the album fade out I realise that after almost 20 years of prejudice it turns out I probably would like R.E.M., not a life changing discovery but a pleasing one for someone who’s attempting to get back into music without spending a fortune. A lot of the band’s albums graced the basement I’d previously visited and I’m resolved to return for more.

Musing

musing
ˈmjuːzɪŋ/
noun
  1. 1.
    a period of reflection or thought.
    “his musings were interrupted by the sound of the telephone”
    synonyms: meditation, thinking, contemplation, deliberation, pondering, reflection, rumination, cogitation, introspection, daydreaming, dreaming, reverie,brown study, abstraction, preoccupation, brooding, wool-gathering;

adjective
  1. 1.
    characterized by reflection or deep thought.
    “the sad musing gaze”