The dawn of the MP3 was meant to be the final nail in the coffin of the vinyl record. So why have sales just reached a six-year high? Grant Woodward reports
IT’S lunchtime at Jumbo Records on the top floor of the St Johns Centre in the middle of Leeds.
In the aisles, a steady stream of customers flick through the release racks, many ending up making their way to the till clutching their chosen purchases.
The brisk trade gives the lie to the theory that in this era of the digital download we would rather buy music with a few clicks of our mouse than venture out to an actual music store.
More intriguing still is the fact it’s not CDs that a large proportion of the shoppers are buying but records. And, if latest figures are anything to go by, it’s a picture that is being mirrored up and down the country.
If vinyl appeared mortally wounded by the advent of the compact disc in the late 1980s and its promise of better sound quality alongside greater durability and convenience, then the arrival of the MP3 in the early Noughties looked certain to hammer the final nail in its coffin.
Yet judging by recent figures from the Official Charts Company, the real story is altogether different.
Last year record sales topped 300,000, their highest figure in six years, indicating that vinyl is enjoying a new and surprising lease of life.
And it’s not just sales of golden oldies that are driving the numbers. Titles from the likes of Adele, Radiohead, Noel Gallagher and Arctic Monkeys are all selling well on vinyl as everyone from small indie labels to major corporations gets in on the act.
But why, when we can now carry thousands of songs on a device little bigger than the size of our thumb, do we still hanker for the scratched grooves and atmospheric crackle of vinyl?
Adam Gillison, a buyer at Jumbo Records, reckons the resurgence of the record is a trend that has been steadily gathering pace for the last few years.
“I had a guy in the other day with his son and he was trying to explain to him why you would buy a 12-inch single with two tracks when you could have hundreds of tracks compressed onto an MP3 player,” he says.
“But for many people the idea of having an actual physical artefact is important.
“Also it’s about putting listening to music at the forefront of what you’re doing rather than something that’s just going on in the background.
“For people who come in here, whether they’re buying CD or LP, it’s that experience. They’re making it an important part of their life.”
Nor does it just seem to be older fans who are being drawn back to vinyl. There is a new-found following too among younger music buyers who appreciate its cool credentials.
“One of the things about vinyl is that it does have that nostalgic appeal,” says Gillison. “But a lot of our vinyl customers are quite young and have grown up in the CD and MP3 era.
“It’s almost like it’s become something of a statement to buy vinyl because a big, unwieldy vinyl record is about as far from a download as you can get.
“When it comes to the listening experience it’s generally accepted that vinyl does sound different to CD, not massively so but there is a perceptible difference.
“And in terms of older albums it just seems right to listen to something in the format that it was made for.
“There has been a massive boom in sales of classic rock and jazz albums on vinyl in the past couple of years, for instance, and personally I buy lots of CDs but there are certain things, like reggae, that I would much rather listen to on vinyl.”
Among the ranks of those younger vinyl fans is Luke Pompey, 26, who DJs in Leeds and runs independent label Love Not Money Records.
He uses a “fair bit of vinyl” and says he isn’t at all surprised that vinyl sales have reached a six-year high.
“These days you can DJ on a laptop computer but a lot of DJs are starting to use vinyl again because it’s seen as a cool thing to do.
“People want to stand out and if you’re seen playing vinyl it shows you’re pretty skilled and there’s an authenticity there.”
Pompey says the demand for vinyl is being helped by reissues and collectables as labels start to realise the untapped potential of the format.
“Record labels are starting to release on vinyl again and you’re getting the exclusive tracks. A label will maybe release 500 copies and if you get one of those you’re playing tracks others haven’t got so there’s that exclusivity there.
“There are artists from a few years back that are getting big again and, of course, you can only get them on vinyl.
“So there’s a big influx of people buying stuff on vinyl again because that’s what’s big in the clubs.”
And while the financial cost has so far prevented his own label from releasing vinyl, Pompey hopes that will change this year.
“As a record label it gives you that cool edge,” he says. “There’s a label in Leeds called Illusion Recordings that’s just set up and they’re releasing straight house music on vinyl.
“With some of the new stuff it’s kind of throwaway music that doesn’t have much of a shelf-life. But with something like original house music it’s timeless so people will be more likely to buy it on vinyl.”
And this growing appreciation for a supposedly anachronistic format is likely to be reflected at next month’s Really Big Vinyl Fair, which is being held at the Queens Hotel in Leeds.
Now in its third year, the fair is the biggest and busiest of its kind in the north, with dealers attending from all over the UK and vinyl fans travelling from as far afield as Japan, Russia, Poland and Spain.
The event on April 21 coincides with National Record Store Day, an initiative that started in America four years ago with a view to celebrating independent record stores.
Fair organiser Howard Oakes, who has a weekly record stall every Thursday at Kirkgate Market in the city, reckons for many vinyl never really went away at all.
“For real music fans it’s still the cheapest way to buy music,” he says. “You can get 20 albums for £20.
“People like to talk about a vinyl revival but I’ve been doing this for nearly 10 years and there has always been a steady trade.
“I don’t think the record will ever really die out.”