For many people, placing a record on the turntable will always be the quintessential musical experience.
Sliding a shiny black disc out of a gatefold sleeve and dust jacket, laying it on the turntable platter, then the unmistakable crackle and the low, almost imperceptible analogue rumble as the needle slides into the groove.
Before the digital revolution, vinyl was the premier choice for listening to music. But the format’s resurgence in popularity over the past few years shows no signs of letting up, with new figures predicted to show sales growing to their highest level in more than three decades.
According to the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), more than 5m vinyl albums have been bought in the UK over the past 12 months, up 8% on sales in 2020 and the 14th consecutive year of growth since 2007.
By the end of the year, vinyl will have accounted for almost one in four album purchases – the highest proportion since 1990 – according to BPI estimates.
But why? There are tactile, sensuous and theatrical qualities to vinyl that made it a unique format, said Andy Kerr, the director of product marketing and communications for Bowers & Wilkins, a British audiophile speaker maker.
Popular streaming services used digital file compression to lower internet bandwidth that “tend to make the sound tinny”, Kerr said. “Vinyl is the opposite of that. It tends to make the sound lush and warm.”
But Kerr said he did not think the renewed interest in vinyl was being led by audiophiles. “I do think a huge amount of what’s going on with vinyl is not about the sound at all, it’s about the theatre of it, it’s the experience of it,” he said.
“The LP record forces you into that [experience], you don’t tend to skip every 30 seconds because you don’t like the way that the song is going, you tend to listen to it all the way through.”
Tom Fisher, record buyer at Rat Records, a secondhand record dealer in Camberwell, south London, said lockdowns had led to “frustrated demand for music as a cultural thing”.
“If you can’t go and see a band you might buy an album or T-shirt, [that satisfies you] in a way that digital doesn’t fulfil,” he said.
Emphasising that his comments related to the secondhand trade in LPs, Fisher said: “The only thing I would say about the renewed interest in vinyl is that it is not really very good for creative music and art, because the interest in vinyl is retro.”
A running joke in Rat Records was that it could never get enough copies of Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, The Wall by Pink Floyd or Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen, all culturally mainstream products of a similar era. People were not interested in records made before about 1968 because they lacked a production quality that conveyed well on modern speakers and headphones, Fisher added.
“I find it quite hard to understand why people are so interested in vinyl and when they are so interested in these cultural monoliths, like Rumours, when they could go and listen to some piece of underground hip-hop or something from some other part of the world that was never available before,” said Fisher.
Ultimately, vinyl’s newfound success would eat itself, Fisher suggested. “If everybody wants records and they all want the same records then it can’t be really that cool and the vanguard are going to move on,” he said.
Geoff Taylor, the chief executive of the BPI, Brit awards and Mercury prize, said: “It’s a great time to be a music fan, with wider choice on offer than ever before supported by great value.
“Thanks to record label investment into new music and talent, fans can purchase and collect the music they most love on vinyl, CD and even cassette, whilst also enjoying access to over 70m songs to stream instantly whenever and how often they want, in turn enabling a new generation of artists to create music and sustain successful careers in a global market.”
The BPI will report its final music consumption figures on 4 January 2022.
Predicted bestselling vinyl albums for 2021
1 ABBA Voyage
2 Adele 30
3 Fleetwood Mac Rumours
4 Ed Sheeran =
5 Amy Winehouse Back to Black
Predicted bestselling cassette albums for 2021
1 Olivia rodrigo Sour
2 Dave We’re All Alone in This Together
3 King’s wool Chemtrails Over the Country Club
4 Queen Greatest Hits
5 Coldplay Music of the Spheres
(Based on year to date Official Charts data)