Recently U2 gave their Songs Of Innocence album not just to everyone who wanted it, but to also everyone who didn’t want it. It felt like the moment that the music business had finally jumped the shark, given up any pretence of control of its future. If one of the world’s biggest bands was promoting the message that music was essentially valueless, what hope was there for everyone else? The once-mighty LP had been reduced to the status of junk mail to promote the launch of a mobile phone. The sense of music as commodity rather than art had never been higher.
Close your Spotify account, put your iPhone back in the drawer and your iPod on eBay – good old-fashioned vinyl LPs are back. And this time they’re here to stay.
Yet the same moment that Songs Of Innocence was landing unbidden in 500 million iTunes accounts, pressing plants across Europe and America were working flat out to meet a new and ever-rising demand for vinyl albums, the prehistoric form that had apparently been consigned to the same dustbin that contained black-and-white television, the C90 casette, the pocket calculator and the digital watch.
Ours is the only generation that will know this dichotomy, because we have lived through the change, and understand the difference between music in a physical form and in a digital one. The vinyl revival is about more than just an emotional connection to the past. It’s not pure nostalgia. Instead it’s about reclaiming the importance of music, of making it a more central experience in our lives again. Vinyl, more than any other form invented, reinforces the bond between artist and listener. It rejects superficiality and makes music cherishable. Looking back through a vinyl collection can be like looking back through an album of old photographs: there’s a lifetime held within it.
A glance at the market shows how strong the love is right now. Jimmy Page’s epic series of Led Zeppelin remasters have just emerged in handsome new editions; Pink Floyd’s The Endless River will be available as a double album in ‘heavyweight’ 180-gram vinyl with gatefold and full-colour inner bags; Black Sabbath’s 13 – one of 2013’s biggest-selling vinyl releases – is now out as a Super Deluxe Box Set; and so on. Almost every landmark rock record has been given the treatment or is due for it, in lavish style and at premium price. New albums too: current ones by everyone from Mastodon to Stephen Dale Petit are being released on those big black plastic discs that once bordered on extinction.
The first half of 2014 saw vinyl sales in the US rise to four million units, a growth of 40 per cent on 2013, which in turn was 30.4 per cent higher than 2012. Total US sales for 2014 are now projected to be 8.3 million. In the UK, BPI analysis shows a similar pattern, albeit on a smaller scale. In 2013, vinyl album sales reached almost 800,000, the highest since 1997, and an increase of 101 per cent on 2012. These are still tiny slices of an overall market worth £1 billion annually in the UK and $7 billion in the US, but the contrast with the falling popularity of CD means that sales have become commercially significant. The albums that drive those sales are a good indicator of the different groups of buyers. In the UK, 13 was credited as a key release, alongside records from Arctic Monkeys and Daft Punk. In the US, Jack White’s album Lazaretto became the first record to reach No.1 on the Billboard chart with significant vinyl sales since Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy in 1994 (40,000 of the 138,000 copies of Lazaretto sold in that first week were vinyl).