So Tesco has started stocking vinyl. Let’s not get carried away just yet. It will be some months before we find Fela Kuti nestling next to the baps and tins of Libby’s. A quick perusal of the current list looks more like a stock-take at Oxfam: ELO, the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley and Elvis Presley. “Corporate opportunism,” says Chris Duckenfield of indie vinyl distributor All Ears. “As soon as they realise the floorspace-to-profit ratio is out of whack it’ll be back to stationery or BBQ accessories.”
Admittedly, the sales of vinyl have been growing faster than any other format, though from a very low starting base (last year, it accounted for 2% of music sales, for example). In acknowledgment of this, a vinyl chart has been launched, which tells you all you need to know about who’s buying vinyl in large numbers.
In my teenage years, the charts coursed with testosterone and oestrogen: ska, Bowie, Bolan, Motown. One look at the vinyl chart now and all you can smell is M&S cardigans and Saga insurance claims: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Elvis Presley, Fleetwood Mac and Mumford & Sons.
The demographic of the average vinyl buyer is very clear. It’s a middle-aged man, possibly bearded (OK, definitely bearded); kids have probably left home, no longer on speaking terms with wife, spare bedroom has become a shrine to his teenage love: the Floyd (their album The Endless River was the best-selling vinyl LP in 2014). Essentially it’s me.
The vinyl enthusiast likes nothing more than a stroll into town, taking in the charity shops looking for old records and then on to his local record shop. (I know women are huge fans of music, but step into any record store these days and check who’s there: it looks like an organised gathering of the socially inept male.)
Record shops might once have been the sole preserve for local teenagers, these days they are essentially creches for middle-aged men; a place where you can drop off your partner while you nip to Zara and Warehouse, safe in the knowledge that two hours later he won’t be sat in a ditch singing rebel songs with a bollard on his head. (On the downside, he may bring home yet another challenging Ornette Coleman LP.)
Vinyl will never again reach the 1970s and 80s heyday. Having reached a nadir in 2007, when vinyl album sales slumped to 205,292, last year they topped 1m. The predictions for 2015 suggest double that. It’s now the craft beer of music formats. But just as craft beer is not the answer to the alarming closure rate of public houses, neither will vinyl save the music industry. It will survive thanks to the network of enthusiastic collectors, indie record labels and DJs – but no thanks to any input from the major labels.
The problem the indies face is that they are being crowded out of the marketplace by the enthusiastic entry of companies like Universal Music Group who are said to have reissued 1,500 different titles on vinyl this year – most of which could be picked up in a charity store for pennies. “It’s completely fucked us,” confesses Dan Hill from Above Board Distribution. “We used to be able to turn a record round in four weeks, now it’s two to three months, and represses are a complete nightmare and it’s all because of majors locking down pressing plants.”
With limited pressing plant capacity (there are only two significant plants left in the UK, with a few more scattered around Europe), most labels are suffering. The last thing we need are two cheese counters at Tesco. One supplied by Cathedral City, the other by Universal Music. Like its streaming service Blinkbox, it may only be a matter of time before the idea is quietly abandoned to be replaced by endless racks of pickled Minions and Now That’s What I Call Music 92. On DVD and CD, of course.
This article was written by Bill Brewster, for theguardian.com on Monday 7th December 2015 13.29 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010