I’ve always wanted to give my perspective on the increasing popularity of the vinyl format. If you were to listen to the media and also take a visit to a city centre high street you’d believe so. I’m from the UK, so this article will be from a UK perspective.
Vinyl especially in the UK has experienced something of a “boom” in these past years. One interesting suggestion that people make is that it is young people who are buying vinyl more and abandoning streaming and MP3 downloads.
If I was to assume straight away without research I’d assume it is mainly the urban gentrifying white middle class hipsters buying Depeche Mode albums (yeah I fucking hate Depeche Mode. Come at me bro) and whatever 80s new wave band have been considered cool by trendy blogs and websites. Then again I don’t really want to answer the question of who is buying vinyl. I want this blog post to make it clear who is definitely not buying vinyl – young people.
My memories of the early 2000s vinyl scene
One thing I need to emphasise for those not in the know (those new to this) is that vinyl never died and rose from the dead like a zombie. It is completely ignorant to act like the format was dead before this ‘revival’. The format has never went away. Vinyl has remained at the heart of hip-hop culture for me and a lot of people who got into hip-hop culture back in the 90s and early 2000s. Madlib on the track “Crate Diggin'” perfectly sums up hip-hop’s love for the black stuff. As a hip-hop head the early 2000s I have fond memories of the vinyl scene back then. I’d go into backstreet record shops in the likes of Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield and buy 12-inch hip-hop, jazz, funk and soul singles. They were places almost exclusively used by DJs (the main clientele), producers, hip-hop heads, ageing Northern Soulers, and old men. There was just something great about the whole experience. You’d go into your favourite store, pick up some records you’re interested in, listen to them using the listening booth (remember them?) and you might even if you’re a regular get some recommendations and knowledge from the staff. This is how I got into Sun Ra, Task Force, Grover Washington, Madlib, Mike Mainieri and Jehst just to name a few names from the top of my head.
The difference I find between record shops back then and today is that back in the early 2000s record shops felt as though to me that they were places run by hip-hop heads for hip-hop heads (the majority of those that I frequented). These were less trendy places often down some relatively darker side street and most likely not fused with cafes and the like. If you were a relatively young person who bought vinyl everyone assumed you were a DJ. You were an oddity. Nobody touched vinyl and nobody wanted it.
‘Fast-forward’ to 2016 and the obsession with nostalgia is in full effect. I wouldn’t even call it an obsession. I’d call my generation’s and everyone before mine’s obsession more like a fetishisation. We can’t get enough nostalgia. Unlike the generations before us we can fulfil our nostalgic dreams whenever we want and never be forced to let go. Want to watch Dogtanian? You can do that. Want to buy one of those incredibly 80s shirts that Will Smith wore on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air? You can do that.
One thing I notice about record shops today is how most record stores in my local area now reflect the gentrification of the city centre and inner city regions. Something that also appears to be a ‘thing’ also is the “record cafe” which fuses coffee, craft ale and food (most likely to be overpriced). This is a world away from gritty backstreet shops not trying to be chic and vintage to appeal to the middle class masses. Most importantly – no listening booths.
Vinyl and young people of the 2000s
One thing that is important is my definition of young people which is anyone under the age of 21 (I suppose you could stretch that to 25). The major push factors for young people and ‘newbies’ who want to make their first vinyl purchases are among these things:
- Price – I won’t go into detail on why prices of vinyl are so high (I could be here for decades), but the fact is that high vinyl prices are not attracting your average young people into buying vinyl. There is no driver when most releases are reissues and are priced £20 or higher, which is insane pricing. It was high prices of CDs in the first place that was one factor in the boom in music piracy in the late 90s and early 2000s. I can remember in 2003 seeing a Wu Tang Clan album for well over £25 on CD. Why buy Adele’s album 25 on vinyl when you can stream it or download it directly to your phone from iTunes? You can even get a legal copy for £10.99 or an audio CD for £11.99 on Amazon.
- High start-up cost – Getting started is expensive. You can buy a cheapo turntable, but if you really want good quality sound and don’t want to fuck shit up you need a turntable, a good stylus, an amp and speakers. Doing a Google search makes it hard to not go into audiophile territory. Some might argue that a turntable, amp and speakers may be cheaper than buying the latest iPhone or tablet, but with the iPhone and tablet you are getting more value for money because you can use these for a wide variety of tasks. What is a turntable setup? A setup that allows you to play music. Plus an iPhone and tablet are smaller and more portable and convenient. There isn’t no waiting for music.
- Reissues – What cannot be ignored is the massive wave of re-releasing albums by major labels. Stuff that your average young person would most likely be less interested in. For every new release there are hundreds of reissues and this hurts indie labels and more importantly artists. Of course not all reissues are cash grabs by greedy record labels. There are a few reissues that come out that are obscure records that for the first time are more widely available and without the relatively high price tags collectors demand for the original copies. Also a few reissues also include unreleased material, instrumentals and remixes. This article by Vice (yeah they’re usually hipster as fuck but I like this one) goes more into detail.
- Inconvenience – Things that is often overlooked are factors outside of price and the like that push people away from buying vinyl. One big factor in my opinion is the financial issues effecting young people today. We are a generation that cannot afford to buy our own homes, meaning we are either stuck renting or still stuck living with or parents. This means our living spaces are smaller and we’re moving around more than the generation before us. Vinyl is heavy, takes up too much room and a portable format unlike MP3s that can be put onto one small laptop or phone.
Vinyl may be a good thing for the majority of businesses such as Sainsbury’s to embrace in the short term; catering to nostalgia obsessed baby boomers and those from generation X, but in the long term vinyl is over. Vinyl is not making a massive comeback among the younger generation. Don’t get me wrong because some young people are buying vinyl (most likely young people who can be identified as being in “niche” audiences), but for the majority (your average Joe and Jane in the public) they are most likely using streaming services whether that be paid services such as Spotify and Apple Music or free services such as Youtube or even Spotify free (with the adverts).
Jimmy Cliff once said – “Don’t jump on the bandwagon. It ain’t gonna last too long”.
The majority of young people don’t give a damn about the superior quality of vinyl. Lets cut the shit. If you were to walk around the malls and trendy streets of Leeds City Centre and ask everyone who looks under 30 how they listen to music the most likely answer won’t be vinyl. An acceptable level of quality, portability, convenience and cheapness is what the younger generation want. This is why the Jay-Z’s Tidal is failing to attract customers. What average young people actually give a damn about audiophile quality and if I’m wrong and they do, can you say that they’ll have the expensive audiophile equipment to hear the difference?
The demands for portability and convenience are so important to young people and vinyl just doesn’t meet these needs. One of the most prominent moments during my time as a youth worker from 2012 to 2016 that made me realise where music is most likely heading was when I was mocked by a group of young people for having an MP3 player; them asking me why I’m not using my phone to play music instead. We’ve come so far. These were kids were born around 1999 and 2001. We’ve come so far. MP3 players are now “old school”. The Wu Tang Clan are now a group that “my dad listens to”.
I’m not saying that vinyl should die. I’m saying that we need to quit being so frightened of the future and embrace new technology, but at the same time not forget the old. Formats such as vinyl can exist along with streaming services and MP3. Lets not lie to ourselves however. Vinyl is not the future. The vinyl scene is one big antiques roadshow where everything is a “collectors item”; alienating the large majority of young people who lack income and want portability, convenience and low prices.
While as a 28 year old I would love to think that kids are embracing something that was so present and dear to me during my time in school and college, I’ve been a youth worker for long enough and it’s just not happening.