The rise (and forthcoming fall) of vinyl

I bought my first record in 2003; ‘Yah, man, I was, like, so ahead of the trend’. Or, alternatively, I was just such a stereotypical, long-haired, Nirvana-obsessed moron that I would pay £3.50 for an issue of Q magazine so I could cut out a 2-inch bit of paper with a quote from Dave Grohl to put in to a scrapbook. With everything else (including a rug of Kurt Cobain’s face) already purchased, when I saw a 12” single of ‘Come As You Are’ on the wall of a shop, it was the latest thing to be the most amazing thing ever. I didn’t even know what it was but at the very least it was a big version of the CD artwork and that would do me.

This opened a whole new avenue of Nirvana memorabilia to collect. After that, I moved on to Pearl Jam, then basically any music eBay allowed me to get my hands on. Something about vinyl hooked me. I won’t bore you with the details – we all know what the supposed perks are – but with CDs the preferred format of the era; vinyl was so cheap.

However, for the last decade or so, vinyl has experienced a huge boom. At first, this meant I could get new releases on vinyl pretty consistently which enabled me to modernise my collection and purchase music on my preferred format. Yet with artists and labels both noticing and contributing to the trend, vinyl began to cost more and more. Fashion dictates, but it seems strange that a new album today can cost £4.99 on iTunes (or potentially for free when streamed), or £30 on vinyl. Yes, the production costs are higher, but not that much higher. At this point, it’s not the music we’re paying for, it’s the method of consumption, with one format ripping off the artist, and the other ripping off the customer.

Vinyl buyers weren’t ripped off in the 2000s at least. The Cribs’ second album, which I bought on Amazon for £6.99, now sells for over £100. The Hives’ debut tells a similar story. So does The Killers’… I could go on.

More ridiculously, I bought a signed Kelly Jones solo record for £4 from a second-hand record shop in Camden. Selling it online for £100 a few years ago felt like a great piece of business, but unfortunately for me, it now goes for over £300 unsigned. Specialist online marketplaces such as Discogs track and display every single sale price of an item. This results in market value inflation as sellers naturally want to push the boundaries of what they believe they can get whilst paying little attention to the circumstances or condition of previous records sold.

However, while increased record value grew from low demand in the 2000s, ample supply today means new releases have little value at all. Records, much like new cars, lose value as soon as you give them a spin. With online platforms making physical sales less profitable than ever before, artists are now releasing more and more bizarre packages of goods to bolster them:

Option 3: Limited (to about 50,000…) version of vinyl (hey, the artwork colours are inverted!), with hand-signed lyric sheet, and T-shirt.

Option 5: Standard vinyl, CD album, unsigned lyric sheet, and lithograph.

Option 8: Standard vinyl, Limited CD, signed lithograph, tote bag, and empty sweet wrapper from last tour.

It’s all gone a bit crazy. I’m actually all for it – if it’s what fans want at a price they will pay – then I’m glad artists can still make good money from their art. Touring is where it’s at financially, but touring doesn’t give us anything to listen to at home. The problem is though, not many are giving value for money…

I’ve already picked on them lately, but a good example is the new Foals record. For £50, the black circle you’ll spin will actually be violet-coloured. Okay… but, get this, it’s SIGNED! …well, one of two art prints will be signed by one member of the band.

As much as I respect Foals, having the guitarist (or the drummer? I can’t tell, it’s only a squiggle) run some pen over a photo doesn’t quite live up to its tag of ‘Signed Vinyl Collector’s Edition’ for me.

Equally, while Record Store Day has been great for the high street; over-expensive items are consistently cheaper and available in large quantities in the aftermath, which is when the 4am queues realise they’ve been lied to about the numbers of copies available. The few releases which are worth something in the future are sold for preposterous amounts; the profit being made by scalpers, not the independent record stores the day was designed for.

This current over-saturated market has undoubtedly alienated many serious collectors, happy to sell, and wait for the fad to die down before buying again. It’s hard to tell if the market has already peaked, but if you were thinking of selling parts of your collection, I probably wouldn’t wait too long. Reissue culture is thriving and is devaluing original vinyl copies with every new re-release.

Extravagant inflation still prices the majority of punters and nearly all new adopters down to reissues, but these are often mastered from digital sources: crap vinyl played on crap turntables with crap built-in speakers. After the novelty of the artwork being printed all nice and big wears off, without records holding the qualities that originally attracted audiophiles to vinyl, a great percentage of new buyers may give up the ghost of formats past and revert back to the convenience of streaming services both at home and on the go. Or, you never know, maybe with vinyl becoming too mainstream, hipsters will start a trend of listening to the even more inconvenient cassette again… What? It’s already happening? Shit.

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Author: tomstephensblog

Freelance writer and postgraduate student at Goldsmiths, University of London. I’m also a musician.

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