IT has long been a growing hobby for music devotees – but now the vinyl revival is dominating the charts and once again playing “kingmaker” in the battle for pop supremacy.
While the music industry has been transformed by the advent of streaming giants including Spotify, Amazon and Apple Music, 2021 saw a seismic return of physical formats — with CDs, vinyl and even cassettes proving a defining factor in how long the biggest names reign at No1.
And what a joy it is.
For many music fans with a long enough memory, vinyl remains the ultimate way to enjoy a record in its purest form.
It sounds like no other means, warm and full, with a satisfying underlying buzz — bookended by the joyful scratch of the needle connecting with the groove for the first time.
Coupling the acoustic warmth with a perfectly produced record sleeve, often accompanied by books of the lyrics or glossy images that in some cases became almost as recognisable as the music, completed the perfect marriage of musical and visual art.
And while the sound quality may not compete with digital, even the humble cassette tape carries a nostalgic memory for many music fans. Anyone in their mid-thirties or beyond can recall painstakingly copying music from the radio on to a tape to create the perfect compilation — to be played in the car or on an early Walkman, or handed sheepishly to a love interest in the hope they would share your devotion to the handpicked tracks, and also immediately become convinced of your cool credentials.
The process of labelling the finished product with a tiny track-listing in almost microscopic lettering remains a fond memory for me — performing perhaps the ultimate musical crime of the era by combining tracks from Britpop rivals Oasis and Blur on the same tiny plastic vessel.
So it’s little wonder the simple pleasure of holding music in your hand is making a triumphant comeback.
In an exceptional 12 months of 2021 a hefty five million vinyl LPs were sold — the highest number in more than 30 years — with Abba’s comeback album Voyage becoming the fastest-selling record of the century on that format by shifting 30,000 units in its first week.
And despite being in apparently terminal decline for a decade, CDs still shifted 14million copies, while 200,000 cassette albums were sold — the largest figure since 2003 — according to official data from record industry trade association The BPI.
Such is the influence of vinyl sales on the charts now that insiders report huge backlogs after most of the UK’s pressing plants were shut down decades ago, with more than 100 different records shifting 5,000 or more copies in the format this year.
The demand for vinyl is now said to be so high that there was competition for capacity between the country’s biggest pop stars Ed Sheeran and Adele as both sought to stockpile copies of their albums — knowing that physical sales count for much more than streaming in the algorithm used by the Official Charts Company to compile the chart.
As one insider puts it: “Selling vinyl to your most devoted fans can be the difference between several chart places, and it’s a good way to keep yourself up there for longer.
It isn’t just heritage acts that are selling physically now, either, it’s Ed, Adele, Dave, Wolf Alice, Sam Fender, Olivia Rodrigo — this is becoming a massive thing again.
“It isn’t just heritage acts that are selling physically now, either, it’s Ed, Adele, Dave, Wolf Alice, Sam Fender, Olivia Rodrigo — this is becoming a massive thing again. The demand is so high that there was a queue for vinyl pressings this year and a bit of a fight over who would get theirs made first. Even record sleeves are more difficult to produce because so much cardboard is pre-bought by online retailers.”
And in a recent interview with me to promote his chart-topping record Equals, Ed even revealed he had sliced two tracks from his original listing to ensure the full album would fit comfortably on to two sides of vinyl or a cassette.
He told me: “For me, the vinyl or the cassette is an important part of what the album is. I actually had two more tracks at first, but when it wouldn’t fit I had to cut things down a bit. I wanted it to be a single LP or tape, so that you can just flip it once to play the whole thing.”
Statistics show that in 40 of the 52 weeks of this year, the album that topped the charts did so by shifting more than half its week-one copies in physical formats — a trend exemplified by Adele’s album 30, which in its first five weeks of release saw 75 per cent of its chart sales put down to physical format sales.
Geoff Taylor, chief exec of the BPI, Brit Awards & Mercury Prize, said: “Thanks to record label investment, fans can purchase the music they most love on vinyl, CD and even cassette while also enjoying access to over 70million songs to stream instantly.”
Here’s hoping it’s here to stay. While streaming brings convenience and affordability, it pulls apart the collated album as a body of work. There is little substitute for vinyl, and while it survives the art of the album lives on with it.