We're having a vinyl revival
Pirate-proof … Phil Thomson of The Vintage Record says he took a punt on the fact you can't download a record – and it has paid off.
Photo: Steven Siewert
February 5, 2008
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EVERYWHERE you look, dark clouds are gathering over the music industry. Sales were down 10 per cent last year. The number of songs illegally ripped off the internet outnumbers legal downloads 20 to one.
Last week, the musician Peter Gabriel told an industry conference in Cannes: "It's time to put the corpse of what we know as the record industry in the ground and let some other beautiful things start to grow out of it."
At the same conference, U2's manager, Paul McGuinness, saw things differently – even if he agreed on the death bit.
"The collapse of the old financial model for recorded music will also mean the end of the songwriter," he warned.
As REM once sang, "It's the end of the world as we know it".
Yet there is a bright spot amid all this gloom: specialist vinyl shops are experiencing a mini-boom, and they're feeling fine.
"Vinyl record sales aren't affected by downloads," says Phil Thomson, the owner of The Vintage Record in Annandale, which specialises in vinyl LPs from the 1940s onwards, with a classic rock bent. He bought the shop two years ago, and doesn't stock CDs.
"It's all doom and gloom if you're selling CDs now," Thomson says. "I figured you can't download a record, you have to go out and buy it. So I took a punt, and it's paying off."
The mood is similarly buoyant at many of Sydney's other specialist music shops, from Newtown's Egg Records (second-hand vinyl, CDs, DVDs and memorabilia) to Birdland (jazz, soul and blues) in the city and Erskineville's Revolve Records Relics ('50s to '80s vinyl, prog, funk, jazz and hip-hop).
A steady stream of analogue purists, collectors, diehard fans, DJs and young converts keeps business turning over nicely. "Rumours of our demise are [exaggerated]," says Kieran Stafford, the owner of Birdland since 1991.
To a certain extent, specialist outlets are insulated from the effects of illegal downloading because of the type of customers they attract by offering deep back catalogues, rarities and knowledgeable staff.
"The downloads market is predominantly the Top 40 market – which is why singles don't exist any more," Stafford says.
"They're the kind of people who think they've got a record collection when they've got two records. Our average customer probably buys one or two albums a week."
The appeal of LPs is not only nostalgic; it is also tactile and aesthetic. You lose sound quality and the romance of the object with downloads, say the store owners. Coveting a limited-edition green vinyl 12-inch of the Cure's song The Forest? (That's $80 at Revolve.) An original local pressing of INXS's Listen Like Thieves? ($16 at The Vintage Record.) The complete On The Corner sessions by Miles Davis in an embossed metal box? ($180 at Birdland.) To teenagers used to getting their music for free, the maths doesn't add up; but for fans the price is beside the point.
"I'm finding that kids are starting to come back into the shop thanks to bands like Wolfmother citing their influences as Led Zeppelin, or similar," Thomson says. "There's also been a bit of an '80s revival – Duran Duran, Adam and the Ants, the Eurythmics – kids are coming in and buying them on vinyl."
Barry Scott, the owner of Egg Records, has also seen a surge in vinyl sales. "Business is fine," he says. "We also sell reconditioned turntables, and I sell one every week or two. It figures they're going to buy vinyl."
CD sales are only a tiny fraction of the business at Revolve – the bulk is vinyl and memorabilia. Employee Peter Prifunovic says: "The boss tells me vinyl sales have been growing over the last three years. It was one of the reasons he hired me.
"We get fairly young customers, anywhere from 18 up, and generally male. Younger guys don't collect so much, they come in to buy records to sample."
The vinyl market is not only second hand: reissues are good sellers, and such acts as Radiohead, Bjork, the White Stripes and Ben Harper have released their latest records on vinyl. Recently, a boutique pressing plant called Vinyl Factory Australia opened in Marrickville. Thomson talks about unsigned bands offering songs for download on MySpace and then pressing a seven-inch when enough people have shown an interest.
It's not all good news. Graham Nixon, who has run the punk and hardcore specialty shop Resist Records in Newtown for 10 years, says downloading has had an enormous impact on his sales. "I'd say 80 per cent of customers under 20 come in and they don't look at music, they go straight to the T-shirts," he says.
Stafford thinks the future of music retailing will include physical and digital sales.
"I think it won't be one or the other but a mixture of both," he says. "Not everyone's interested in downloading. The quality is not as good. As for the big stores – whether or not they survive, I don't care. We'll still be here."
Time they are changing
– The recorded music industry has changed enormously in the past five years. In 2003, there were about 30 legal download services available; now there are more than 500.
– People can legally access about 6 million songs online.
– The digital music share of the global music market has moved from almost zero in 2003 to 15 per cent or $US3 billion last year.
– In 2003, customers could buy an artist's release in only a few formats – typically on CD.
– Last year, Justin Timberlake's Future Sex/Love Sounds was released in 115 products or formats (including ringtones, mobile full-track downloads, video, iTunes and others) which sold a total of 19 million units. Only 20 per cent of its sales were CDs.