Back in the groove

If you are a music-lover of a certain age, and it is the age of people who run the world, this is how a typical conversation about your abiding passion goes: you first of all lament the witless banality of reality shows, the ubiquity of Simon Cowell, and the way that singers can’t hold a note any more, preferring to circle around it for a couple of hours in a forsaken miasmic muddle. You hate the false melodrama of the battle to be Christmas Number One and wonder why no one writes their own songs any more. Music never used to be like that, you will say, talking of marathon sweaty stints in Hamburg nightclubs, guitar parts that made the fingers bleed, and note-perfect session players from Detroit.

Then you will say you haven’t bought an album – a proper album – for years, because most albums don’t seem to be very good, and besides, where is the fun in wrestling with awkward plastic cases or, worse, in silently downloading over-compressed files of data? The soul has gone from rock and popular music, you continue, and you will begin to talk about the beauty of the vinyl record. If you are in particularly lyrical mood, you may begin to describe the individual crackles on your favourite records, although you may well lose your interlocutors here, especially if they are not yet receiving their pensions, and fail to see why a crackle matters.

But crackles do matter. “We are all children of John Cage, and we know that there is no such thing as silence,” says Andrew Renton to me as we discuss the individual crackles on our favourite records. Renton, a writer, academic and curator, is so keen on finding new crackles in his life that he has become what is now known, in reference to the feckless habits of times past, as a vinyl junkie.

“I gave away my records 15 years ago and I have been mourning them ever since,” he tells me. “I thought I didn’t need them any more, and I didn’t have the space for them. But I have lost a massive part of me. It is the digital era that has done it. And I have spent the past decade reconstructing that which I gave away.”

The digital era: a miraculous time for information, accessibility, storage and portability; a bad time for the album. The entity that started life 60 years ago as the Long Playing Record is in crisis. Figures released by the British Phonographic Industry in July revealed that despite much-trumpeted growth in the digital market, UK album sales fell by 12.7 per cent year-on-year in the second quarter of 2012. Total first-half 2012 album sales were 43.6m, a 13.8 per cent fall on the 50.5m albums sold in the first half of 2011. There is a similar pattern worldwide.

Those gloomy figures came just a couple of months after it was announced that digital format sales had overtaken physical product sales for the first time, accounting for 55.5 per cent of UK trade revenues in the first quarter of 2012. The recording industry tried to dress that up as a small victory. Nevertheless, it is a fact that we are buying less and less music. And the album – the industry’s mainstay for that golden period of rock music which started in the 1960s and fizzled out some time at the turn of the millennium – is fast becoming a musical irrelevance.

Nonsense, say those in denial over the decline, countering with a single word: Adele. The British singer’s second album 21 has performed astonishingly since its release at the beginning of 2011. It has slowly been gaining ground on the highest-selling UK albums of all time, moving past Michael Jackson’s Thriller in May to clinch fifth place.

21, an accomplished and heartfelt album influenced by American soul, is in exalted company: the only four albums that have sold more copies in the UK are Queen’s Greatest Hits, The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Abba’s Gold: Greatest Hits and Oasis’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (Thriller remains the world’s highest-ever selling album, thought to have sold more than 100m copies.) But it is a glaring exception to the trend. It is indeed remarkable that 21 still held the Number One slot in April 2012, more than a year after its release. Less impressive were its sales figures for the week in question: just 17,000 copies were shifted, the lowest total for a UK chart-topper since 1995.

In a sense, all this should come as no surprise. In the speedy mix-and-mash-up digital world, which champions brevity and breeds short attention spans, there is no earthly reason why a 45-minute chunk of sound, sliced into carefully ordered pieces, should continue to be popular music’s most important unit of produce.

The album was designed mainly for classical music lovers, who no longer needed to interrupt their beloved symphonies and operas by flipping over a whole box full of four-minute 78s. The new format was compact and appealing, not only for its superior sound quality but also for its packaging. Early pioneers of album design such as Columbia’s Alex Steinweiss were allowed to embellish the 12-inch covers with bold illustrations that were at the forefront of artistic practice.

It took time for the album to find its existential confidence in the world of popular music, however. Initially, albums were regarded as vehicles on which to load best-selling singles, like portable jukeboxes. But in the 1950s, jazz artists started to experiment with tying together the music on an album into loose concepts: Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!, a smoothly conceived package of smoochy easy listening, was to be played in its entirety, encouraging a sense of surrender to the (literal) groove.

The following decades saw the album establish its hegemony over the music industry, from the psychedelic whimsy of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) and Sgt Pepper (1967) to the hard-core, and hugely ambitious, concept album: The Who’s Tommy (1969), Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick (1972), Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), still the second highest-ever selling album worldwide. The rock album had acquired the heft and pretensions, if not always the technical accomplishment, of classical music. Seven-inch singles, until their spiky renaissance in the punk years, were suddenly considered lightweight, too flimsy to give more than the most transient of pleasures.

Some of 1977’s classic albums ‘Talking Heads: 77’, ‘Saturday Night Fever’, the debut from The Clash, David Bowie’s ‘Low’

You will all, according to personal taste, have your own classic album year: in my view it is hard to beat 1977, which featured commercial behemoths such as Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever; jolting debuts from The Clash, the Sex Pistols, The Jam and Elvis Costello; fiercely intelligent first-time outings from US art-rockers Television (Marquee Moon) and Talking Heads (Talking Heads: 77); the super-slick virtuosity of Aja by Steely Dan; and not one but two of David Bowie’s greatest works, Low and Heroes. It is hard to remain aloof from that list. The album was covering all bases and selling in droves.

The introduction of the compact disc in the 1980s only served to boost the album’s supremacy. Sold by the promise of indestructibility, superior sound quality (no crackles!) and compactness, record-buyers flocked, in many cases, to buy their record collections all over again. There were new industry giants – Dire Straits, Madonna, Michael Jackson – but the triumphant format of the Long Player remained intact.

It might have happened all over again in the digital revolution. But it didn’t.

The speed of the information super-highway turned out to be a game-changer. It left dawdlers and doodlers on the side of the road. Who had time for Tubular Bells any more? Artists themselves responded by working in shorter formats: video singles trailed on YouTube, EPs – remember EPs? – such as Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster. The relentless march of iTunes towards the domination of music distribution made the need for albums almost obsolete: the pick-and-mix culture was here to stay.

But a strange phenomenon occurred even while the digital revolution was overthrowing industry norms: people started to ask for their favourite music on vinyl again. There had always been dissenters who insisted that the compression of digital music made for an inferior listening experience. But this was something different again: among the young, vinyl LPs became like a retro badge of honour. Forget your shrunken iPods and tinny telephones. This was real music, to be played in its proper format.

“The trouble with the digital age is that it is much harder to bond with the music,” explains Renton, professor of curating at Goldsmiths College, London, who has written widely on contemporary art. “We are in the era of the shuffle and the ‘next’ button. We have lost our discipline.”

The lost rituals of holding an album by its edges and putting it on the turntable, he says, forced you to see things through to the end. “That is much less likely now when you can just fast-forward. I used to be very anal about it all. Once I started an album, I needed to know I had 45 minutes to get to the end, no matter what.”

Renton, who is 49, says the issue of sound quality is almost incidental. “I don’t even have a record player. But I am buying more and more vinyl. Go figure.” He says that in the “new democracy” of the digital age, in which worldwide accessibility and distribution is possible for the first time, we can find ourselves listening to too much music, and cling to objects and experiences from our past out of insecurity. It is the breadth and pace of today’s soundscape that is disorientating. “You are in verse two of a song and you are already nostalgic for verse one. Nostalgia is instantaneous.” Hence the return to the solid and slow-moving virtues of vinyl.

But it is not all just nostalgia. In Walton Street, in London’s fashionable Brompton Cross, vinyl records are taking their first, improbable steps into the byzantine world of fashion and luxury goods. At the Vinyl Factory gallery, special editions of vinyl albums, featuring original artwork and high-quality pressings, are sold to aficionados who embrace the art and music worlds with equal fervour. Here you can indulge in all those recherché trappings of the LP era, and get to hang out at cool parties.

A gatefold edition of Le Voyage Dans La Lune by France’s electro-pop darlings Air will cost you £30. But you can also buy the box set, featuring four records, a DVD and art prints, for £200. Duran Duran’s last album, All You Need is Now, is available for £250, in an edition of 500 that will include the record on clear vinyl (with no cluttering information on the label) and a display box. You can play the record or put it on a mantelpiece. Last month saw the release of a vinyl album by the fashion designer Hussein Chalayan and the artist Gavin Turk, Four Minute Mile, which went on sale for £100.

Sean Bidder, creative director of Vinyl Factory, says demand for such cross-disciplinary editions is buoyant and comes from all over the world. He too thinks it is partly a reaction to the tyranny of the digital world. “It seems the allure of endless choice is perhaps waning a bit,” he says. “Is there really such a pleasure in constantly being on the look-out for something else? Perhaps people want to know more about less.” He says the retromaniacal demand for vinyl is analogous to the Slow Food movement: “They are about not needing to buy things that you don’t want, and concentrating on quality. If it is interesting, exciting and well-crafted, people will pay a premium for it.” The company uses the highest-quality pressing and silkscreen technicians, says Bidder. “It is like a return to the age of craftsmanship.”

Artists, in the meantime, are wising up to the new business model, salami-slicing their products through different contracts for digital, physical and special edition distribution. During the triumphant years when record companies could charge whatever they liked for poorly conceived and badly packaged products, there emerged from the depths of market research the hapless figure of the affluent, middle-aged “£50 bloke”, who would think nothing of slipping into a music megastore on his way home after a few drinks in the pub, and splash out on a few CDs that reminded him of his youthful passion. It was easy, convenient, quick. But of course the passion was the one thing that couldn’t be bought. The miracle of digital media made music yet more convenient; and pushed it still further away from our hearts. The new age of vinyl is nothing less than a reaction against excess: excessive choice, excessive speed, excessive convenience. Somewhere, deep down, we know that falling in love with music should be more demanding than that. We want to sit down, carefully place the needle into the groove, and submit, in blissful anticipation, to that first crackle of the day. And really listen.

Peter Aspden on pop-up culture

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