When the so called ‘vinyl revival’ became commonplace a few years ago, many were sceptical that it would survive. After all, the old analogue technology of a needle tracking into the groove of a disc made of polyvinyl chloride to produce a sound seems hopelessly out of date given the current advances in the digital world. Yet vinyl has not only survived, it has proliferated in a way nobody could have predicted.
Ironically it now appears to have superseded the technology that once promised to make every 12 inch LP and 7 inch 45 a thing of the past – the now somewhat despised CD. Trawl through any Op shop these days and you will find shelves of unloved compact discs, most of them selling for a dollar or two. There’s the odd milk crate full of old vinyl but anything half decent has been spotted. Only the Roger Whittaker and Perry Como albums sit mournfully in the bin, destined to remain homeless forever.
Whilst downloaded music via Spotify and the like is now essential for most recording artists, it’s become almost a status symbol for many performers to release a vinyl edition – often avoiding a CD release in the process. It’s much cheaper for a fan to download an album rather than fork out $50 or $60 for a piece of black plastic, but the market for the tactile product remains remarkably strong. You get a nice big album cover and there’s a certain intimacy with your favourite singer or band as you place their LP on your turntable.
Record companies might bemoan the lack of once highly lucrative CD sales but there’s a real bonus for them when it comes to reissuing their back catalogue on sparkling new vinyl. Not only do re-pressings of classic and rare jazz, blues, soul, reggae and rock albums appeal to a younger audience, perhaps discovering them for the first time – but the generation that grew up with vinyl are rekindling their interest.
When it comes to baby boomers, snapping up new vinyl reissues is not only a nostalgia trip or a preference for the older warmer analogue sound, in many cases they owned the album when it first came out, back in the 60s or 70s and the original is now scratched or deadened by a blunt stylus, lost or thrown away. The opportunity to pick up a brand new copy and place it on the new $600 turntable you have just acquired, is just irresistible. The quality of vinyl is generally better today and the albums are often remastered.
New vinyl aside, the real madness in the current vinyl renaissance is in the second hand and collector world. Most of the surviving record shops in Sydney have switched to an almost exclusive range of new and old vinyl with hardly a CD in sight. Rare and sought after old albums and 45s bring big bucks whether they are sold in boutique shops or traded globally on eBay or sites like Discogs.
Like all collectors there are many levels of obsession, ranging from the moderate enthusiast to the down right pathological. Brazilian businessman José Roberto “Zero” Alves Freita currently claims to have the world’s largest collection of vinyl, last reported as approaching eight million. It was apparently a compulsion that began in his childhood and by the time he left high school he had amassed around three thousand.
Over the years he has acquired LPs, 45s and 78s from a wide variety of sources: from other collectors, record shops, deceased estates and donations – all stored in a large warehouse. He employs a number of people to help with the cataloguing and set up for what he sees as a dedicated sound archive of twentieth century music. Apparently he also keeps a ‘personal’ collection at home, numbering a modest 100,000!
Not surprisingly, other much smaller collectors around the world have vented their envy, accusing him of being a shameless hoarder with little intrinsic love of the music he has sourced. Interviews with him tend to suggest a different story, a genuine affection for many of the genres he collects and a wide knowledge of all recorded music. Hopefully his archive will remain long after his death as an institution paralleling some of the great museums and libraries in the world. Viva La Vinyl!