Seemingly moribund with the onset of CD, vinyl, especially audiophile vinyl, is now enjoying, says Paul Rigby, both a cultural and marketing renaissance.
Vinyl was supposed to be finished. As a mass medium, that much was true. However, like any mature industry which has experienced an initial, gold rush grabbing, pile ‘em high-sell ‘em cheap frenzy, what remains are specialists that serve the niche. Take the UK as an example and look at everything from clothing to bicycles, from handbags to pottery. Once a mass market is bled dry, the money men either change the product (from vinyl to CD to downloads) or they change the territory to lower production costs (UK to China) or they go up market (Bags to Burberry). Often, the shock of an industry collapse: the media headlines, the job losses and the industrial change in direction dominates public awareness, leading to a perception that that industry is no more. Such was vinyl. The dramatic format change in the early ‘80s from vinyl to CD caused a shock that many music fans have yet to recover from. Just about all populist media references to vinyl are made in the past tense. However, that is far from the truth.
Tim Livingston, Sales Director for US-based Sundazed (www.sundazed.com) referred to his company figures, “Sales are going up at a steady pace every year for the past five years or so and a lot of younger people are getting in to vinyl now. The audiophiles are part of the market but younger kids, 18-25, are really into collecting vinyl now.”
German vinyl specialists, Speakers Corner (www.speakerscorner.de), also declared that, from its inception, it has never reported a growth in turnover of less than 10% compared to the previous year.
“…2008 was the best year ever for us,” reported company boss, Kai Seemann, “more than 20% above 2007 which was the best year up till then.”
Despite the current financial crisis, which has slowed sales somewhat, “2010 will be close to 2008 and then we will have the increases in turnover we are used to again. This is not because of new customers or new markets (although we note a new, considerable interest in South America) but the existing customer base is willing to spend. I believe in a constant growth of customers who are disappointed by the digital offerings and want to buy a high resolution, physical product,” Seemann added.
It seems, however, that, as a vinyl label, you don’t need to be already established with a loyal client base to survive in today’s market. Even in these harsh financial times, there are still plenty of people starting vinyl-based companies. Take the newly launched Music On Vinyl (www.musiconvinyl.com), based in Holland. According to the head of its UK office, Mike Gething, “[Vinyl] is a viable business. It’s a niche market but it’s a deep niche. There are people who grew up with vinyl and people who are becoming converted to vinyl which means that it’s a niche market that will continue for a long time.”
Vinyl reissues cover many categories. Major labels, such as EMI and Universal, and mid-sized independents, such as Ninja Tune and Warp, still produce new and contemporary vinyl of new releases as well as reissues of older works plus 12” and 7” singles.
Independent specialist companies tend to focus and specialise on reissues of classic or long forgotten albums and they do so while promoting an ‘audiophile’ standard.
The term ‘audiophile vinyl’ has, historically, encapsulated a somewhat negative and elitist image. Some music fans are even afraid to be associated with the term for fear that they will instantly turn into a serious, chin stroking academic.
In fact, a piece of audiophile vinyl is more a badge of quality, a Rolls-Royce of records, a class of product that gives you both value for money and, most importantly, a gateway to some of the most enjoyable music you have ever heard. So, what is audiophile vinyl?
The term is, actually, rather nebulous as audiophile or high quality vinyl encompasses many factors. Current reissues will cater for one, some or all of these supposed audiophilic prerequisites.
To begin, audiophile vinyl pressings tend to appear on thicker than normal vinyl, referred to by their weight: 180gm, 200gm, etc. The benefits of thicker vinyl are somewhat contentious. The theory is that you have the ability to cut a deeper groove into the vinyl that affords the possibilities of a greater dynamic range. However, many enthusiasts declare that there’s no audible difference. More, some users who own turntables with a built-in clamp (that sits on top of the record spindle and secures the record to the deck) prefer thinner vinyl. They say that the clamp couples the thinner, more pliable vinyl to their deck more successfully, improving sound quality that way. Whatever the truth, heavier vinyl does lessen the chances of warping and offers a psychological effect of better value for money.
Often, heavy weight vinyl is advertised in conjunction with the term ‘Virgin Vinyl’. This refers to vinyl that has not been used before and recycled. The audible benefits result in a much quieter playing surface.
Another major aspect of audiophile vinyl – arguably the most critical element – is the source. The better the source (that is, the original medium that the artist recorded upon), the better the chance of a great sounding LP. The preferred source is the analogue master tape: it offers no sonic limits and can produce stunning aural results. Other ‘lesser’ sources can still produce startling results, however, including acetate (for those pre-tape era recordings), vinyl-to-vinyl dubbing (often utilised for ultra-rare albums and private pressing reissues), even cassette tape (listen to some of the Vinyl-On-Demand box sets for proof, www.vinyl-on-demand.com) and even – dare to say it – digital (most modern recordings).
The mastering itself is another critical variable. Of course, any mastering engineer can make any form of recording shine and, on the flip side, he can absolutely ruin it. However, for an audiophile recording, one that arrives with a gamut of top-of-the-line specifications, the fine line between success and failure is that much more critical. It’s no surprise, therefore, to find that many audiophile record labels take a lot longer to produce their records than a standard LP as more care and attention is required. The audiophile genre is also the only recording sector where the top mastering engineers themselves become minor celebrities, featuring their own, largely online-based, fan clubs.
Finally, the process of cutting the record grooves to maximise sound quality is just as essential, “Back in the heyday of vinyl, the ‘50s and ‘60s, vinyl cutting was very much an art,” explained Bob Irwin, founder and owner of the US-based audiophile outfit, Sundazed – whose audiophile releases include Bob Dylan and The Byrds. “There were people who cut records magnificently and there were people who didn’t. This is why there are collectors who will chase after original pressings such as Columbia 1As or Blue Note Deep Grooves. They are chased because of the superior sonics. Not because different master tapes where used, they probably used the same tapes, but a more experienced engineer tended to take more care and utilise more skill for that first pressing. Someone who regarded the cutting of the laqueur as an art form.”
Some companies have even attempted to push the technology further with varying degrees of success. Mobile Fidelity (mofi.com), for example, produces ‘Half Speed’ vinyl. This is a sub-genre of the audiophile standard. It refers to the album’s master tape which is physically played back and then recorded to vinyl at half the normal speed, “This solves many inherent ‘tape playback’ problems,” commented Abbey Road, half speed expert, Miles Showell, “At half speed, the signal is cleaner as it passes through the system, especially for brass instruments. Also, it is not apt to cause any kind of power supply or slew rate distortion.”
Which gives you a glimpse into the complexity of creating a top quality audiophile record.
The ‘Half Speed’ followers are not the only splinter group in the audiophile market. Other successful technological improvements have been implemented by Classic Records (www.classicrecords.com) in the USA via its Clarity vinyl editions. Changes that make up this standard include alterations in the recipe of the vinyl itself, how it is pressed and modifications in the groove guard shape (the thick lip on the outside of the record). It also includes the implementation of a completely clear vinyl that the music arrives within. The milky-blue tone represents the total absence of Carbon Black, the substance that makes all vinyl black in colour. Carbon Black features metallic, magnetic impurities. It’s this magnetism – small though the reading may be – that can produce harmful effects on a sensitive turntable cartridge. It is noticeable, for example, how much more focused a ‘Clarity’ disc is during play when compared to a standard black version which sounds almost diffuse on the edges of the soundstage, in comparison.
One of the problems of the audiophile vinyl sector has been the comparative lack of variety and scope in the catalogue. This is not the problem of the independent but the outright miserly behaviour of the major labels who often refuse to grant a license for use on swathes of their precious archive. The independents are nothing if not persistent and ingenious, however, chipping away at this stubborn, culturally stultifying, behaviour.
Music On Vinyl, for example, has just managed to secure a deal with Sony/BMG, “Sony will reissue certain titles but, where they don’t, we now have the option to bring those titles into our catalogue. This means that, before the end of this year, we will have released around 20 titles from the Sony back catalogue. During 2010, in addition, we would hope to add a few independent labels to our roster to enable us to release a total of 50-100 records.”
Another advantage with this particular company is that it also owns its own vinyl pressing plant (the ex-Sony plant, based in Holland, in fact). Hence, the increasing catalogue, says Gething, will always remain ‘active’, far in the future because, “we can print little and often”. Unlike other companies who only press single, limited quantities and then delist them which only frustrates collectors.
Another new UK vinyl outfit, Three Black Feathers (www.threeblackfeathers.co.uk), which will start its existence by releasing a range of classic British folk albums from the likes of Martin Carthy and The Watersons, features heavyweight vinyl, remastered at Abbey Road by two of the engineers who recently worked on the recent Beatles box set remasters, featuring newly written liner notes. Each have been mastered with quality in mind so that some single albums, packed with music, have now been expanded and released as a double album to reduce the amount of tracks per side to just three. The reason being that, the fewer grooves on a vinyl side, the better the quality of the music therein: another audiophile trait.
The new Nic Jones’ English folk reissue, Penguin Eggs, illustrates the extra effort. Label owner, Chris Heard, had to approach the British Library to access the masters. The album is currently viewed as an artefact and is stored ‘for the nation’.
“We had to get permission to get the masters from the library. In fact,” added Heard, “we were not allowed to take them ourselves. They were sent, by taxi, by the head of the label, directly to Abbey Road. When the album was remastered, we even used the same console that Pink Floyd used to record Dark Side Of The Moon.”
The future of vinyl is especially healthy and, bizarrely, threatens to see out the CD and become the last physical format available for sale. As Heard himself states, because of the digital culture and downloads, “…people want something tangible, something that they can touch and feel. Never underestimate the hunter/gatherer urge in any male. A bloke needs something to collect. It’s something innate in us all and I don’t think that it will ever go away. It’s also a lifestyle choice: you either go the minimal route and store your MP3s in a digital space or, in this multimedia age, you can buy a heavy record that’s been pressed with care and love and you have all the sleeve notes, done to a high standard and with passion.”
Similarly, Sundazed’s Bob Irwin is extremely upbeat about the future, “I’m very optimistic about it – and I’ll take on anyone who isn’t!” whilst UK label, Pure Pleasure’s MD, Tony Hickmott, continues to believe that vinyl is the receptacle of the very soul of music, “As Ray Charles once said ‘The CD, it don’t got no balls’”
ALL OVER THE WORLD
One of the most remarkable features of the current vinyl market is the formation of a loose world confederation, almost a global cottage industry. Small, dedicated companies working on a small scale, each tending to find its own sub-niche of quality product. Here’s just a small selection of the companies involved.
The UK, of course, features a range of specialists including blues and jazz from Pure Pleasure (www.purepleasurerecords.com), heavy rock from Devil’s Jukebox (www.lamf.biz) and 80s classics from Vinyl180 (www.vinyl180.com)
Germany provides hard rock from SPV (www.spv.de). Spain can offer a selection of very rare Krautrock releases via Wah Wah (www.wah-wahsupersonic.com) or rare world folk – including British folk – via Guerssen (www.guerssen.com). The USA is chock-a-block with labels including Audio Fidelity (www.audiofidelity.net) offering classics from a range of genres including rock, psychedelia and singer-songwriters. Italy provides classic 60s releases and exotica via Vinyl Lovers (www.abraxasrecords.com) while Russia’s Lillith can offer everything from 80s new wave, 70s prog rock and 60s classic rock. There are even respected, audiophile, labels in the likes of Greece (Missing Vinyl; www.veamusic.com) and Japan (Venus). There are many more that I’ve missed.
A tip for the future? The Chinese market is currently packed to the gills with dozens of specialist HiFi companies, 99% of which you and I have never heard of, offering niche products such as valve pre-amps and turntables of professional design and construction. Watch and wait for the Chinese and other Asian territories to break out in a rash of reissue record labels.
SPECIAL EDITIONS – FOR ALL
One of the joys of vinyl is the special, limited edition. That category often presented within a box set format containing multiple slabs of vinyl plus plenty of extra goodies. Newly released examples including Paul McCartney’s 4LP Good Evening New York, REM’s 4LP Live At The Olympia and Tom Waits’ 7LP collection, Orphans.
One of the experts in this field is the UK’s own Vinyl Factory (www.vinylfactory.co.uk) which focuses on new, chart-friendly, records. The company releases them as luxurious vinyl box sets, emphasising both design and artwork for an average £50 price point. They’ve already released Primal Scream’s latest album, Beautiful Future and the Damon Albarn, Monkey project.
Bidder dismissed the notion that luxurious vinyl is aimed at the 40+ market and that teenagers are ignorant of vinyl, “The common perception is that young people don’t buy music but only download free tracks,” said Vinyl Factory’s Sean Bidder. “That’s not true. Young people don’t bother buying anything on CD. If they’re going to buy anything it’ll be on vinyl where they want a certain amount of care and detail to the record.
“For us as a company, we are engaging with music that is viewed as ‘popular’ in its broadest context. We also plan to publish box sets which may be viewed as more cult or marginal in their appeal.”
Look out for a special edition 12” single from Massive Attack, Air’s Love 2 and a special edition box set featuring Massive Attack, to come next February.
It’s all very well banging on about vinyl and how good it sounds but, with the collapse of the record trade on the High St, where on earth do you buy it from? Top of the list is Diverse Vinyl (www.diversevinyl.com), an online retailer that still runs its own High St. record shop. Despite the recession, business is relatively good, “When that limited edition comes out that the collector needs for their collection, they’re finding the money for it. Our sales are index linked to the amount of releases that come out. As soon as product arrives, then people are right onto the phones,” said MD Paul Hawkins.
Despite a dip in sales, this year, due to a quiet Summer of releases, the company has reported excellent sales previous to that, up 20% over the previous two years, up dramatically from the 5% for the earlier two years. “I would put that down to some impressive reissue campaigns. For example AC/DC put their entire back catalogue out and the Travelling Wilburys box set did really well for us.”
Online business has been, on the whole, a good thing, “Yes, it has robbed us of a lot of shop trade but then it’s given us lots of international mail order trade, in return. We’ve gained more than we’ve lost. In fact, 90% of our revenue comes through mail order channels.”
One startling fact revealed by Hawkins is the current stock of world-wide, new releases and the choice and variety now on offer, “There’s more choice in the vinyl market now then there was in the mid-80s, when everyone was beginning to say that vinyl was on the way out.”
He does reserve his ire for the major labels, however, who, he feels, haven’t helped to create this now bountiful market, “It’s taken an age for the big guys – Universal, EMI and the like – to see the potential of vinyl. And how stupid because they’ve been in it from the start. They react so quickly to trends in the market but they take their eye off what they’ve already got.”
Thanks goodness for the independents, then. Yet, even Diverse Vinyl is getting in on the act with its own vinyl imprint. Two of its most recent releases include Idelwild’s Post Electric Blues and The Duke And The King’s Nothing Gold Can Stay.