The Vinyl Revolution.
By Shannon Devy
When I was about thirteen, I found an old Pioneer record player at the very back of a cupboard in my Mom’s garage one summer holiday. Intrigued, I hauled it to my bedroom and set it up on the carpet. At first, it was dead as a doornail, but I was not to be deterred. A quick dig around the turntable’s innards revealed a blown fuse, quickly replaced at the hardware store down the street. I was in business. As I worked my way through my father’s abandoned record collection, I felt like I was uncovering a secret treasure. Elton John, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and Pink Floyd had me transfixed for hours. I didn’t know it then, but this was the start of a long love affair with an almost lost but certainly not forgotten format – vinyl.
Growing up in the 2000’s, I was in time to catch the end of the cassette era, but mostly, music came on CD’s. By that time, vinyl had long since been banished to nostalgic antiquity – something my parents spoke about from time to time, but something firmly in the past. My generation never knew vinyl in regular home use, and for most middle-class suburban kids, our access to music was limited to the selection at the local Musica.
However, over the last five years, vinyl is seeing an astonishing boom. Vinyl sales reached their peak in the 70’s, accounting for 66% of all music format revenue with about 530 million units sold per year. Once cassettes and CD’s became the cheaper, more easily reproducible format of choice, the vinyl industry entered a long slumber, dropping to just 0.1% of its peak market share by the 90s, until the streaming industry put all physical formats to bed for good.
But something strange is happening in the music industry right now. In 2020, vinyl outsold CD’s for the first time since 1986, with sales of new vinyl increasing by an incredible 86% between 2020 and 2021. That’s not to mention the expansive world-wide second-hand vinyl market, which sees diggers feverishly flipping through crates on the hunt for personal favourites and rare gems. As for fresh pressings, the small number of vinyl pressing plants still in existence can barely keep up. Just recently, Adele’s order of 500 000 LPs of her new album “30” led to a world-wide supply chain crash in the vinyl manufacturing industry, with delays rippling out across the globe.
Vinyl is making a comeback, and in so doing, we are witnessing a rare instance where an older technology has come to surpass a newer one, against all odds. Vinyl is far more expensive than any other music format (particularly in South Africa, where import costs on new vinyl drive the prices up), with new records coming in at between R350 and R1000 per unit. While you can pick up a decent secondhand LP for a couple of hundred bucks, that’s more than a monthly subscription to any of the more popular online streaming services. Regardless, this year, global vinyl sales are set to top 30 million units. It appears a whole new generation has developed an appreciation for the joy collecting vinyl delivers. And man, does it deliver.
Over the last few years, my own record collection has been growing steadily. In South Africa, scarcity makes crate digging an infinitely rewarding challenge. My quest to find a copy of Miles Davis’ seminal “Kind of Blue” went on for over a year. One second-hand record dealer had a friend who had a friend who might be willing to part with his first pressing, but the lead went cold. I had to travel across the world to track down a copy. I was visiting one of the world’s very last Tower Records, a seven-story monolith of a record store in downtown Shibuya, Japan. There, amongst the endless rows of LP’s – more vinyl than I had ever seen in one place, ever – I had to be gently led away before I spent our holiday budget on sound, leaving us stranded in Japan forever. I maintain it would’ve have been worth it.
Because, for me, there’s a romance to vinyl collecting that is completely unique in a world that so deeply immerses us in the binary code matrix of the digital era. From the thrill of the hunt to the absolute joy of hearing one’s favourite album running top to bottom (no skipping!), warm and crackling and exactly as it was meant to be heard, collecting vinyl marks a slower, more conscious approach to the way I listen to music. One by one, I am collecting my life in sound – real, tangible, and rendered in PVC. And I hope maybe one day, during a distant future summer, a daughter of my own will stumble upon my dusty NAD sound system deep in a cupboard in the garage, and another journey will begin.
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