One of the principles of psychology is that “a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he can call his” — a statement that goes a long way in understanding the revival of vinyl. We are able to download and stream thousands upon thousands of files of music, often for nothing, and yet parallel to that growth is the surprising, but no less, welcomed resurgence of vinyl.
It’s no news that vinyl has dusted itself off and pushed back into the mainstream, people have found in vinyl what streaming lacks — tangibility, connection and collectability. But the growth hasn’t come without growing pains; supply and demand is at odds, particularly in the U.S., in Australia there is only one pressing factory and investors tip-toe with trepidation as they consider supporting the surging market. It’s the elephant in the room, will it remain above the surface, or will it slowly regress back into the underground? Of course it’s impossible to predict, but there are a few things that point to an optimistic future for vinyl, in Australia and globally.
In 2014, vinyl sales in Australia increased by 127 percent according to an ARIA report, and those numbers aren’t just attributed by novelty purchases of The Beatles or Dark Side Of The Moon fuelled by fleeting nostalgia, people actually want their contemporary music coming from a record player. Johann Ponniah from Australian label I OH YOU, put the resurgence down to the “experience” vinyl gives, which is lacking from digital platforms. “Most of our bands at the moment are selling decent numbers through vinyl. We manage Violent Soho, who smash it on vinyl.”
Paul Rigby is the co-owner at Australia’s oldest vinyl pressing factory, Zenith Records and while he says there are several reasons why people love vinyl and why it “never really died”, the key reason for him is the intrigue vinyl holds, “There’s also the ritual that people talk about, you know taking the record out, dropping the needle, and actually seeing the magic before your eyes. When anybody first experiences vinyl, they’re like ‘shit how can this be generating sound, I can see these grooves but i can just plunk it down and it plays.’ With CDs and digital I think you accept that there’s a very clever system happening there and it’s all sort of hidden away, you don’t question it.”
People have always been motivated by the physical experience of vinyl, but what else adds to the charm is the process of making vinyl. Both on the production and consumption end of vinyl, there is a complex almost ritualistic process behind it. At the production end, making vinyl is a highly valued skill, the turnaround can be six weeks or six months and it requires infinite patience, meticulous attention to detail and a tolerance for the mess, filth and smell of chemicals. With old machines — of which there aren’t many — and a dwindling skill base, the process becomes even more significant.
Paul explains that while avid music lovers are keen to learn the engineering behind vinyl, the ideal candidate doesn’t need to be a music lover at all, “I have all these guys who love music and love vinyl but they get down here and see it’s a factory — it’s dirty, it’s noisy, it’s hard work, it’s repetitious, it’s operating machines. The skill set we need is more along the lines of someone who has worked in a factory.”
Machines are also difficult to acquire because the few that were left were all picked up by factories long ago. When the CD became the mainstay in music distribution, to avoid a vinyl resurgence, pressing machines were destroyed, “there are a lot of interesting stories about that in Europe, a CD player was worth $1500 and people couldn’t afford that, so they kept buying vinyl but then there was a dilemma because they scrapped all the machines, so you had to go to the lower reaches of Greece, Turkey and Romania to find machines,” Paul explains.
So then comes the question: do we make new machines?
Machines for an industry that may or may not burst in the next year or two? Canada surely thinks so. Greater Toronto Area Investor, Viryl Technologies has backed a Canadian firm, giving them the green light to make new machines for factories that struggle to keep up with demand. American fashion retailer, Urban Outfitters announced earlier this week that they would be pressing their own vinyl in collaboration with Domino Records, a move that hints vinyl isn’t going back underground just yet.
It’s no doubt vinyl is plagued with problems but in Australia at least, despite only one factory left standing, there prevails a sense of optimism. “[Supply and demand] hasn’t been an issue here, we don’t experience anywhere near the blow outs off-shore plants have got. There is a skill shortage but you have to learn on the run and with our capacity, and the capacity we’re bringing on in the next few months, we will be right.” Steve from Remote Control Records shares the same positivity; “it feels to me that as if it’s a real thing. I think people do genuinely have an affection for it. I don’t feel like it’s a superficial thing that will disappear.”
Likewise for Johann from I OH YOU, “as streaming platforms like Spotify continue to be popular, in the same respect there will still be a desire for something physical.” If Australian artists keep up their enthusiasm to release on vinyl, there’s no reason why vinyl can’t continue comfortably cozying up amongst digital and CD sales, “Some of our Australian artists, I think I’d be right in saying that, for full albums we press for vinyl, I think for all of them actually. It kind of makes sense because everyone wants the record,” says Steve.
What is also promising is that the setbacks that vinyl faces today, are vastly different from what it faced in the past. When CDs rolled in to many vinyl became a dust collector, “there was certainly a time where we didn’t do that because we would press them and they’d end up under somebodies bed or in a cupboard because as much as people had said they wanted vinyl they actually didn’t, they didn’t go out and buy them and they didn’t have a record player. Some stores didn’t stock vinyl or didn’t have vinyl shelves. You could press a small number like 300 and still be stuck with 200 in a cupboard somewhere,” says Steve.
CDs were a dawn of a new era, a digital era made music cheaper, more accessible and shareable, but as the rage settled, music lovers wised up and realised CDs — and now Mp3 — is like the crappy, knock off no one wants to buy.
Paul explains that CD spelled its own demise, “It was a cynical exercise to an extent to introduce CDs because in terms of sound quality, it delivered something that was not necessarily sounding better. As cost of manufacturing CDs came down, you could give away CDs, the public got to a point where people were like ‘CDs are cheap as chips, we get them every week in a newspaper or a magazine’, so overtime the punter looks at CDs as a cheap throwaway commodity.” He further explains that the same punter will turn to downloading because it’s the same quality as CD and true fans will want a physical copy of the music; something to cherish and personify their affection. Vinyl’s modern problem is simply the imbalance between supply and demand — a growing pain, a pain that eventually fades because of forced adjustment and adaptation.
So while Canada leads the way in pressing machine investment, will Australia follow?
Paul is skeptical, but doesn’t deny the possibility, “There’s been talk of [opening new factories], I think there might be one or two popping up soon, but no one is certain how long this vinyl renaissance is going to last. To tip two million dollars to acquire a plant and machines, well you’d be lucky if you could find some old gear, it’s all snapped up quickly, you’d have to buy new machines, and then you have to produce good records.”
“We were lucky because we had experts on hand, but there are plants that have sprung up in the states in the last year and there’s been a fair bit of fanfare about them establishing themselves, and they go quiet when they start setting up to start running. It’s not an easy gig.”
So here we are in 2016, an Internet driven society and yet this vintage, out-dated technology still permeates our culture, and at a rapidly increasing speed. Are the hipsters to thank? Will it go back into dusty underground shops once the hipsters are done, or when JB-Hi-Fi finds it no longer affordable?
We’d need a crystal ball, but aside from looking at the trends, the fact that people are working on new machines, Technics are still releasing revamped turntables and artists are waiting months and months for their music to be pressed, is a strong chord of optimism.