The vinyl record format has been central to many significant cultural trends over the past 50 years. From the pioneering obsessives in the North of England whose adoption of lesser-known up-tempo soul releases in the 1960’s gave birth to the northern soul phenomenon, through to hip-hop and dance music collectors whose passion added momentum to genres that now generate a sizeable percentage of global music revenues. According to Morgan Stanley Research the electronic music industry, which started as a resolutely underground movement, will be worth almost $9 billion by 2021/22.
There is a common thread behind our longstanding obsession with vinyl, the record shop, and a new book “Around The World in 80 Record Shops” offers vinyl lovers an atlas to circumnavigate the globe via “the best vinyl emporiums on the planet”. Author Marcus Barnes is well placed to act as a guide for the aspiring Phileas Fogg. Barnes is a music journalist, DJ, and widely-regarded authority on electronic music. His credentials include the role of techno editor at longstanding dance music publication Mixmag, and he also contributes to Time Out and Gigwise. As the UK celebrates the first National Album Day marking 70 years of the format, I caught up with London-based Barnes to find out more about this enduring cultural phenomenon.
Barnes starts by explaining how the appeal of vinyl makes perfect sense even as the world trends towards purely digital means of cultural consumption, “There’s an air of romance that surrounds record collecting and the shops that curate, stockpile and sell vinyl. The notion that music in its tangible, ‘organic’ form has more value than its digital counterpart is one contemporary reason for this romantic idealism.”
Barnes continues, reflecting on the historical aspects of vinyl collecting culture, “Way before the digital age was upon us, vinyl still carried that mystique and became a collectible medium. From the days when everyone would gather around the wind-up gramophone to hear those exciting first crackles of a classical recording, to the era when one’s Hi-Fi system and record collection was the centerpiece of their living space. Today we still have a multitude of collectors hunting down rare pressings, eager to track down those elusive, mythical one-offs that are said to be out there.”
He argues that at the center of this culture, today as always, is the record shop, “These places are a social and cultural hub where you can spend hours rifling through the racks and shelves, meeting other vinyl enthusiasts and chatting with the owners. The importance of record shops to those who value music in its physical form goes without saying, but what’s also an essential aspect of these enduring enterprises is their influence on the local music scene.” Barnes continues, “Artists meet, form bonds and collaborate, styles become popularized, a cultural exchange occurs between musicians who’ve never met as imported records influence local artists on the other side of the world; genres are born and nurtured, and the cycle repeats over and over.”
Our love of vinyl has had some significant impacts on trends in music sales, argues Barnes: “From Big Apple in London, where dubstep was born, to A-1 Records in New York where so many early house and hip-hop producers picked up records to sample, there is an unquestionable legacy that has been laid down by vinyl outlets all over the world.”
A trend with many millennials is to access their music anywhere, anytime, via streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, and to purchase the physical artifact of the vinyl record in parallel to this universal jukebox. A visit to many high street fashion retailers will reveal a carefully curated stand of new and reissued vinyl releases which are doing brisk business alongside the latest apparel, while tastemaker vinyl subscription startups such as Vinyl Me, Please are turning a new generation on to the vinyl album experience.
Despite having experienced a near-fatal slump in the mid-2000’s vinyl sales have been enjoying double-digit growth for more than ten years since the format started rebounding, and 2018 revenues are on track to surpass both digital radio and CD sales. Barnes is clearly energized by this vinyl renaissance, “Young people have become fascinated with the medium once again. Record shops that were struggling are now thriving, while new ones pop up in cities and towns everywhere. It’s an exciting, fertile time and the driving force behind all of this is the beloved record shop that offers a unique environment in which to hunt, gather information and enjoy the pastime that truly nourishes the soul of every vinyl lover.”
“Around the World in 80 Records Stores” is out now on Dog ‘n’ Bone via Ryland Peters & Small and CICO Books.
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Originally published in Forbes.