A quarter of young adults buy records they never listen to, a survey of British music fans discovered last year.
Some might take this as baffling or pretentious behavior, but the future of vinyl may rest on its ability to find selling points beyond its basic function as a music format.
Having long since lost the battle for cost and convenience to rival formats, vinyl is nonetheless enjoying its most prolonged revival since the introduction of the CD.
Sales have been rising sharply each year since 2007, with a peak increase of 54% in 2014 – driven by strong figures in the heartlands of the United States, UK, and Germany — although records still account for just a fraction of total music sales.
Independent British retailer Rough Trade has typified the medium’s rollercoaster fortunes. The company rose to prominence in the 1980s golden era with a record label that signed global stars such as The Smiths and a renowned store in West London, where A-list artists including Talking Heads performed, which led to a global distribution network and new stores from Paris to Tokyo.
The empire crumbled dramatically as new formats emerged. The distribution network filed for bankruptcy in 1991, and the foreign departments closed.
But after relaunching in 2007 with new management, Rough Trade is soaring again. The record label is signing major acts, and new stores have opened in the UK and New York, the latter a 15,000 square foot warehouse which became the city’s largest record outlet, at a time of many bricks-and-mortar stores shuttering.
This audacious move relies on delivering a “third place” experience between home and work, says co-owner Stephen Godfroy, which other formats could not offer.
“(This) was the original role of a record store,” says Godfroy. “Being more than a point of purchase … a place of congregation for independent, creative minds, a place that rewarded curiosity with serendipitous discovery, appealing to all ages and tastes in music.”
Growth has been supported by the plummeting cost of music, Godfroy believes.
“The last five years have seen a particular resurgence thanks to cheap access to music as if it were a utility, and younger generations discovering the merits of vinyl for the first time.
“Accessing music has become virtually free. This has put into sharp relief the value derived from owning a recorded music artefact, of which vinyl is the most attractive. Younger, ‘format savvy’ generations listen to music on many formats and devices, but increasingly choose to invest in vinyl for their most loved recordings, given the multi-sensory value vinyl uniquely provides.”
Rough Trade has sought to broaden its appeal through wide-ranging but carefully chosen commercial partnerships, with its stores hosting spaces for book publishers, bicycles and even skincare.