Spinning around again

With CD sales declining, traditional turntables are enjoying a resurgence and are appealing to those who love the sound, as well as fashion-conscious hipsters who love their retro chic. Francesca Seden reports

The tables have well and truly turned for vinyl and record players. Sales of LPs have rocketed from 205,000 in 2007 to 1.3 million in 2014, according to music industry body the BPI, while GfK notes that turntable sales have doubled from 100,000 units sold in 2007 to nearly 200,000 in 2015.

Further growth is expected this year, and although only accounting for 1.3 per cent of total ‘album’ sales, the resurgence in popularity of vinyl and players continues apace and is proving a lucrative opportunity for electrical retailers.

In the run-up to Christmas last year, music retailer HMV reported that it sold one turntable every minute, while online retailer Amazon counted the Jensen JTA-230 3-Speed stereo turntable as a best seller in 2015. Grocery retail giant Tesco has also jumped on the bandwagon, announcing in December that it would start selling vinyl LPs in a number of its stores, while John Lewis, back in May 2015, reported a massive 240 per cent increase in sales of turntables for its first quarter of that year.

It’s a similar story for independent electrical retailers. Anne Moss, marketing manager of Moss of Bath, says it sold more turntables than CD players in 2015, while Geoff Coleman, owner of Acoustica in Chester, expects sales of turntables to remain steady. Simon Burton, managing director of Home Media in Maidstone agrees, commenting: “We expect turntables to remain at similar levels to the past two years, as this market is a mature sector for our business. We have little demand for entry-level priced models and find that sales start from £500.”

So what have been the drivers behind the resurgence of vinyl revival in recent years, and how does it compare with other forms of listening?

Linn Sondek LP12
Linn Sondek LP12

Some industry experts cite nostalgia as the primary driving force, with Clarity Alliance operations and marketing director Phil Hansen noting a “nostalgic kickback against the digital world”. Mr Hansen also attributes much of the growing interest to Record Store Day. On that day in 2012, 36,000 vinyl albums were sold, and that number nearly doubled to 69,000 by Record Store Day the following year.

Audio-Technica marketing manager, EMEA, Tom Harrold agrees, adding that there “seems to be a perfect storm created by musical and technological nostalgia, alongside a clear decision by modern, charting artists to press their releases to vinyl”.

In fact, some thanks might be due to streaming services such as Spotify, as its model of paying the artists only a small percentage of subscription and advertising revenues, combined with the subsequent dip in sales of CDs, could be a contributing factor as to why so many artists now release vinyl albums. After all, it isn’t cheap, averaging at around £20 a piece, so it provides welcome extra revenue for new and established acts alike.

Linn managing director Gilad Tiefenbrun adds: “Online streaming services such as Tidal are offering new ways to discover music, which is driving people to purchase vinyl copies or rediscover their old collections. There’s still great appeal for many to have a tangible product – there’s the artwork, the weight, the collectability.”

Head of marketing and sales at Gearbox Records, Adam Sieff, backs up this assertion, adding that “with their greater profitability, vinyl is no longer ‘a marketing option’, but the main music carrier for an increasing number of record labels”.

But while vinyl is now fashionable among young hipsters, many of their parents would likely be rolling their eyes, as for them, the love of the LP never went away. As Audio-Technica’s Mr Harrold, points out: “Vinyl collectors, baby boomers and lovers of analogue have stuck with the format throughout its peaks and troughs.”

Clarity Alliance’s Mr Hansen adds: “Anecdotally, there are two camps here – the people who actually buy vinyl to listen to because they think it sounds better, and those who buy it because it is fashionable.”

He explains: “The first group can also be split into two. Firstly, there’s an older audience who remember vinyl and how it sounds and are maybe now in an ‘empty-nester’ position, which allows them to dig out their old turntable and have time for themselves. There are also the young music lovers, who have found their parents’ old records in the attic.

Vinyl Hunter, Bury St Edmunds
Vinyl Hunter, Bury St Edmunds

“The second group are buying their vinyl and never actually playing it – they listen to the digital file using the included download code and display the vinyl. It’s not uncommon to be asked ‘do you want a frame for that?’ when buying vinyl in HMV.”

GfK account director for consumer electronics, Nick Simon, adds: “When CDs first appeared 30 years ago, it was claimed that digital sound quality was superior to its analogue equivalent. But serious vinyl enthusiasts mourned the loss of the peaks and troughs of vinyl playback and CDs soon proved to be as capable of jamming or jumping as the original product they seemed destined to replace. CD sales have declined significantly in the past few years and digital downloads now seem to be the most popular format, although streaming has carved its own niche, much to the chagrin of some high-profile artists (Taylor Swift, Adele).”

So there is a word of caution, as although sales of vinyl have risen dramatically, downloads and streaming far exceed it and continue to be the fastest-growing form of music listening. Clarity Alliance’s Mr Hansen points out that physical formats are still the most popular with £334m sales in 2014 (vinyl was a very small proportion of this), compared with downloads at £249m and streaming at £114m.

Infidelity store, Kingston upon Thames
Infidelity store, Kingston upon Thames

However, he adds that the percentage changes tell a different story – “physical was down nearly nine per cent year on year, downloads down by 12 per cent and streaming up by 50 per cent, so it’s obvious where this trend is heading”.

Mr Hansen also warns that one of the biggest issues facing the industry right now is the increasing convenience of music consumption and its perception as a commodity, rather than something to be cherished and valued.

He says the original creation of the MP3 and the convenience that this presented to people, has led to a generation of people for whom mediocrity in sound quality is the norm, and that the advent of streaming has further cemented this level of quality as the way music is supposed to sound.

Solving this problem requires a concerted effort by the hi-fi industry to get its products in front of music lovers and to keep plugging away at the musical enjoyment benefits of listening to music that just ‘sounds better’. The vinyl revival is the perfect opportunity to do this, Mr Hansen says.

Despite all this, the market is set to develop very positively over the next 12 months and beyond, as more options become available in a varied range of price points. Audio-Technica’s Mr Harrold believes that the market has already adapted to a younger, more fashion-conscious consumer with the option of less expensive models with USB connectivity. “We’ve moved past that point now though,” he adds, “and I fully expect to see the market evolving technological developments, such as Bluetooth for example.”

So while vinyl may be seen as retro, the latest turntables are anything but, with many brands recognising that the format can be a part of multi-room listening and the connected home, while sitting happily alongside other listening mediums, in particular digital downloads, which are often offered free with vinyl albums, and high-res audio.

Gearbox Records’ Mr Sieff questions whether vinyl listening should be a part of the connected home. “We believe the whole point is to get back to an intimate listening relationship between high quality analogue components and high quality recordings and pressings. It’s the ritual that’s an important part of the process – cleaning the record, carefully dropping the needle and experiencing the emotional response music can bring.”