The king is dead, long live the king

Many formats have come and gone and hi-res and streaming are gaining ground, but Sound Organisation York managing director Hamish MacDiarmid, looks at how the vinyl LP is still hanging on and increasing in popularity

When I first moved to York some 31 years ago, I came from a London I had grown up in, but also grown to feel exhausted in. Exhausted both by the long hours needed to fulfil our promises to customers of our first Sound Organisation shop, in London Bridge, and by our seemingly endless capacity to burn the candle at both ends.

At the time, the advent of CD was not welcome and Philips’s famous catchphrase “Pure Perfect Sound Forever” was taken seriously by many, elated at the prospect of trouble-free listening, but as a bad joke by others.

It was against this background that I moved to a small rented shop in York and opened on Christmas Eve 1984. My only sale that day was a stylus cleaner. I put a CD and CD player in the shop window asking the question, ‘Devil or Angel?’ But I soon found that it was confusing customers in York, as many were certain CD was the way to go. How could I have been so mistaken? However, those who would listen heard the difference and hung on to their turntables.

The small shop grew slowly and gained great new members of staff – some of whom are still here today. We never once lost our preference for record players and watched in dismay as some customers traded in their turntables for the convenience of CD. But others, more sanguine perhaps, refused to do so and still play their vinyl records to this day.

As a shop, we were happy enough to support both to the best of our ability and to make both sound as good as we could, but looked on as the digital medium gained ground and began to supplant the precious vinyl LP.

So it was that CD and later, DVD and SACD, took hold, never to loosen their grip – until now that is. CD sales are down, streamed music sales and downloads are taking their place and, lo and behold, vinyl record sales are going through the roof.

Why should this be? How has such an inconvenient, easily-damaged medium – which we were confidently assured at the time “would be dead in 10 years” – enjoyed such a revival? Is it simply the fashion, are DJs leading the way, or is it that people enjoy the reassuring sound of clicks and pops? Maybe human beings respond better to the greater depth and more engaging sound from a well-reproduced record, and are prepared in many cases to put up with its inconvenience. This quality has generally escaped both CD and, more particularly, the compressed MP3 files championed by Apple’s iTunes that we have all embraced for its great convenience.

Kids are discovering LP gems, now confidently renamed ‘vinyls’, in their parents’ attics and then collecting recordings, both old and new, before buying a turntable to actually play them on. Their parents, and even grandparents, are pulling down those old, nearly forgotten Dire Straits, Supertramp and Joan Armatrading beauties of their youth that remind them of good evenings spent listening over a glass of wine or two.

Many had sold – or even given away – their turntables years ago, which is where, hopefully, we as a shop come in. Rega is enjoying another record-breaking year and our sales have increased with them by 37 per cent year on year. David, our shop manager and LP12 engineer, is often booked weeks ahead with his Linn LP12 service and upgrade duties.

Hi-fi has changed its nature through the years, with the introduction and rise of CD, the death of cassette decks and reel-to-reel recorders, Mini Discs, Laser Discs, DAT tape, and the weakening of SACD and DVD Audio, the introduction of surround sound, then DAB and the growth of multi-room audio. We have seen the rise of digital streaming, downloads of high-res, CD-quality and MP3 audio, plus internet radio – all are beginning to threaten the CD disc format itself. It seems almost to be going full circle.

Ironically, vinyl has survived them all. The king is dead, long live the king!