This month Ashgate is publishing a paperback edition of Richard Osborne’s highly successful Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record. Commissioning editor Laura Macy asked Richard about the book and his interest in this enduring form of music production.
In the preface to the forthcoming paperback you say ‘In 2013, sales of vinyl in the UK rose by 101.2 per cent. Around 780,000 LPs and EPs were sold, the highest tally for 16 years.’ What do you think has caused this resurgence?
What’s interesting is that it is not one single factor, one single audience, one single type of record or one type of music that is driving these sales. The return of vinyl is certainly a reaction to digital technologies. However, as I argue in the book, it is also a complement to them. Consumers are buying new records that give them access to the same tracks online; they are also purchasing vinyl over the internet. It is not just people who grew up with vinyl who are buying the format, but also those who were born after it was supposed to be superseded. It has become something of a cliché to report that many of the younger buyers do not own record players, but I don’t think that it follows that they don’t know how one works or that they’re not actually hearing the records that they have bought. When I first started investigating this subject – a project that began ten years ago – it was sales of 7″ singles that were on the rise, but latterly it has been the LP that has witnessed the greatest growth in sales. Formerly, many of the big LP sales were amongst back catalogue releases, particularly in America, where the Beatles’ Abbey Road regularly topped the annual vinyl charts. These LP charts, in both Britain and America, are now dominated by new releases. Many of these are by ‘indie’ bands and are on indie labels, but the renaissance isn’t confined to this type of music. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the appeal of vinyl is multiple, and that while the format is subject to nostalgia, there remains something contemporary about it.
Do you think there is more than a ‘collectibles’ aesthetic behind current vinyl sales?
There’s certainly a collectibles aspect when it comes to Record Store Day, an event that has grown so big that it is now suffering from a backlash. There are those in the vinyl community who oppose the ‘readymade’ collectibles that Record Store Day specializes in (for this year’s event there were over 650 new releases, which were made available in independent record shops for one day only). Somewhere inside most vinyl fans resides the argument that this is the format that makes music sound its best. However, most of them also know that they obsess about the object at least as much as they do about the music that it contains. Georges Bataille once wrote that ‘No collector could ever love a work of art as much as a fetishist loves a shoe’. One of the dilemmas that vinyl addicts wrestle with is whether they are collectors, who adore music, or whether they are fetishists, who have become consumed with passion for a ‘thing’. And of course, this ‘thing’ called vinyl is not only adored because it is the basis of an ever-growing collection, it is also adored because of the way it looks, feels and behaves.
When I was little I had a babysitter who used to arrive for her babysitting with a box of 78s – rather bigger than an ipod and she still needed to use our stereo system to play them. Do you want to comment on the changing material culture of popular music listening?
I am interested in continuities, as well as differences. The iPod clearly represented a sea-change in the amount of ‘owned’ music that people were able to carry with them. It did, however, build upon the listening cultures of the Walkman, as well as the radio, whose influence sometimes gets ignored. Radio made music portable long before the Walkman did (in my own case, it provided my first experience of listening with a headphone – not headphones – outdoors), and it also made a lot of music available. It’s also notable that people have tried to make their download and streaming listening more akin to radio listening. On the one hand, they randomise tracks by using shuffle modes, thus receiving music passively as you would when listening to the radio. On the other hand, they organise it into playlists, thus putting themselves in the position of the radio DJ. Another continuity is that people have way more music than they actually need. The difference is that this has been multiplied. I haven’t got a vast record collection, but many of the discs that are in it have lain dormant for years. These wasted records are now accompanied by the thousands of tracks I have on iTunes that have never or rarely been played. I still think that most of us only have a few key records. The continuity of BBC’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ programme would appear to support this idea. The show still has the same format as when it started, back in the era of the 78rpm disc. Although people could now be stranded with an iPod full of tunes, the castaways on ‘Desert Island Discs’ find nothing wrong with focusing their lives around eight individual records. They don’t even mention the b-sides!