Hearing the pop, crackle and hiss

15 August 2009

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I pulled my scarf tighter as I stepped back out into the dreary Melbourne day, my trophy clutched safely under my arm.  I smiled to myself with satisfaction as I thought about unwrapping it, like a child waiting to play with their new toy. I had just been to a Melbourne music landmark, Brunswick Street’s Polyester Records.  I’ve been there before to buy the odd CD or concert ticket but today was special.  Today, I had bought my first vinyl record.

I’ve always thought people who bought vinyl were sophisticated, music savvy and perhaps a little eccentric, but they always impressed me.  While sneaking admiring glances at them as they walked past the CD racks, I wondered what they’d bought and why they bought it.   Today, I hoped someone was wondering what I’d bought. 

Despite what I might think about vinyl, it is not surprising that vinyl only made up 0.1 percent of music sales in 2008.   It’s the age of technology, and vinyl recordings aren’t downloadable. 

In fact, sales of physical music recordings: CDs, cassettes and vinyl, fell 14 percent last year.  This is bad news for the recording industry.  On the surface, Australian musicians are flourishing, both here and overseas.  But beneath the surface lurks a dangerous phenomenon: illegal downloads.

Digital music is experiencing rapid growth.  Legitimate sales were up 112 per cent in the 2008 ARIA statistics chart.  Unfortunately, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) said that for every digital track purchased from a legitimate provider there are 20 that are illegally downloaded for free. 

An article in The Age earlier this year reported that 95 per cent of downloads are illegal and they are causing huge losses in the music industry.  As for vinyls, only a few companies are even releasing it.  It seems that vinyl is more novelty for collectors than a money making scheme.

Vinyl, apparently, is almost a symbol of belonging among some pop culture niches. Even I find myself thinking this as I watch seasoned vinyl buyers in Polyester. 

Part owner of Polyester, Chris Crouch, knows these kinds of people.  He knows that “a lot of people assume it’s just DJ’s buying vinyl but really it’s the people who just love music”.  He says Polyester is selling more and more vinyl every year until I remind him that the ARIA statistics report are showing otherwise.

“It’s because vinyl is out of sight, out of mind” he says.

“Locally, a lot of record companies have still got their heads in the sand and aren’t releasing vinyl”.

He believes that if it was released, it would sell.  An increasing number of international record companies are bringing vinyl back. 

For example, he suggests, Michael Jackson’s Thriller hasn’t been available on vinyl for ten years but now that it has been re-released, it’s selling as fast as they can import it. 

The reason vinyl sales are so low in Australia may be because mainstream music is seldom, if ever, released on vinyl.  According to Crouch, it’s only the indie labels that realise there is still a market for vinyl.  For producers, vinyl is actually a safer way to release music. 

As CDs are easily burnt and digital files are easily shared, it is much more difficult to duplicate a record.  Anyway, about a third of vinyl releases these days come with a free digital download. 

If not, Crouch says there’s a number of people who will buy both the CD and vinyl release if they really like the album.  The fact that vinyl is still being released, even in the CD and computer age, is a sign of its timelessness.

Many music listeners actually prefer the sound of vinyl as it’s more ‘real’ than digital sound.  The analogue nature of the recording, when sound is recorded in the grooves of the vinyl, gives a warmer, more natural tone than CDs or digital music, say some vinyl listeners. 

Maybe that’s why so many people who bought their music in the vinyl heydays have kept their collections.  Or it might be their value. 

Browsing through eBay I came across an $8000 Beatles recording, a $7000 Pink Floyd recording and a $3000 Ivey recording but that’s nothing compared to the most valuable vinyl ever sold. Holding the top spot on the Wikipedia top 25 list is an autographed edition of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1980 album Double Fantasy.  Autographed by Lennon a mere five hours before he was assassinated, the album is worth US $525,000. Only one copy was ever made of The Quarrymen That’ll Be The Day making it worth US $180,000 in second position. The rest of the list features the Beatles (four times), Bob Dylan (twice), Elvis Presley (twice), the Sex Pistols, the Velvet Underground, Judy Garland, Bach and Mozart among others. 

The cheapest album on the list was priced at $9400. It is hard to imagine a CD ever being worth that much and it is almost impossible to see how a digital recording could become a collector’s item.

For now, I am content with my very own new vinyl album.

Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited is a collection of songs from the now legendary French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. For this album his songs have been translated into English and covered by such diverse artists as Franz Ferdinand, Portishead, Placebo, the Rakes and the Kills, among others. The cover is simple black with a famous picture of Serge and his wife Jane Birkin, who also features on the record, in silver armour-like suits.

For my first vinyl purchase, I’m quietly proud. Although, it did take me an hour to choose.

The collectors may have their collections and the tech savvy may have their I-pods. As for me, I’ve always been a CD girl but listening to my new vinyl, its cover sitting alone on my shelf, I now understand why some audiophiles preach the merits of vinyl in such a single-minded way. The music is ‘warm’ and ‘real’ and ‘genuine’.

But it’s ok; I wouldn’t expect you to understand unless you’re a vinyl listener.

Next time you think of downloading a track for free consider popping into a record store to see if it’s been released on vinyl.

Chances are it hasn’t but if it has, walking out of the store, with a vinyl disk under your arm, makes it well worth the experience.

Kelly Theobald is a final-year Journalism student at La Trobe University.