Abba, not content with dominating the charts – and wedding playlists – for decades are also now responsible for a resurgence in the sale of vinyl records, which, according to the BBC, has reached its highest level in more than three decades.
What’s going on? Vinyl is fragile and unreliable – it scratches easily and jumps irritatingly with any nearby vibrations. And it takes up space. So much space. I should know, a third of my dining room is dedicated to my husband’s precious LP collection. He’s travelled miles to record fairs and spent hours searching through hundreds of records on the lookout for additions to his collection. Some of his records are rare enough that he’s reluctant to play them in case they get damaged.
We’ve had many conversations about the appeal of vinyl but I’m still at a loss. Apparently, it’s something like the difference between books and kindles: the sensory charm of a physical format is comforting and reassuring. The size of LPs means that one can appreciate album artwork more easily. I’m told that watching vinyl spin on the turntable can be hypnotic. Purists might say that vinyl offers superior sound quality to that of streaming services but I can’t hear the difference – beyond the unmistakable opening crackle and low hiss of a record playing. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that sound played too many times on crime thrillers and now I can’t hear it without the prickle of anxiety that it’s a prelude to the entrance of a serial killer.
I do wonder about the cultural significance of the revival of vinyl, though. Apparently, it’s not only fans of Abba who love LPs; the trend is also being driven by sales of Adele and Ed Sheeran. It could be that these artists are appealing to an older demographic who are more comfortable with a tactile format. Perhaps it’s the experience of vinyl that’s the clincher? The same way I like to hold a physical copy of a book and turn actual pages rather than read an electronic version.
I understand that preference for the substantial – of owning something material rather than virtual. What I’m not sure about is whether this trend is really about quality or whether there is a touch of snobbery about the retro attraction of vinyl. I’ve met more than my share of ‘musos’ who think they’re somehow superior because of their taste in music. Having a showy collection of vinyl – that owners have to pull out and parade in front of uninterested guests stifling yawns – is a display of pretentiousness that turns me right off.
No, I’ll take the eminently portable and convenient digital option any day. I can listen to whatever I want, whenever I want, on whichever device I like. My collection can’t be damaged, it doesn’t take up any physical space and it doesn’t collect dust. I can also move between songs quickly and easily depending on my mood and create playlists for different occasions or activities. I know Adele was strident about not shuffling songs but I’m not a huge fan of authorial or artistic intention – once the album’s mine I’ll listen to it however I please, thanks. I don’t want artists dictating how I read, see, or listen to their work. They’ve done their bit and once their songs are in the public arena then listeners will do theirs.
Of course, having a hidden set of virtual playlists has the added benefit that no one has to see my collection of eighties power ballads and nineties dance tunes. Not that I’d be embarrassed. I just can’t be bothered with the inevitable scoffing by self-described music buffs who consider themselves authorities on taste just because they’ve got a couple of obscure LPs. Like so many things, ownership of the right collection of records is part of conspicuous consumption, a status symbol signifying a superior palate.
Maybe the electronic alternative is less appealing to vinyl enthusiasts because it allows fewer opportunities for them to parade their taste at dinner parties. No record sleeves to prop upright on the retro sideboard while guests help themselves to the pistachios. Anyway, I’d love to say more but I’ve got an appointment to belt out “Alone” by Heart. The streamed version. Obvs.