There are so many harsh ways in which this respiratory pandemic has affected people, but one of its more minor impacts is that it has denied us the experience of skimming through reams of records in person. I’m at risk of sounding pretentious here, but with a pinch of self-awareness, I can say that music browsing is a hobby of mine. With its worn paper case, browning at the corners, a pre-loved vinyl invites its owner to remember that there are other people out there too – people who listen and love, smile and cry to the same songs as us.
In an ordinary world, these are people you might meet at a concert and instantly feel connected to; but our experience of that category of friendship has all but disappeared since March 2020. It seems unlikely that this attraction of vinyl is something that can fill the void left by casual musical friendships, but it may contribute to its rocketing popularity right now.
But vinyl renaissance started long before the pandemic. After years of only hardcore enthusiasts keeping the industry alive, record players and vinyl are now sold in Urban Outfitters. The industry has grown for thirteen consecutive years, from only 205k vinyl sales in the UK in 2007, to 4.8m in 2020. These statistics indicates vinyl’s re-emergence is not just something I’m imagining in my relatively indie, Oxford bubble. It is especially impressive that the record industry stayed resilient through 2020, with sales increasing by a tenth on 2019’s figures despite the restrictions on the art of instore record shopping. Geoff Taylor, Chief Executive at the British Phonographic Industry has summarised this surge as demonstrative of “the timeless appeal of collectable physical formats alongside the seamless connectivity of streaming”, which rings true to my own relationship with records.
While I’m glad that we’re seeing a vinyl second coming, there can be no denying that the industry has morphed into something new in the last few decades. The fact that 40% of the 40 top-selling EPs of 2020 were released more than a decade prior shows that nostalgia is crucial to sales. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is widely regarded as an essential piece in a record collection, so it’s no surprise that this flawless album was the #1 best-seller. The idea of some albums being essential to a record collection extends nostalgia into a sense that when you’re buying a record, you’re engaging in a tradition. A tradition of forking out for a physical symbol of your dedication to a band, of being cautious with it as you lower it onto the turntable, and of listening to the crackle and craft intently. Admittedly, this experience is one that Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram are pretty familiar with. Yet, what does that show, other than that our generation loves to show off what we’re listening to?
Since March 2020, I’ve set foot in only one record store – the pretty small Vintage and Vinyl, in the coastal Kent town of Folkestone. I was aware of how different this experience was to the first time I excitedly visited Rough Trade East. The sanitiser that coated my hands before entering Vintage and Vinyl was sticky. I was conscious of every fingerprint I might leave– a world away from thumbing through endless stacks of records in a pre-COVID world. I noticed soon that there was a couple waiting outside the store – I was taking up precious space. Since I wasn’t planning to buy anything that afternoon, it seemed irresponsible to linger.
The pandemic has undoubtedly transformed our retail experience. Record stores around the world have committed to operating online stores and Discogs marketplaces, and even delivering by cycle. Nevertheless, I’m reassured by our pandemic love affair with vinyl that the importance of physicality cannot be diminished by the technology that surrounds us, or the circumstances we’re in.
Image credit: Milesoftrane.com via Creative Commons.