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Plastic fantastic: why vinyl records refuse to fade away

Published: 9 January 2024 at 15:00

Man browsing vinyl records in a shop

VIEWPOINT: HMV’s return to Oxford Street shows there’s still a future for physical music

By William Campbell, Anglia Ruskin University

“What musicians want,” said composer Sir Edward Elgar as he inaugurated the first HMV shop in London in 1921, “is more listeners, and the dissemination of good music by the gramophone will give us a new public which will … listen to it with true appreciation.”

Sadly this historical establishment closed its Oxford Street doors in 2019, after the company went into administration, chiefly due to the burgeoning popularity of digital music platforms and the online sale of music.

Now, after a four-year hiatus, the store reopened just in time for Christmas, riding the wave of an unexpected resurgence in vinyl records, CDs, and even cassette tapes. In an era where an infinite music catalogue is a mere click away, the question is: why would anyone choose to queue up for a piece of plastic?

A musical connection

Music transcends mere sound. It’s an immersive journey that extends beyond auditory pleasures. Many music enthusiasts feel a stronger connection when they possess something curated by the artist they can hold in their hands. Among these relics, vinyl records stand out, holding a special place in the hearts of many, reminiscent of a bygone era when vinyl reigned supreme.

In a world where streaming encourages casual background listening, these physical formats champion a different kind of experience that is more intentional and focused. Devotees argue that there’s something meditative about putting on a record and savouring an entire album from start to finish – a stark contrast to the trend of artists digitally releasing single songs.

The allure of vinyl records is more than auditory – it’s a tactile and visual feast that resonates with the soul. The distinct scent wafting from a stack of old records can transport listeners to a time when scouring Grandad’s country and western collection was the epitome of musical discovery.

Imagine lounging in a comfortable chair, wearing oversized headphones connected to a teak console-style stereo with a penny sitting on top of the needle arm to stop it jumping out of the groove, listening to The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi.

It’s a sensory experience: the needle’s crackle, the sound’s warmth and tone, the visual feast of album art. It’s an intimate journey through time and music, allowing enthusiasts to revel in the magic within those spiralling grooves.

Much like my experience with art – initially dismissing Vincent van Gogh’s work until I physically stood before his Sunflowers – music is about the complete experience. Van Gogh’s masterpiece taught me that it’s not merely about appearances. It’s about delving into the layers, the intensity and the raw emotion an artist pours into their creation. Similarly, vinyl records invite us to explore beyond the surface, seducing us into a world where the physicality of music becomes an art form.


What streaming lacks

For audiophiles, the debate is about more than just convenience. Physical formats offer a distinct, authentic warmer sound. Compact discs can store the entire dynamic range of loudness of a symphony orchestra. The benefits of harmonic distortion, which lends a pleasing sense of warmth to the playback, and dynamic capacity, which authentically replicates the loudest and quickest sounds, may not appeal to everyone. But for those who desire a richer and more immersive audio experience, these formats are highly valued.

Collectors are also drawn to the rarity and unique packaging of physical formats. Limited releases, special editions and breathtaking cover art can make for prized possessions.

Take, for instance, the exceptional Jack White ultra-vinyl record Lazaretto, complete with hidden tracks and holograms. Playing a vinyl record or popping in a cassette tape provides a tangible, hands-on experience, absent in the streaming realm. The joy of carefully placing a needle on a vinyl groove or untangling and rewinding a cassette tape with a pencil is a ritual that transcends the convenience of streaming.

The creative presentation of album artwork on vinyl, tapes and CDs also enhances the overall experience, adding a visual component often lacking with streaming. Who of my generation could forget the countless hours spent scrutinising the record sleeves of Iron Maiden’s Somewhere in Time or Pink Floyd’s The Wall?

Some resist the ever-increasing digitisation of our lives. Against a backdrop of constant technological advancement, old-school records offer a chance to step back and engage with music more traditionally. The tactile experience, the hiss and pops of analogue recordings, and the appreciation for album covers provide a refreshing change from the more distanced – some might say sterile – realm of digital music.

Vinyl record shops such as HMV offer more than just music – they provide a sense of community for enthusiasts. Record Store Day, for example, offers limited artist releases in more than 260 independent record shops worldwide. Collectors and fans enjoy sharing their discoveries and experiences with like-minded individuals.

Despite streaming dominating the music industry, vinyl records, cassette tapes and compact discs remain popular due to their unique listening experiences. For a new generation, the instant gratification of streaming platforms has given way to the “retro” experience of music you can touch, contributing to a surge of interest in vinyl and record players. For the young it is something different, a novelty from the past to embrace and enthuse over. For older generations, it’s a comforting piece of nostalgia.

So, as the HMV Oxford Street store welcomes customers again, there’s a special joy in standing in the queue, eagerly awaiting treasures to pass on to the next generation. After all, some things are worth the wait.

William Campbell, Deputy Head of School, leading Music and Music Technology, Anglia Ruskin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The opinions expressed in VIEWPOINT articles are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARU.

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