Vinyl is the medium that refuses to retire gracefully. A working tool for DJs and regarded as inherently superior to digital formats by many, it is now being used by musicians to 'add value' and set themselves apart.
Vinyl, the once and future music format
Radiohead’s new album The King of Limbs may well be a bold snapshot of the future, but not necessarily in the ways you would imagine. Setting aside the thrilling subterfuge surrounding its surprise arrival and the sound of a band continually refusing to echo past glories, the lasting significance of The King of Limbs may lie in defining the ever more polarised ways in which albums are being released.
As the music-buying experience becomes increasingly functional – click, use, dispose – at the opposite extreme, the vinyl album is carving out an identity as a deluxe artefact. Radiohead not only released The King of Limbs last month as an MP3 download, the ruthlessly convenient budget option that has reshaped the music industry, but also as the world’s first “newspaper album”. This comprised two clear 10in vinyl records in a purpose-built record sleeve, several large works of art alongside 625 minuscule pieces, and a full-colour piece of “oxo-degradable plastic” to keep it all together.
Included almost as an afterthought are a compact disc and a download, but the conventional CD release of The King of Limbs isn’t scheduled until the end of March, almost two months after the download and vinyl release. The fact that Radiohead currently offers no middle ground between digital convenience and coffee-table opulence suggests that the “newspaper album” isn’t really about the music. Costing £30 (Dh179), this is vinyl as lifestyle accessory and high-end luxury item.
The death of vinyl has been widely predicted since CDs began to dominate the market in the late 1980s, but it has always maintained a foothold. Previously, demand primarily stemmed from DJs, for whom vinyl remained a necessary format in order to mix and scratch records. It was also popular with audiophiles who simply believe – and it’s hard to argue – that it offers sound quality far superior to that of either CD or MP3, as well as indie kids who liked to think that buying music on 7in vinyl was a sign of individuality and keeping faith with an independent ethos.
At one point about five years ago, 7in singles were outselling CD singles, but the bottom has fallen out of that market, largely thanks to the rise of the MP3. In the first half of 2010, sales of 7in singles fell 36 per cent in the UK. But while the dominance of downloads has consumed the singles market, it has had a galvanising effect on vinyl albums. In an age where the download brings nothing in the way of packaging and no real aesthetic context, bands and record labels have discovered the value in offering deluxe vinyl packages while honing their buzzwords: “luxury”, “special”, “limited edition”, “individually signed”.
Under the auspices of specialised companies such as Modo and Artists in Residence, as well as more familiar names like Warner Brothers and its special projects arm, Rhino, bespoke vinyl releases have become a lucrative and highly popular industry in its own right. In 2007 Sigur Ros released a limited 5,000-copy run of In a Frozen Sea which – as well as featuring vinyl editions of all their albums – included a lavish 32-page book of photographs. Retailing at $150 (Dh551), it quickly sold out.
A recording of Cream’s 2005 reunion concerts at the Royal Albert Hall was released in a luxury embossed green box containing three high-quality vinyl records in picture sleeves and a poster to hang on the wall. A used copy has been available on Amazon for £135. That’s a bargain next to the definitive Pixies box-set Minotaur, which offers all five of the band’s albums on top-quality 180g vinyl, plus gold-plated CDs, DVDs, a 96-page fine art book, an additional 54-page book and two double-sided fold-out posters. Every copy is individually numbered and signed. Yours for $495.
These items are clearly designed to adorn your home rather than your record player. Although it’s still slightly odd to see an album sold by weight and width as though it were a piece of livestock, everyone from Beck to Nine Inch Nails to the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas has pounced on the deluxe vinyl bandwagon, and such phrases as “custom-bound storybook” and “handcrafted clamshell box” have become almost clichéd.
It’s not only relatively big acts who are falling into step with the notion of vinyl as a point of economic and artistic distinction. Smaller bands with a loyal fan base also benefit. The deluxe vinyl box-set of the English alt-rockers White Lies’ second album Ritual, released in January, features the album spread over five 7in vinyl discs. Also included is another 7in, featuring two demos, a bonus CD of remixes, signed artwork, a unique code to download it all on MP3, and a “deluxe foiled box”. All for just under £30.
The special vinyl edition of the influential electro outfit UNKLE’s Where Did the Night Fall, released last year, is even more luxurious. Priced at £100, it comes in a 12in box holding three vinyl picture discs each housed in an envelope with the disc’s track listing printed on the reverse in a typeface “created specially for the album”. There are a booklet with lyrics and illustrations and a 12in hardboard book of album artwork printed on silver stock. The Wants, the latest album by the acclaimed Scottish six-piece the Phantom Band, is less lavish but the idea is the same: £14 buys a “heavy vinyl” version of the record, a CD, a download code, as well as a personally signed and numbered poster to “validate the exclusivity of your investment”.
For the group’s guitarist Duncan Marquiss – one of two working artists in the band – it’s all symptomatic of the “polarisation” of the music industry in the digital age. “The physical artefact is being dematerialised and that’s increasing the fetishisation of packaging,” he says. “If it’s handmade, or limited edition – great! It’s about how you differentiate yourself. We’re moving away from the classic model of what a rock band should be, and the artwork and presentation is part of how you disseminate that. I suppose that’s why we feel a responsibility towards it.”
For bands, the elevation of vinyl to the luxury end of the market is not so much about superior sound quality as separating themselves from the herd in an overcrowded market. This is why many artists – including MIA, Burial, the Maccabees and the Villagers’ Conor J O’Brien – now design their own album art. The scale of vinyl records allows far greater scope for creative self expression than an anonymous download, with no tangible life outside a computer or iPod, or a puny plastic CD case.
The King of Limbs “newspaper album” may also provide a template for how other art forms evolve in a digital age. The Kindle edition is the MP3 of the literary world. Does that mean that the humble ink-and-paper book is the deluxe publishing item of the future? Probably, according to the author Ian Rankin.
“The book will become a niche product,” he tells me. “The physical book will be like the special-edition vinyl album and you’ll get the download code for the e-book and it will be signed and numbered. Like music, you’ll have to pay a little bit extra for the bells and whistles.” The luxury items of the future, it seems, might be nothing more than highly polished, lavishly packaged versions of the past.