Syd Bird on how the format, once heralded as obsolete and outdated in our digital age, has fought back to the point of influencing the very fabric of our city
Physical sales of music are once more outselling digital, and while the slump in digital sales is largely credited to the staggering growth and popularity of streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music, there is an increased appetite and market for physical products. The BPI, which represents the UK’s recorded music industry, indicates that vinyl is up 26.8% with LPs constituting one in 10 physical purchases. Vinyl’s increasing popularity has led to a resurgence of record stores here in Bristol; their numbers are on the up and so is their cultural clout.
Adrian Dutt, the assistant store manager and events manager of the city’s shiny new Rough Trade, has worked in record stores for the last 15 years and is pleased that vinyl “has gone from nearly non-existent to massive again.” As he explains, with the boom of digital technology, major labels who owned the pressing plants “abandoned them and they were destroyed. They didn’t want to touch it.” However their rejection of older formats was arguably misjudged.
After vinyl ‘died’ a dedicated group of independent and small boutique labels refused to give up and continued to press it. “It was the network of those labels that kept vinyl going,” Adrian continues. There always remained a somewhat underground record store presence that weathered the long digital years, such as Rough Trade which originated in 1976 in London, and Bristol’s very own Plastic Wax, circa 1978. However in recent years the market has been expanding rapidly with events such as Record Store Day testament to the popularity of vinyl. What was once underground is now very much basking in the sun.
Not only have the sales of vinyl grown and evolved – so too has the customer base. “The generalised myth that record stores were for middle-aged men in big coats was more fitting, say 10 years ago, but now it’s everyone who’s buying it,” says Adrian. A wide demographic of people are once more drawn to vinyl and CD. Despite the ease and accessibility of digital music and streaming services, there is something about vinyl that we can’t quite seem to quit. Something about the aesthetics of physicality, of holding the record in our hands, that appeals to us in an inexplicable way. Does it provide a closer connection perhaps? One where you feel like you own the music and it demands you give your time to the record in a way that it’s impossible to with endless playlists and shuffling. There’s also a ceremonial feel to engaging with vinyl; in flicking through your collection, in setting it up, in hearing that warm, low, background crackle and a richness of sound some argue is missing digitally. Perhaps it’s just that we listen more when we’ve committed our time to it. Who knows. Either way, we seem to be increasingly besotted by it in our digitally saturated lives.
So, love letter to vinyl aside, how is all this affecting our city? Vinyl’s independent background matches Bristol’s creative and DIY ethos. This, coupled with our rich musical legacy and vibrant music scene, makes us the perfect city to embrace vinyl’s revival. Just as store numbers are on the up, so are home-grown vinyl products from local independent labels and acts such as The Bristol Recorder.
The Recorder is part of Bristol’s heritage; founded in 1979 it’s a unique combination of vinyl record and topical magazine. The gatefold sleeve of the LP doubles up as the front and back cover of the magazine, exploring, celebrating and challenging all things Bristol. After more than a 30-year hiatus, during which many of the original instigators co-founded Womad music festival, The Bristol Recorder Volume 4 aims to restore a vinyl voice for Bristol and its music through the relaunch of its original incarnation. The record is a compilation of some of the best of Bristol-based artists, providing a holistic snapshot of our eclectic music scene with a range of artists and genres, from reggae stalwarts Laid Blak to satirical post-punk rabble Lice.
Another important addition to the scene is Rough Trade which has recently settled in Bristol. Ours is the fifth and newest venture for the prestigious store which has a mighty reputation of championing and promoting independent and exciting new music. Rise, formerly on the Triangle, transitioned into Rough Trade thus inheriting a team of people engrained in Bristol’s music scene. Various staff members run their own labels, such as Adrian’s Howling Owl Records, as well as having phenomenal artists such as Oliver Wilde on their illustrious work rota. Rough Trade also has an in-store music venue and, as Adrian reveals, is “constantly in conversation with Bristol promoters. They’ll use our space and we’ll stock their releases and if we can’t fit someone in we’ll put them in contact with someone else who can.”
As well as the support for local artists, acts “who are too big to play here will because of the Rough Trade name,” which enables “people to come and see gigs for free or cheap.” Bristol’s record stores are once more becoming cultural hubs where people congregate to discover and celebrate new music, both from across the world and on their very own doorstep. Vinyl’s revival is aiding Bristol’s music scene by creating new spaces and platforms that champion our extraordinary local talent.
We’re positively spoilt here with our extensive and varied collection of record stores from specialists such as Idle Hands (purveyors of dance and electro), Payback Records (reggae specialists) to collectable treasure troves Plastic Wax, Wanted Records, Prime Cuts and North Street indie Friendly Records. So go on, venture forth and peruse their precious plastic.
• Just released on Record Store Day, The Bristol Recorder Vol. 4 is out now – the relaunch night takes place at Rough Trade on 27 April featuring special live guests Firewoodisland and Dr. Meaker. Instagram: @thebristolrecorder; Twitter @bristolrecorder