Saturday, April 20, 2013

Spin Cycle

Stop me if you've heard this before (actually, you have - The day to love the smell of vinyl in the morning), but this is the day I get in my annual moan about how things aren't what they used to be, that policemen are getting younger and that it's a travesty that digital downloads are killing off physical music formats.

So here goes: the 2013 Record Store Day has come around again to get us all out there in actual bricks-and-mortar record shops, buying CDs and vinyl and, you know, actually getting more out of the music-purchasing experience than doing so slumped in an armchair, laptop and apple Danish balanced precariously on our laps.

This year's RSD comes at a time of continued attrition in the music retailing business, with streaming services like Spotify now accounting for a fifth of all music acquisition, and sales of physical formats declining by another 5%. Last year, for example, 833 million CDs were sold worldwide - compared with 2.4 billion a decade ago.

According to the IFPI, the worldwide music industry association, it isn't all doom and gloom, at least for those making music. The IFPI's annual Digital Music Report this year announced that global revenue from recorded music was actually up by 0.3% to $16.5 billion, thanks to new digital distribution channels, the first rise since 1999. There is evidence to suggest that Adele has much to do with this.

"Licensed downloads" - i.e. the type the record industry wants you to have - are still canibalising sales of 'physical' formats, with download sales increasing in number by 12% around the world last year, to the extent they represent 70% of all revenue from digital music. Subscription services also leapt in 2012, with a 44% increase, accounting for more than 10% of digital revenues for the first time.

All of which is nice for the artists and record companies, but still not good for the record retailer. What shouldn't be forgotten, however, is that physical formats like the CD and vinyl aren't disappearing, and still account for almost two-thirds of all music sold. Vinyl even grew last year, with its highest sales since 1997, fuelled by a combination of teenager DJs and those of us of a certain age returning to the format via exorbitantly-priced heritage releases.

But, according to some analysts, physical formats have a clear shelf life in the mainstream of music buying. "By the end of the decade, the physical product will be seen as a thing of the past," was the stark prediction given earlier this year by Matt Piner of research agency Conlumino in a CNN interview earlier this year.

Since the last Record Store Day we've seen the collapse of the UK's HMV chain and further high-profile closures such as the Virgin Megastores in France. Analysts say this has much more to do with their business models as any major change in media buying culture. Amazon - with its tax-friendly distribution base - has been steadily eating into over-the-counter record sales, mainly due to the sheer convenience of online shopping, while supermarket checkout-based CD racks have offered consumers a convenient but limited choice of the big-name, family-friendly releases.

Which gives us all the more reason to seek out a Record Store Day-supporting retailer today. To make the experience even more attractive, hundreds of acts have issued special RSD releases which are exclusively available from shops involved in the day.

From a 40th anniversary 7-inch vinyl picture disc of Bowie's Drive-In Saturday to one-off live albums from Mumford and Sons and Robyn Hitchcock, a vinyl re-release of Orange Juice's Rip It Up, a box set of all the single Paul Weller released off Sonik Kicks, all presented in 7-inch form, a rare Sly & The Family Stone album released on 10-inch vinyl, and archive re-releases from The Doors, Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The White Stripes have also released an RSD-exclusive 10th anniversary edition of Elephant. Jack White is - unsurprisingly - a strong supporter of the whole initiative:

"I think it’s high time the mentors, big brothers, big sisters, parents, Guardians, and neighborhood ne’er do wells, start taking younger people That look up to them To a real record store and show them what an important part of life music really is," he writes on the RSD website with alarming disregard for correct use of capitals.

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy puts it a little less eccentrically when he says: "Nothing beats browsing in your favourite store, listening to music, finding something new or old that you’ve been searching for, all that," and adds: "Without these stores, there’s just no way [we] would still be around."

There's no doubt that those of us who share Tweedy's view are suffering from romanticism. The fact that The Doors and Deep Purple are releasing special vinyl editions on RSD suggests that the vinyl resurgence is being part refuelled by the same instincts that sees Harley-Davidson motorbikes ridden out of bike dealerships by late middle-aged men in bandanas. Some are actively seeking the smell of vinyl in the morning because it associates themselves with a youth they may never have had.

There is, though, certainly something pleasantly redolent in putting an album on a turntable, applying the stylus and listening for that initial crackle. This is also the same psychology at work that makes us apply Instagram to give a vintage wash to an otherwise pristine digital photograph Apple spent a fortune developing high-end iPhone optics for.

Comfort, though it may be, there is pleasure to be had from owning vinyl and listening to it. And not only is there a tactile joy from removing a disc from its dust sleeve and placing the needle gently on Track 1, there is also the cardiovascular benefit of getting off your arse to turn the record over to Side 2.

So, get out there today and find your local Record Store Day retailer. Whether you're an older head into albums, or the restless type who only downloads individual singles, go and buy yourself an actual album or an actual single. And don't tell me you didn't enjoy the packaging.

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