I was born in 1981, a year when the vinyl sales regardless of the musical genre reached the incredible number of 1,14 billion copies. This is a dizzying number, especially compared with 1988 and even more with 1999 and recently. However, at the same time it was the last year with a rise in the vinyl sales, since after that year’s peak, in 1982 an important event signalled its end. The multinational giants Sony and Phillips launched compact disc (what we all know as cd) promoting without shame the advantages of the new product that could take more music (75 minutes back then), had better sound quality (that proved to be a lie) that supposedly would never fade out from repeated use or dust or scratches, as also being easier portable due to its smaller volume.
Since then almost 40 years have passed, most of them hard for vinyl. Years that went away fast (not like a stream of water on the ground, but like the needle that touches on the streams of the vinyl), as fast were the changes in science and technology and of course human behaviour. Also fast was the way in which the new formats of storing and distributing music as a commodity were incorporated in our lives. But let’s go a bit back to the time when the vinyl itself was introduced as technologically superior than its predecessors and especially the “V-discs” of the known ‘war’ discs of 78 that were accompanying the US military operations from 1943 to 1949… 70 years back, in 1948 and in New York, this legendary format was introduced to the world as LP (from ‘long playing’ or ‘long play’). In the luxurious Waldorf Astoria, the President of Columbia Edward Wallerstein presented the new technological achievement of his company.
Lighter, with a 23-minute capacity instead of the 5 minutes that V-discs had, the new disc seemed to be coming from the future. In that presentation the power of the image was used smartly… on one side a pile of 78s plaques that contained about 300 songs were piled up in a 2,5 meter high stack and on the other side one of only 40 cm that had the exact same number of songs… Of course the people who used to buy them at the time belonged to the higher middle class, or even higher and the dominant music was of course classical. It is not a coincidence that with vinyl’s emergence, music came down to the masses, the poorer social groups and at the same time to the younger people, almost the same time as the rock and roll explosion, forefather of heavy metal and extreme sound in general. Of course the switch to rock and roll and the one to the new format didn’t happen exactly the same time, but two things worked in favour of that. First the low price of the new device that would reproduce the sound of the LP, at 9,95 dollars and also the appearance of the juke box. That machine helped in spreading out the 45’s and its usage almost exclusively for singles, whereas the 33s for full length albums (the 45s of RCA – Columbia’s rival company – were the competitors of the LP and were in the form of a vinyl disc with thin streams of 7 inches. To compete with the LP, RCA released albums of 45s, along with EPs – extended play -, in which two or three choices were compressed in each side. Despite those efforts, 45s achieved only to replace the 78s.
Of course, some years had to pass by before the vinyl takes over for good. Even in 1952, the 78s were taking 50% of the total music sales. Without looking it up at any music book, or asking google to find details, I think the most crucial point was the appearance of Elvis Presley. His aura and the impact he had on the masses made vinyl and rock and roll one and the same thing. At the same time, pop culture would change forever, with the radio, the sponsors, the promoters, the advertisements, truckloads of money and all kinds of interests becoming a big complex, a proper network – circuit. Of course, we can’t go on without mentioning the dipole The Beatles – Rolling Stones (or the British Invasion as it was known in the 60’s) or the sexual revolution or the hippies, even the political songwriting and the equivalent lyrics since the previous decades were characterized by intense and conflicting ideologies as well as the Cold War that unavoidably influenced music. The 70’s gave birth to heavy metal and hard rock. Besides the sound that went harder and the lyrics that touched more extreme issues, the revolutionary side of this music lies also in the fact that it made the music industry and all the other genres of music to create longer records.
Let me elaborate… Until then, the singles were what was bringing money for the labels and a possible hit from an artist meant that it would be pressed in a 7’’ in order to milk the fan-listener. The hard sound through its mega bands that rose to fame in the 70’s, forced other artists beyond Rock (Bob Dylan, The Who) to create complete records with 8-10 songs in the spirit of the concept albums that already were taking shape in the 60’s. That meant that the fan was not forced to buy 6-7 different singles, but by paying one time, he would get an album that contained 40-45 minutes of his favourite music and would have a complete product in his hands. Already from the 70’s the upgrading of tapes’ quality was taking place and vinyl’s domination was shaking. Tapes were hard to break, small and portable, they could be played in a car (now that’s an advantage) but mostly, they could be copied. In 1983 the total tapes sales were more than that of the vinyl.
As I said before, 1982 was a crucial year since that’s when cd came out, but vinyl, even temporarily, was winning this battle until 1988. Then the price of the stereos that could play cds, as also of the cds themselves started dropping dramatically. Of course, that same year cds’ total global sales overcame those of vinyl. In the short lived cd sovereignty, the milestone year is 1992 when it overcame the sales of the cassette and of course 1999, the year when Napster and the first mp3 were born… Regardless if it’s due to fetishism, hipsterism, elitism or someone’s persistence, vinyl is alive. It is still alive, it resists and will live forever since the companies keep finding big enough numbers of people willing to pay in order to own it. No, it is not back and it will never be back. It’s just that in 2006 it reached the bottom, with only 3 million sales worldwide. Disgraceful numbers, not only compared to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Back In Black, or to Def Leppard’s or Van Halen’s platinum records. Just saying in passing that Guns And Roses pressed the Illusion records in 4 million copies in an act of sheer cockiness, but also as a proof of reaching the commercial top, whereas the sales of their debut album are 10 times bigger (Appetite For Destruction, 1987, was the debut album with the biggest sales worldwide, at 30 millions).
The fact that the last 10-12 years the absolute sales numbers is rising is translated as a conscious and considerable resistance in contrast with today’s superficial ways that people treat music. You need to love vinyl and you need to take time with it and take care of it. It is not the stubbornness of some conservative people or some that like to look old school. I think the companies did not calculate well when they did not prevent mp3, or even Youtube. They believed in the re-emergence of the times when hits and singles were ruling the business and that albums would fade away and they could profit only by having songs in the form of video clips on youtube. But it’s hard to sum the billions of dollars the previous decades were bringing only by clicking… Of course the superficial relationship between audience and music is not that or any other medium’s fault. In the era of image and Instagram – and the rest of social media of course – time seems frozen while at the same time it goes away in a heartbeat. Nobody is investing in moments, in creating them and therefore in memories… How can I forget listening to Deep Purple’s sound from The Anthology tape playing in the car in our Saturday family excursions when I was a kid? Or the scratches of For Those About To Rock vinyl every time my mother needed something heavier than Aqualung and its sweet flute?
Or as a teenager borrowing from older friends their pimped up stereo system and since they were going away for their military service (18 months that is…) I had enough time to playing loud and again and again to the point of melting the vinyl whole discographies of Sodom, Venom and Motorhead. Or the listening sessions at Kostas’ house in Kallithea since I was often taking the morning train to Athens to buy records judging from the price mostly…. Priest, Savatage, Stay Hungry with an almost destroyed cover, but only for 800 drahmas, Speak Of The Devil… and later whole nights with good company and Black Seeds Of Vengeance, Into The Unknown and Blood On Ice, but also recently with Kvelertak, Midnight, Tribulation and with the company of lit up candles, red wine and the roar of the king in The Oath that pauses time…. Of course, anyone’s romance or memories have nothing to do with the medium… But the vinyl marked the relationship between the listener and music itself the last 70 years more than any other format. Who cares if it’s vulnerable to dust, heat, bumps and scratches? Every time you get a vinyl in your hands there is the same ritual, putting it with respect in the turntable and watching the needle carving another round each time, a course to another magical trip, a dreamy but most of all real one… because the truth is forever carved in the streams… because the truth is in the groove….