Thursday, December 5, 2019

A very Black Friday: how the fetish for vinyl is sending prices soaring | The Guardian

In the UK, it didn’t take long for Black Friday – a sales event pegged to Thanksgiving in the US – to go from novel to normal. Its impact on the music industry has been less conspicuous than the gaudy discounts toted by mainstream retailers, but no less significant. Founded in 2008, Record Store Day (RSD) proper takes place every April; in 2010, its American organisers introduced RSD Black Friday, intended as a celebration of independent shops and special-edition records as the antithesis to the corporate frenzy. “Cheapness is not a main goal,” they explain. “Celebrating art is.”

Their choice of words is telling. RSD Black Friday has also made it to the UK in recent years: at my local record shop last week, people queued for the 8am opening to snag the nearly 100 special releases. Early sellouts included a 12-inch picture disc of Jimi Hendrix’s Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (£28). A 12-inch of Lizzo’s Coconut Oil was pressed on coconut-coloured vinyl with a coconut-scented insert (£25). If you missed those, you could grab Lou Reed’s 2003 album, The Raven, for £50.

RSD and the fetishisation of vinyl has grown in inverse proportion to any pleasure I used to feel as a longtime record buyer. I started as a teenager in the early 2000s and now own a couple of thousand LPs. I’m no longer overwhelmed by choice and excitement when I walk into a shop, just dismayed and despondent about how much everything costs and how silly some of it is. I feel priced out, excluded from a group that I presumed would count me as a member for life.

It’s not just exasperated shoppers like me who are noticing this. Recently, the American record label Numero Group tweeted: “Real talk: Records are too expensive. $30 represses from your favourite major label now dominate the bins.” They launched a counteroffensive, slashing LP prices to $15, double LPs to $22 and CDs to $10. “We try to treat records as a format to distribute music, not as merch,” label co-founder Rob Sevier tells me.

For me, records have always been synonymous with sacrifice. As a student, buying albums might mean skimping on the food shop or putting off that final-warning bill for another week. The trade-off felt worth it as I regarded my growing collection with pride, something that I had worked hard to build. But the trade-off between sacrifice and reward has soured. I went to buy the recent Inoyama Land reissue but was met with a £42 price tag. I scanned the racks for something else, searching through countless £25 new releases while spotting reissues that I bought six years ago, for £15, that have now been reissued again at £35. I didn’t have any more luck in the secondhand section, rarely finding anything below £20. It’s felt like this for a while.

I used to love trawling charity shops for bargains, but online marketplace Discogs has given shops a resource to increase prices. While nobody can begrudge charities for getting wise to a trend and changing prices accordingly, the thrill of finding gold there is long gone. The relatively recent days of skipping past hundreds of copies of Paul Young’s No Parlez to unearth £2 copies of Talking Heads albums have been replaced by £15 stickers slapped on tatty copies of bog standard stuff such as Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol 2.

So why have records become more expensive? Phil Leigh of online retailer Norman Records blames RSD. “It’s been hugely popular and is largely based around reissues, legacy acts and collectibles. The major labels have realised they can expand on that and make quite a bit of money from it – so they have.”

What constitutes an easy cash-in for majors doesn’t trickle down to small indies. Michael Kasparis of Glaswegian label Night School recently tweeted: “If I had the guts I’d stop doing stupid limited editions with signed tat or hardcover books or candy coloured splatter vinyl because I find the whole thing based on novelty and totally toxic when it comes to sustainability in this fucked industry. But I don’t.”

They’re a necessary evil, he tells me. “I’ll often put a record out that’s just 500 copies on black vinyl,” he says. “And I guarantee you, if I did it as 500 clear vinyl it’d sell way quicker. It doesn’t make sense. I think RSD and producing manufactured rarities has developed this mentality in record buyers that was kind of already there but it’s turbo-charged now.”

Leigh says that some distributors price new box sets so high that it’s often cheaper for Norman Records to acquire them from Amazon, in which case they simply won’t stock them. He confirms Kasparis’s accounts of consumers becoming averse to standard issue records. “We could sell 100 copies of a coloured vinyl and not sell a single black one,” says Leigh. “It’s the same record and the black one probably sounds better. It’s just weird.”

The culture of collecting rare records is nothing new. But deliberately forcing rarity and collectible status on new music, on a widespread scale and at increased prices, has seen average buyers herded into that collector mentality. For some, buying records is no longer about owning the same piece of music as everyone else but owning a version of it that few others have. It reflects a change in contemporary relationships to owning music, says Sevier. “Owning a limited or special edition is doubling down on the closeness you feel to an album or artist. You can’t display your streaming history like a trophy.”

Kasparis welcomes counter-initiatives such as Dinked, a run of exclusive editions only available at independent outfits, although they also contribute to the pricing problem. “Combating Amazon by having indie store-only releases has been great,” says Leigh. “Otherwise, I’m not sure indie stores would exist any more. Even if you disapprove of where things are going, you still want those shops to stay open.”

This year, vinyl sales in the UK are predicted to hit 4.5m – up from 4m in 2018 and outselling CDs for the first time in more than 30 years. Is the industry’s embrace of novelty simply a case of supply and demand? Or the peak of a classic boom and bust cycle? “I’ve always had a gut feeling that during the vinyl revival, labels are going to end up killing it by pricing everything too high,” says Leigh. “They could end up shooting themselves in the foot. If they want vinyl to become mainstream then it needs to be cheaper.”

Still, he admits that there’s a diehard group of consumers who will continue to support this state of affairs. “It’ll never go away because there’s always a market for it – it’s been so over-fetishised that it’s part of the culture now. That’s why the majors have adopted some of these silly pricing policies.”

For labels, a consumer is a consumer. But for every new buyer willing to spend £45 on a new record, I’d wager that someone like me is lost. Rummaging and revelation have been replaced by expense and exclusion. I’ll doubtless continue to buy some records but it’s becoming a world to which I no longer feel attached.

The 15 David Bowie records I own, picked up from various charity shops, cost me a grand total of about £20. The last 7-inch I bought – one song – was £10 plus postage. Scanning new vinyl releases for this Friday, I see three different versions of the same live album by Idles at £30 a pop. Of course, you can buy the collector’s bundle and get all three for just £85. I’m starting to think: what’s the point?


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