Vinyl’s comeback

I am realising more and more just how significant the vinyl record is within my discussion of ‘concept albums’, and how certain concept albums released in the 60s, 70s and 80s utilised the vinyl’s extra-musical properties (such as the large 12×12 inch cover space and the larger still gatefold sleeve) to enhance the narrative or thematic themes of the album’s music, and also reflect the sociocultural contexts of their time of release. (See Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick’, Aphrodite’s Child’s ‘666’, Camel’s ‘Nude’ or Queensryche’s ‘Operation Mindcrime’.)

I have always marveled at the warmth and richness of vinyl records, and their characteristic crackle. I am learning that I am far from the only young fellow with this fascination.

CDs are falling down fast.. i have 700 of them, but i am aware they are on the way out. Even JB HIFI have halved their range. As digital files dominate the music market, and single songs rather than albums are the more common unit of sale, the physicality of music (which has been preserved by albums for decades) appears under threat.

A piece that I have been analysing by Bartmanski and Woodward (2012), together with an Ashgate publication by Osborne (2012), however, have each made the incredible power and appeal of vinyl records clearer to me.

Could it be that vinyl, and its traditional traits and aesthetics, holds the key to the reinvigoration of the physical artefact in music?

Bartmanski and Woodward seem to think so.. They note that the period between 2008 and 2012 delivered more sales of vinyl records than the entire period between 1993 and 2007 combined. And this doesn’t even take into account the many sales of vinyl from independent record retailers that do not report sales figures to Soundscan.

Osborne suggests that vinyl records, more so than any other physical medium of music, provide both an alternative to, and a complement for digital music files. Popular contemporary artists such as Coheed and Cambria and Kendrick Lamar, as well as resurgent veterans such as Jethro Tull, have each released concept albums in the past two years that have made the most of vinyl’s comeback. Their gatefolds are filled to the brim with imagery, text and special features that illuminate their album concepts, and justify their album’s status as a valuable artifact. What is most interesting, however, is that these artists also bundle their vinyls with digital file versions of the music at no extra cost, to service the demands of the digital generation. This sacrifices some of the artistic intent, but allows their music to be featured on playlists for iPhones, iPads, iPods and websites everywhere and guarantees listeners.. Genius.

Lady Gaga has announced plans to release a concept album later this year in the form of an App. As far as I understand, the devilish diva, known for being one step ahead of the times just as Bowie was in the 1970s, intends for her ‘Applbum’, titled ARTPOP, to throw a spanner in the works of the music industry’s current ‘album vs single’ situation. The album-as-app format will be used to place equal importance on both her individual songs, and the album on which they belong. Each song on ARTPOP will have its own dedicated page of interactive content, while remaining connected to the greater whole.

Whether or not we see a mass-distributed vinyl edition of ARTPOP may be a telling sign of things to come.

Lady Gaga strikes a pose in the lead-up to the release of her forthcoming ARTPOP.

About simonwoodhonours

Simon Wood (Honours in Media and Communication) is an RMIT student whose specialist discipline is in the 'contemporary music industry'. For his honours study in 2013, Simon will be researching the ‘concept album’, and its significance within the contemporary music industry.
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