Crate digging and the resurgence of vinyl
- 22 January 2013
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Vinyl sales are on the rise - but there are two parallel markets for the format, with a deep divide between first and second-hand sales.
Vinyl isn't dead. It is not on life-support. And it certainly isn't going anywhere fast.
In fact, sales of vinyl albums have been increasing over the last five years. The value of the market went up from £3.4m in 2011 to £5.7m in 2012, according to the Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA).
"The reason the growth is notable is that, first of all, a lot of people had written off vinyl for dead and, secondly, it compares very favourably with the declines suffered by CD", says Kim Bayley, director general of the ERA.
What's more, this resurgence in vinyl sales doesn't account for the second-hand market.
The Music and Video Exchange in London, one of the country's longest-running second-hand stores, estimates that they sell about one million pieces of vinyl a year.
With eBay and sites like eil.com and Hard To Find Records bolstering the trade in rare and deleted vinyl, it's clear that some music lovers still covet their turntables.
If you need any visual indication of the love for the 12-inch discs, take a look at the acres of dusty shelves owned by DJs Jazzy Jeff and Pete Rock - two of the biggest vinyl collectors on the planet, with tens of thousands of records apiece.
They share an infectious enthusiasm for "crate diggin'", an old school hip-hop term for musicians who spend hours flipping through boxes of faded and dog-eared sleeves, looking for the elusive cut that will become the centrepiece of their collection.
"I started when I was about 12 years old in school," says Jeff, former musical partner to the "Fresh Prince", Will Smith.
"I used to actually take the money that my mom would give me for lunch and I would go and buy 45s," he says, recalling the 7-inch vinyl discs that would play at 45 revolutions per minute.
"There was a store in Philadelphia that had a deal that you can get three 45s for 99 cents. So that is how I started my collection." he says.
In an era when most DJs ply their trade from laptops, why is vinyl so special to him?
"That is what I grew up off of," he says.
"I grew up looking at my dad's old 78 records, and then my brother's old funk and soul records. That gave me the ability to use the record player, and you would play stuff and just go to your favourite part of the record, and just listen to it and get really submerged in the music.
"And then all of a sudden you are 10 or 11 years old, and you buy your first piece of vinyl...
"When you collect vinyl it is a love affair that you will always have."
Not everyone shares this love affair, says DJ Pete Rock - just as his wife Shara enters the room.
She certainly doesn't appreciate the loss of floor space, but Rock says many young producers gave up crate digging when the court cases and royalty fees around sampling old records became problematic.
"With the sampling issues going on in the music game, people don't really do it anymore, so there is no concern for the diggin' aspect of it. So all the gold and platinum is left to people like me, and other producers who still sample," he says.
And Pete is well known in the industry for taking these "dusties" and "mashing up" beats with a sympathetic ear to the more obscure tracks.
He says you can be creative with any type of sound from a record. And he will look beyond the music to the people behind it, and the instruments they played.
"People should always learn about what was before them," he says.
"That is how I came up. That is how I was taught in this music business - to respect what came before me. I just kinda carry that with me and spread it to everyone else."
Some musicians still regard sampling as cultural theft. Others say a well-judged sample can re-contextualise and energise an existing song, in the same way jazz musicians appropriate and riff on each others' work.
One person who experienced the latter is Charles Strouse who, in 1977, composed the musical Annie.
Twenty-one years later, Jay-Z sampled his song Hard Knock Life on what was to become the rapper's breakthrough single in the UK.
"I wanted to write the terror of being an orphan," says Strouse of the original.
"The terror. The fear. The darkness. The lateness of the hour. And that they had to clean bathrooms and all.
"It has been done many times. But it was the terror that was very much in my mind when I was writing."
"Jay told me he went to see the show once, and he was struck by the fact that it reminded him of the terror of the buildings that they used to live in at the time and the poverty. And it is interesting because that is what I was thinking of."
Jay-Z's hit stuck out because, at the time, the children's chorus he'd sampled was such a bizarre choice for a hardcore rap song - but it ushered in an era where A-list stars turned to increasingly commercial sources for inspiration.
Kanye West lifted entire tracks by Daft Punk and Curtis Mayfield for his singles Stronger and Touch The Sky, while TI's Live Your Life was based around the "numa numa" hook from Eurodisco hit Dragostea Din Tei.
So, although musical recycling is strong, gone are the days when Jazzy Jeff used to buy three records for 99 cents.
The passion and demographic has changed, says Paul Nickerson of the Brooklyn-based record store Dope Jams.
"People have realized that something tangible with pops and crackles feels a lot better then a compressed disposable file," he says.
"Nothing beats vinyl, aside from maybe reel to reel tape." In fact, Nickerson refuses to compare these formats to the digital files stored on your MP3 player. "Its like comparing Daniel Day-Lewis to Stephen Baldwin."
However, he adds, "the irony of the recent influx of major label reissues on vinyl is that they are so expensive they alienate those who would really be able to appreciate them in the first place,
"I mean, it's $30-$40 for an LP reissue in the stores now. The working-class, struggling-through-life guy that the music speaks to has no chance of buying it." He says.
The reality is played out on this side of the pond, too. The best-selling vinyl album in the UK last year was Coexist, by Mercury Prize-winners - but it cost £25, more than three times the price of the CD.
It shows how there are now two parallel markets for the format. Crate diggers are music enthusiasts, first and foremost, seeking out rarities and limited editions. First-hand vinyl is now the preserve of well-to-do audiophiles, and it is they who are pushing the value of the market up.
"There is every indication that this trend will continue into the future," says Kim Bayley, "both through reissues of classic albums and newer acts embracing the format.
"We are now in a situation where John Lewis is selling music for the first time, but exclusively on vinyl."