Use your head – invest in vinyl?

From the collapse of HMV to anti-Thatcher chartjacking, we hear a lot about the death of physical music and the rise of the all-conquering digital download.

But another story is emerging and the tables may have turned. Did you know that vinyl sales have hit their highest point since 1997?

Figures from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry show that, globally, we spent $171m on records in 2012, up 47 per cent on the year before, and driven by increasingly younger consumers who were not around for side A of the vinyl era.

Today is Record Store Day, a worldwide celebration of music in its physical form, a chance to go rummaging for rare seven inches and, now in its seventh year, an increasingly big deal for a beleaguered music industry battling illegal file-sharing, the death of the high street and Adele CDs going cheap in Tesco.

Record Store Day launched the vinyl resurgence,” claims Michael Kurtz, one of the event’s founders. “Without the megaphone of Record Store Day, there wouldn’t have been a stage for vinyl to shine on,” he told Billboard.

“Can you imagine a label executive saying six years ago, ‘We will ship millions of dollars of vinyl to stores around the world.’

“That guy would have either been fired or laughed out of the room.”

‘Genuine love for vinyl’

“There is a genuine love for vinyl, or rather what vinyl represents; music that has quality and aims high artistically. Music for people who care about music,” Tom Fisher, who runs Rat Records in south London, told Channel 4 News.

“There is certainly increased interest at the minute. We’re gaining new, younger customers in the shop every weekend. I think there will always be a love for music on vinyl.”

So who buys records in 2013?

“Within the last year it has switched to being predominantly the under 30s,” says Fisher.

“We still also have a backbone of customers of all ages and backgrounds who are basically heads interested in music, like me.

“We get people from all over London, in fact people will travel to the UK just to come to a decent record shop. Vinyl is the choice for the musical cognoscenti, because it represents artistic credibility.”

Premium product

“More interesting than the increase in vinyl sales is the kind of music being sold in this format, and the price being charged,” says industry analyst Chris Cooke from CMU.

“For years it was dance music, and the 12” remix, that kept vinyl going, but in recent years it is mainly indie and pop releases that have been shifting records.

“And, perhaps more importantly for record labels, vinyl releases have become a premium product. Core fans in certain genres seem willing to pay up to double the price to buy vinyl records than CD or digital albums.

“Record Store Day is a clever way of getting those music fans who always mean to go to their local record shop, but never quite make it, to actually get round to it at least once a year. Record labels large and small have really got behind the whole venture, which I think proves that the record industry very much wants to retain a presence on the high street.”

Worth its weight in vinyl?

So with interest rates rendering savings accounts about as profitable as the underside of your sofa, could vinyl be joining gold, fine art and vintage cars as a wise investment bet?

“Yes, if you really know your stuff,” says Fisher.

“If Tom Jones, Thom Yorke and Tom Waits all release their new LPs as a limited edition vinyl with extra tracks, you need to know which one to avoid. Actually you need to know this anyway, even if you don’t buy the record.”

Indeed one of Fisher’s colleagues at Rat Records regularly buys vinyl on his girlfriend’s behalf, purely as an investment. “If you’re getting a limited edition, buy two copies – one to play, one to keep – the worst that can happen is the records retain their original value. They won’t lose value.”

So what should we be stocking up on? “What, you want my trade secrets?” jokes Fisher.

“Presuming original copies of LPs are in excellent condition, you can’t go wrong with the cream of the 1960s; Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Dylan, Led Zep…. then there is the best of prog rock, obscure but brilliant seventies reggae, unheard of US funk bands, local UK punk bands, original US early hip-hop and early jungle. That’s the kind of stuff we hunt down for our customers.”

Physical attraction

Another quirk in the vinyl story is that LPs from the 1990s – the heady days of Britpop – tend to be harder to find than much older records and consequently they are worth more. The age of Blur, Pulp and Oasis coincided with the glory days of the compact disc, when vinyl was not mass-produced on the scale of earlier decades.

That means a second hand copy of Blur’s 1993 album Modern Life Is Rubbish on CD is worth no more than a few pounds. Yet the original LP version, in good condition, will set you back anything from 20 to 50 pounds.

To capitalise on this, record labels now routinely re-issue classic albums – usually on heavy 180 gram vinyl with an appealing gatefold sleeve and a handy download code; a “premium product” targeted at core fans. These albums are less expensive than a mint original, but not cheap at around £20.

So if scarcity has bumped up the value of records from 15-20 years ago, could today’s physical new releases – like the hundreds put out especially for Record Store Day – become ever more valuable in the next decade?

“Some will. Specialised pieces will command high prices as at present,” Fisher explains.

“A specialist market tends to go for condition, and interest is polarised into the very top end of those artists who are most desirable. A battered White album is just worth a few quid, but a low-numbered, near mint, complete original White album may attract those crazy bids online.”

“Hmm, I think there are safer things to invest in,” says Chris Cooke.

“Rare records by much admired artists can always sell for significant amounts, and you do see limited edition releases bought on Record Store Day appearing on eBay at vastly inflated prices. But as with anything, it will depend on how few copies there really are out there.”

Anna Doble

A version of this article was first published at channel4.com/news

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