What the vinyl revival reveals

Martin CullingfordTue 6th January 2015

Whether LPs or box-sets, there's a renewed appreciation of physical releases

When the British recording industry body, the BPI, last published its analysis of classical music, it reported that digital sales were soaring while CDs were declining, a trend which is only likely to have continued since. But a new statistic to have recently emerged might offer a new spin on such analysis: late in 2014, UK vinyl sales for the year topped a million. The last time they did this was 1996. 

That figure is for all music, so what does this mean for classical music, where recent LP releases have included both heritage issues such as Maria Callas in Carmen from Warner Classics and new releases like Ingrid Fliter’s recent Recording of the Month-winning Chopin recital? As my photograph hopefully just about implies, I grew up in the CD era – the discs I began collecting were 12cm silver ones, not 12 inch black ones. So while some may claim that vinyl sounds ‘better’, I’m perfectly happy with the purity of a CD or high-quality digital file. Furthermore, as such sound quality has become ever more portable, much of my listening is now of high-end downloads and streaming. 

And yet…I can understand what lies behind the appeal of an attractively presented physical release. In so many fields – magazines just as much as music – the growth of the virtual has been matched by an additional appreciation, even celebration, of what the physical can contribute. An LP’s artwork is oft cited as much missed. But physical packages don’t have to be large and square: just think of the many creative back-catalogue issues we cover in our Reissues pages, from Decca’s issue of Turandot (in impressively vivid sound) featuring Sutherland, Caballé and Pavarotti in the latest issue of Gramophone, to the same label’s recent fascinating survey of the Vienna Philharmonic. From Warner Classics, meanwhile, we recently had the historically important box of remastered Callas studio recordings.  

For many years the bulk of reissues seemed to be about making the music available as cheaply as possible, something which may have provided a ready-made rival to budget labels. Beautiful box-sets, often with accompanying books, carry a higher price, though when considered on a price-per-disc basis, such sets can actually be incredibly good value. And people are buying them. In their thousands. One additional bonus is that such sales help labels fund new recordings. Which, in turn, become the back‑catalogue of tomorrow…

It’s not only reissues of course which receive the de luxe treatment: just think of Cecilia Bartoli’s exploratory projects, or Teodor Currentzis’s Mozart operas on Sony Classical, or Alia Vox’s luxuriously illustrated tomes – fine examples of new releases which creatively think ‘inside the box’, as it were. But for the collector, what’s most important is that physical products are, once more, capturing the imagination and becoming desirable items to own. And I suspect it’s this, as much as the sound of vinyl, that goes a long way to explaining why, in an age of instant access to online music in excellent quality, people are again buying LPs. But whether it’s a vinyl gatefold, a single CD or 60-disc box, a download or a streaming subscription, if people are buying music that can only be a very good thing.

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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