Spanning three creaking shelves in our living room is my collection of vinyl records. For years, it was remarked upon as an oddity, a quaint symbol of my refusal to let go of my youth. All those battered sleeves, bought new or picked up second hand, at HMV, Virgin, Our Price, Reckless Records, Piccadilly Records, Eastern Bloc, Sounds of the Universe, Sister Ray, Vinyl Exchange; all those finds at charity shops and record fairs, each with their own story to tell, each capturing a particular and precious moment in my cultural life… For years I loved them, and few others did.
Now of course, it’s all different. Now, vinyl is cool again, and they’re regarded either with envy (“damn, I wish I hadn’t upgraded my old albums to digital…”) or else with outright admiration, visitors rifling through to find their own favorites, impressed that I had the foresight to stick with the format.
In the case of my teenage son, however, those records are something else altogether. To him, they’re not an exercise in nostalgia, but a source of new experiences – a sort of original pirate material, if you like.
Since he saved up last year's Christmas money to buy a record player, he’s been through those shelves again and again, first to pick out albums by artists he already knew through Spotify or TikTok, but more recently in an exercise more akin to old-school crate-digging. “Cool cover – what’s this like?” he’ll ask, pulling out the 12” of Westworld’s “Sonic Boom Boy”. “How about this?” he’ll add, flipping over Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner. “Or this?” holding up The Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope.
Give them a spin, I say, see for yourself. And he does, and while most get returned to me, some do not. And the records he keeps are both the most surprising and, in an odd way, the least surprising… and for exactly the same reasons.
Now just turned 15, my son’s favorite – by which I mean obsessively favorite – bands are almost exactly what they might have been had he been born in the early 1970s or 80s, rather than 2008. The Smiths are on almost constant rotation in his bedroom – and when it’s not the Smiths, it’s The Cure, or The Stone Roses, or Blur, or Oasis. Sure, he also loves a few more contemporary Gen Z teenage boy offerings (Cigarettes After Sex, Yard Act, Arctic Monkeys)… but it’s Morrissey and Robert Smith and Liam Gallagher he sings along to. It’s Johnny Marr and John Squire that made him ask for guitar lessons.
Is this all simply the influence of my 40-odd years of vinyl hoarding? I don’t think so. He’s not particularly interested in any of my punk collection, trip-hop 12”s, New Wave and No Wave LPs or late 90s dance bangers. He’s not fussed about Stevie Wonder or James Brown or even the Beatles, particularly. Rather there’s something altogether simpler and more extraordinary going on: he, like many of his friends, loves the Smiths and the Cure and the Stone Roses for exactly the same reasons teenagers obsessed over those bands three or four decades ago. He loves them because there’s something about those songs, those lyrics, that speaks directly and universally to all the uncertainty and angst of the adolescent experience. They did it in the 1980s and a generation later, they’re still doing it now.
But what is perhaps even more remarkable is that this peculiar cultural resonance goes beyond the music itself. The kids of Generation Z are not just listening to those bands… they’re listening to them on the format on which they were meant to be heard.
“We’ve seen more people across the board buying vinyl, including younger people,” says Patrizia Leighton, Director at HMV, the UK’s largest vinyl retailer, which has just reopened its original flagship Oxford Street store in London after a four-year hiatus. “Music has always been a way of finding your community, a way of exploring and expressing identity. We’ve all been through that phase of teenage and early-20s life where your people were those who shared your music taste. That’s as alive and kicking today as it has been since the invention of the teenager.”
That “invention of the teenager” is inextricably linked to the invention of the album itself. It all began 75 years ago, on June 21, 1948.
On that day, at a press conference held in the Waldorf Astoria, New York, executives from Columbia Records unveiled a new way of listening to popular music. The “long player” record, spinning at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute (as opposed to the standard 78 and 45 rpm formats) provided an unprecedented 22 minutes of music per side, without compromising the quality of the listening experience.
Within ten years, the new format had obliterated the once all-powerful 78s and over the following decades evolved into an industry juggernaut; by 1977, nearly 350 million LPs were selling every year in the United States alone. Many huge bands such as Led Zeppelin didn’t even bother with singles at all: albums were where the artistic credibility (and the money) was at.
Through the 70s and 80s – and to a lesser extent the 90s – listening to music was not just about what bands you liked, but a real emotional (and financial) investment... and your record collection became a physical, tangible, definition of who you were.
And then, just as quickly as it had boomed, the vinyl LP bust. Alternative, more portable formats – beginning with cassette tapes, then CDs, and reaching its zenith with mp3 players and streaming services – did for albums what albums had done for 78s. The market collapsed, vinyl was declared dead, and with the whole history of recorded music instantly available on their smartphones, the kids, we were told, simply did not want to bother seeking out, or even owning, their own music any more.
Except, it seems, they did. According to official charts data from the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), ten years ago vinyl LPs were barely scraping 800,000 sales a year in the UK – but by last year, that figure had increased by 700 per cent to 5.5 million. More dramatically, where digital purchases had accounted for nearly 33 million UK sales in 2013, they now figure lower than vinyl sales, at just 3.7 million per year.
And increasingly, it’s not just older, nostalgic music fans buying vinyl.
“In the early part of the vinyl revival, it’s fair to say that much of the interest came from the baby-boomer generation which grew up with the format and saw themselves as keepers of the flame,” says Gennaro Castaldo, a spokesperson for the BPI. “But this has evolved over time, and now we are seeing many younger, post-millennial fans embracing physical albums too.
“Demand for vinyl LPs is showing little sign of slowing, driven by the passion artists and fans feel towards the format. Record labels support artists by releasing their albums as premium quality, limited edition recordings that are highly collectible, while independent record stores and HMVs across the country have embraced the format, and events including National Album Day and Record Store Day celebrate the album artform.”
Despite the vinyl revival, streaming still remains the dominant means of listening to music amongst young people, but Pat Howe, Head of Sales at Proper Music Group, who have just opened the UK’s largest warehouse for handling physical music distribution, believes that the appeal of vinyl to Generation Zers is not in opposition to streaming, but actually closely tied to services like Spotify.
“It’s not just an older demographic who can’t get used to the ephemeral nature of streaming,” he points out, “there's a younger demographic who actively respond to collecting, showing off, talking about and playing records as a social and personal way of involving themselves in music.
“There are fewer focal points for fans to gather round – no mainstream TV shows, no weekly music press, very splintered and formulaic radio, no meaningful Top 40 chart. Streaming has effectively replaced pop radio and the physical purchase of a lot of what was ‘chart’/mainstream music.”
What this has left, are the “classic” artists – most notably, bands from the 80s and 90s, whose music is best appreciated the way it was originally made: on a vinyl LP.
“This is dovetailing with streaming as a tool,” says Howe. “All music is available to explore. Notions of what is and isn’t ‘cool’ and the need for music to be new and contemporary have broken down. It’s a post-modern world of endless choice and very personal combinations of likes and dislikes. No prejudices – it’s all about the tunes.”
Which brings us back to Morrissey and Marr and Robert Smith, Damon Albarn and the Stone Roses and the Brothers Gallagher. This year’s National Album Day (a spin-off from the hugely successful Record Store Day), was even themed around the 1990s, with special limited-edition rereleases of the decade’s key LPs, and in June, an event in aid of music industry charity The BRIT Trust auctioned off white label pressings of classic albums – the biggest moneymakers were LPs by the Cure, accounting for nearly a quarter of the £54,000 raised.
“Oasis’ What’s the Story Morning Glory and the Smiths' Hatful of Hollow both make an appearance on our top sellers list for the year so far,” says Patrizia Leighton of HMV. “These are bands where there’s a dedicated younger audience who are just starting on their collector journey with vinyl and want to own the classics on physical.”
And where’s there’s demand, there’s inevitably supply – and an industry canny enough to know a market where it sees one. As the shelves of record shops bulge once again with vinyl LPs, labels are reissuing classic albums almost as actively as they’re releasing new material. For kids like my son, it’s a wonderland... when he can afford it.
“Younger audiences have reconnected with the appeal of buying and owning music,” says Andy Kerr, of audio equipment manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins. “Now that they’re in that world, I believe they’re going to stay there. What I expect we will see moving forwards is a hybrid model where young people will continue to stream music for convenience, combined with this newfound physical ownership of their music. They’re taking a curated approach to the collection of their favorite records, while discovering the joys of visiting a record store and unearthing music that they may never have listened to before.”
And while they save up between albums? There’s always their fathers’ record collections.