My Take on Record Store Day (or Why We Buy Snake Oil)

It’s a given that to survive in business, you have to do more than a little marketing and, if you can, have a “hook” to hang it all on, such as a special day: Either align yourself with an existing one, like the brewers and pubs do with St Patrick's Day. Or make one up, as the greeting card industry did with Fathers Day.

Undoubtedly record shops have had it tough in the last 20 years. In the 1990s one of my clients was Virgin Retail. I provided technical services to London’s Oxford Street based Virgin Mega-stores Radio. I recall the staff telling me then that Christmas sales where paramount. Have a bad Christmas and you were stuffed for the year. Now Virgin Records (as the high street shop) has gone, along with the building in Oxford Street, as well as another other giant, Tower Records in Piccadilly. The third in the trio was HMV and that has limped along in the past few years too. So if the big ‘uns fall, what hope for the small specialist shops dotted up and down the country?

There is obvious safety in numbers, so, from an idea first staged in 2007 in the US, where shops across the country banded together, Record Store Day has become an annual event to promote and save the independent record shop.

And I have no issue with that. There is something about a specialist record shop that you just can’t beat: The racks of music, the posters, and the anticipation of finding something new and exciting to listen to. And the guy behind the counter who always seems to be as old as recorded music itself. I love it!

What I do have issue with is with the way the record industry is treating the record buyer. And more specifically the snake oil music format they are once-again peddling: vinyl!

Before “going off on one” let me just highlight what I perceive as the plus side to vinyl: The big sleeve with the (sometimes) wonderful artwork. As a jazz lover I simply adore the covers produced by Blue Note records: pure art, coolness and class in one 12” square picture. I also love that smell that escapes when you take a record out of its sleeve. If they bottled that I’m sure it would sell just on its own.

But as a professional audio engineer my position on vinyl as a reproduction format? Forget it. We’ve moved on. We don’t buy black and white TVs anymore. We moved from the inferior quality of VHS videos to high-quality Blue-Ray discs. We don’t now put film in our cameras either.

So why turn the science of audio reproduction quality back to an analogue format with a signal-to-noise ratio of 40dB at best (CD can manage a figure in excess of 80dB) that degrades each time you play it on a device that is prone to mechanical issues such a wow and speed errors?

It makes no sense.

“Ah but when listening on vinyl you can hear that “rounded analogue” sound” say the protagonists “It’s so much better than digital”.

MP3

"Burn the witch!"

Now I’m no evangelist for MP3. As an audio format it leaves much to be desired (like vinyl?). This audio data compression format was created in the late 1990s as a means of getting more-for-less, as memory and hard-drive capacity was so expensive and therefore limited the number of tracks per kilobyte. But as Neil Young has been so valiantly trying to tell us about the superior sound quality of his PonoMusic personal player that plays linear (non-compressed) audio, the requirement for compressed audio-data audio files is now non-existent since you can buy a half Terabyte drive for £30 or have fibre download speeds in the hundreds of megs/second.

But saying that an analogue record sounds better than a linear-digital audio recording is just plain absurd.

Why? Well unless you are listening to a vinyl record that was recorded pre 1984, in which case its probably got clicks and scratches over it anyway, all commercial recordings, even if they were recorded on an analogue tape machine would have gone through some kind of digital based post-production treatment before going to the vinyl pressing plant. So the argument that you can hear the “analogue sound” is simply a fallacy. It’s been “polluted” by digital!

The next argument is that vinyl sounds better that CD when played on a quality system. Unlikely. This actual post from Facebook about this particular aspect of the vinyl vs. CD debate just highlights the fantasy world those who utter such trite live in.

“Vinyl sounds great on a HiFI system like a Linn LP 12 turntable a nice Naim or Nytech amp and a pair of Linn Isobarek speakers. Not cheap though.”

Well the poster has demolished their own argument in their last three words “Not cheap through”.

Quite true: I estimate the cost of the beautiful system the poster describes is in excess of £8500! No, not cheap. If you have spent that kind of money on such a system of course you are going to say vinyl sounds great! Why wouldn’t you?!

 

stereogram

For your vinyl listening delight, £8500 buys you...

I recall the late-great radio presenter Roger Scott, a man who in his life-time championed the “serious” end of rock music, saying on BBC Radio 1 way back in the late 1980s how great CDs were and that he had skipped his vinyl, said good bye to the lot and CD , with its superior quality was the way to go.

I also note that since that date just about every manufacturer of audio tech has put the words “digital” on their products or packaging. That word is used to say two things to the uniformed consumer: “Digital is great. Analogue isn’t”. Yet all of a sudden analogue vinyl is somehow better. Confused? You should be.

Until about 2010 respected club DJs lauded how they now had all of their set on a USB stick and how they didn’t have to lug vinyl about anymore. A fact borne out by Technics, manufacturer of the DJ weapon of choice, the SL-1200 turntable, discontinuing it through lack of sales after 30 years of production. The market for vinyl replay was dead. End of.

Only last week I was talking to a lady in her early 20s about just this subject: The inferiority of vinyl as a replay format:

“You’ve just burst my dream she said. I held onto something that I had discovered myself. It’s something from another time and isn’t all about the next big thing. The next must-have.”

Well sorry to disappoint, but you didn’t “discover it yourself”. You didn’t break into a long abandoned pressing plant and fire up the stamping machines all by yourself. You were sold your “discovery”

My beef is that this current vinyl craze (which it what it is) is driven entirely by the record industry repackaging their back catalogue and selling it to us all over again.

I know this to be true. A client runs a transfer studio. He tells me the only part of the record industry that is making any money now is archive re-release, fuelled by; you’ve guessed it, the re-emergence of vinyl. Funny that.

Vinyl as a format has nothing to do with audio quality. Nothing to do with that elusive “analogue sound”, but all about nostalgia. We have been sold a dream, a little piece of sky.

Aiming for the young, the industry peddles the tag line:

"This is what you missed before you were born. When music was real and there was no X Factor"

Which is utter BS: "Opportunity Knocks" anyone? And let’s not forget the number of 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s bands that were put together by the Simon Cowells of those times.

For mid-agers the tag-line is different:

It’s "Remember when you where a teenager and the excitement of going into a record shop? You can relive that".

And mid-ager, if you think you can hear the "analogue/vinyl sound" on your £8500 hi-fi set-up (as you are in the age bracket that can afford such stuff), you are deluding yourself. Remember your ears are 30-40 year older!

                                              "I can really hear the vinyl difference!"

 

                          "Yes it sounds exactly as I remember it!"

To add insult to wallet injury, a recent survey found that the vast majority of vinyl buyers either had no means to play it or didn’t play the record at all and listened to the MP3 version instead!

Just bizarre!

But, by the way we all rush out and re-pay for this snake-oil; we obviously believe all this marketing hype.

So, although I praise Record Store Day as a great way to promote such businesses, just buy the music on a format that suits you, without feeling the pressure that you are missing out of some lost Utopia of music reproduction in not buying it on vinyl. It never existed.

And standby too because, cassettes* are next for this marketing hype. And I not fibbing either!

*For the old, you remember those things that screwed up in the player and you had to wind the brown ribbon back into the shell using a pencil. For the young, cassettes are... Well, you’ll find out.

 

Cassette

 "I'll be back!"