New Record

A long-standing desire was fulfilled last week when Coldplay released their new album Viva la Vida. Regular readers of this column are aware of my love for the long-playing record and one of my regrets has always been that, due to the limited release of vinyls nowadays, the days of queueing for a new album on the day of release have eluded me. Now that records are making a phoenix-like comeback (with rampant re-releases), record companies are not averse to the risk of launching albums simultaneously on vinyl and CD.

The revival of the LP in the age of MP3 may appear anachronistic, as is the growing legion of listeners who are rediscovering the warmer sound of turntables compared to the cold precision of digital music. According to Nielsen Soundscan, almost a million LPs were purchased in the United States alone in 2007, while over half a million turntables were sold. These numbers exclude the sale of used albums and record players that has always flourished on eBay and local record stores.

When the sale of vinyl records was eclipsed by the audio cassette for the first time in 1983, not only was an inferior audio technology crowned king, but it also paved the path for copying of music either from vinyl or another cassette. The high hiss and low signal-to-noise ratio of tapes meant that the cassette was never the format of choice for purists, while the sequential access to tracks ruled out its use in discotheques and radio stations. However, the compact size of the cassette popularised its use in cars, and provided a welcome alternative to radio on long commutes. Given its technical deficiencies, however, it was not surprising that the cassette ceded its leadership position in less than a decade to the compact disc, a more worthy successor to the LP. But as music formats "evolved", the already high and bright sound of CDs was further exacerbated as digitally compressed music began gaining popularity in the last few years.

Ironically, it may be the venerable long-playing record that pulls out the music industry from the prolonged depression that was onset by the simplicity of illegal copying. While turntables that allow conversion of albums from analogue to MP3 are now available, vinyl buyers pay a premium price for the sound quality of LPs and are less likely to settle for a recorded copy on tape or MP3.

Record companies are also being forced to think outside the box (or outside the case for CDs!) to regain the loyalty of music lovers and prevent themselves becoming obsolete. The success of iTunes and Amazon's MP3 store has made physical albums redundant to a vast majority of young listeners, and with groups like British rock band Radiohead allowing the buyer to name their own price for music downloads (zero dollars is also an option), the equation between the artist and the consumer is constantly being redefined. It was interesting to see Coldplay's LP include a copy of the CD inside the box (for in-car use), and it is hoped that this is a model that more and more labels will begin to adopt. Not to mention that this would allow millions of audiophiles to have their cake and eat it too!

I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before,
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play.
Don McLean, American Pie

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