To some, if not most, the news that sales of vinyl records are now at their highest level this century – in 2023, they rose for a 16th consecutive year to 5.9m – will come as little surprise, for all that we were once told the format would soon be as dead as a dodo. Yes, streaming is inarguably highly convenient; let us give grateful thanks for the fact that we can download an album even as we run in the park, or wait on a cold platform for an endlessly delayed train. But the sound of digital music, as every vinyl fan knows, is not, and never will be, half so rich and warm as the sound of an LP, and playing it does not tend to encourage, as spinning a record does, truly serious listening. The ritual of the turntable demands concentration and invites respect. An album’s tracks, whether by Taylor Swift, Blur or the Rolling Stones (among this year’s bestsellers), must be listened to in a particular order. The shape of the thing unfolds in real time, etching its pattern for ever on our brains.
But this isn’t only about music. LPs are objects. They offer a haptic experience as well as an aural one: the gentle easing of the record from its sleeve; the dainty lowering of the needle on to the disc. The fingers stretch over its liquorice expanses, the thumb carefully finding its middle. Its packaging is deliberate and important, a vital part of the whole. The cover may be a work of art in its own right, with or without extensive sleeve notes. Or it may make some other kind of point. John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd released their album Metal Box in November 1979, and no one who bought those first pressings ever forgot the experience. It came as three discs, in a tin film canister, and to remove them without scratching them required some delicacy. To play Metal Box was to risk ruining it, and therein lay a part of its danger and mesmeric charm.
Rising sales of vinyl might also, however, be seen as part of a wider trend. Digital lives feel wobbly, insubstantial. We want the heft of things we can hold in our hands, and with which we can form an emotional connection. Sales of CDs and cassettes are also no longer falling as fast as before (sales of cassettes are at 100,000 for a fourth year in a row). In the face of their rising cost and squeezed household budgets, sales of books slowed in 2023. But the market remains buoyant, and all over the country, miniature community libraries – street corner cupboards containing volumes to be borrowed and shared – are springing up like toadstools. Relatedly, some of publishing’s more surprising hits in 2023 have had to do with objects. Go into a bookshop and by the till you will almost inevitably find a small pile of Florian Gadsby’s By My Hands: A Potter’s Apprenticeship.
In a world that moves too fast, and in which myriad exhausting decisions must be made at every turn, the small ceremony is, it seems, making a comeback. A new generation is discovering how soothing it is to blow imaginary dust from a beloved record – and a dozen other everyday sacraments besides. The upward trend in coffee is no longer for the noisy dash of the espresso machine and the convenience of a paper cup, but for “drip” filter, made the old-fashioned way using a pour-over cone. Served in a proper mug – hand-thrown earthenware, perhaps – it must be drunk slowly, the hands wrapped around it contemplatively, this mechanism for a necessary pause.