By Dave Thompson
“Vinyl never went away. It was the record companies that deserted it, believing they could make better margins out of CDs,” says Keith Jones of U.K. independent record label Fruits de Mer Records, which specializes in vinyl.
Jones — who admittedly may be just a little bit biased on the topic of vinyl vs. CDs and MP3s opinion, insists that vinyl is here to stay.
“I don’t see much of a commercial future for bland, sterile CDs and even less for paid-for downloads,” he says. “The only future for paid-for recorded music that I can see is to create something that looks and sounds great, has lasting value, means something to the buyer, makes them feel good about spending hard-earned cash on it, makes them want to repeat the dosage.”
It’s unlikely you need anybody to explain why Goldmine is launching a new column dedicated exclusively to vinyl new releases. The familiar flat black platter has been creeping back into our lives for a few years now, and there are a lot of readers who can — and will — agree with the quotes that opened this column: Vinyl never really went away.
The fact remains, however, that there is now more new vinyl appearing on the shelves on a weekly basis than at any time since the late 1980s, when there was an industry-wide push to persuade us that it was a dying dinosaur. And it’s not only new releases, either. Over the past few months, since we first began planning this column, my own vinyl collection has been swollen by fresh pressings of albums I’d not heard in pristine condition since the 1970s, including releases by Van Der Graaf Generator, T Rex, Lou Reed, Humble Pie, David Bowie, Brainticket, The Vibrators, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.
Still to come (at least, at the time of writing) were The Velvet Underground and a fascinating collection of old 78s, repressed to 33 in a package that I simply refuse to listen to on CD.
This column is not, however, going to concern itself only with releases, reissues and vinyl news. We also want to air some of the debates that are already going on in the collecting community — beginning with what are possibly the three most important. Your own responses to all or any of these are welcomed … just send them to the usual address (see directions at right).
1. Should a new vinyl reissue be pressed from its original analog masters? Or should the manufacturer employ the best-quality-possible digital remaster?
2. Should a reissued classic album be appended with the bonus tracks that a CD reissue might have? Or do we want it as close as possible to what it was when it was originally released?
3. Does 180-gram or equally heavyweight vinyl make any difference to a reissue’s actual sound/pressing quality?
I have my own opinions on each of these points, and doubtless they will become clear in the months to come.
In the meantime, though, those nice people at the Fruits de Mer label sent us their thoughts on the rebirth of vinyl, together with an album that justifies every word. “Sorrow’s Children” is a tribute album to that most legendary of psychedelic rock classics, The Pretty Things’ “S.F. Sorrow,” and it follows proudly in the footsteps of the same label’s recent Pretties 7-inch releases.
The contributors are not (with the exception of The Pretties themselves) household names: The Luck of Eden Hall, Sky Picnic, Sidewalk Society, The Loons. But all reimagined the magic and mood of their chosen tracks, as they recreate the original album track by track, and that was before the entire set was wrapped inside a veritable work of 12-inch-by-12-inch art.
Stunning artwork, weighty wax, quality cardboard. Gone are the days when LPs were mass-produced slices of wafer slotted into cheapo cardboard sleeves. For the first time since, perhaps, the psych and prog booms of the late 1960s/early 1970s, an album’s presentation is paramount, and with it a perceived sense of value. The impression that you’re buying something that all concerned actually labored over, and took painstaking care to create. Or, as label co-founder Jones describes Fruits de Mer’s own mission, “a release on vinyl sounds better, looks better and means more.”
“Music on vinyl gets listened to. Maybe by relatively few people, but it does get heard — and by people who care about the music,” Jones says.
And he’s right. Maybe we needed vinyl to slip away for a couple of decades to remind us precisely what we were losing. CDs and, later, MP3s are a lot more convenient, of course. They require a fraction of the storage space, and the bad old days of having to leave your seat every 15 to 20 minutes to flip over a disc are all but forgotten.
But at what cost? It’s only when you are reacquainted with an old friend on vinyl that you realize how inadequate it looked on CD all these years. And talking of looks … what would you rather have spilling out across the floor? A few hundred vinyl albums, each with its own sleeve prominent from the other side of the room? Or a heap of CDs in their nasty little jewel cases? LPs create conversation pieces. CDs create clutter.
Which brings us back to Fruits de Mer. Jones explains that it started out very much as a label that would hopefully appeal to people like him and friend Andy Bracken, who jointly launched it — vinyl junkies who love music rooted in the sixties and seventies, whatever their age.
“We released a couple of singles early on and hoped that somebody would buy them — not very scientific! But a few record shops in the U.K. supported us from Day One … which was real encouragement to press on,” he says. “I’d like to say it snowballed from there, but for the first 12 months, we could hardly give copies away. However, more positive reviews, vinyl-friendly independent record shops, a few DJs and — most of all — word of mouth from people who had bought one of our records, liked it and wanted to tell others about it, meant that sales grew steadily over time, and now a typical Fruits de Mer release now sells out pretty much instantly on a pressing of 800. And that’s fine with me. Much bigger than that and the whole thing risks getting out of hand.”
Sparkling limited editions, then, primarily 7-inch singles but expanding into EP and the occasional long-playing territory, too. Upcoming are tributes to The Hollies and The Beatles’ White album. It’s an indication of just how well-loved the label is today that visitors to the Fruits de Mer website [http://fruitsdemerrecords.com]are greeted with a litany of “sold out” notices.
Which is what we want to see. Because it’s another indication that not only is vinyl back, but that this time, it means business.
“Sadly, disposable music and a disposable medium go together,” Jones says. “If music doesn’t mean as much to people as it used to, asking them to shell out for it becomes more and more of a challenge. Thank god there are still plenty of music junkies out there, and plenty of scope for artists and specialist record labels to feed their habits. It’s possible to do something interesting and creative with the CD format — but there’s a lot more scope with vinyl formats.”
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” (Krause Publications, $37.99, www.krausebooks.com)