Comeback of Vinyl Records as Japan Starts Production

MC Monaja was a guest at the Crate Society. PHOTO | COURTESY
MC Monaja was a guest at the Crate Society. PHOTO | COURTESY  

Music distribution has transformed so rapidly in this digital age that formats that were popular just a few years ago are virtually obsolete today.

Since the 1990s, the music industry has experienced turmoil, first with illegal downloads and then the emergence of various Internet platforms.

CD sales have been plummeting in the last decade and even digital downloads are in free fall thanks to online streaming.

Rising sales

For one monthly payment, consumers can access millions of songs on their smartphones, tablets or desktop apps.

In the US, the world’s largest music market, streaming accounted for most recorded music revenue in 2016.

But as such heady transformation occurs in the music business, a long forgotten analogue format has crept right back onto the scene.

For the past few years, the music industry has seen a sharp rise in the sale of vinyl records.

What began with a revival among small communities of record collectors has now returned to the mainstream more than 25 years since vinyl was supplanted by CDs.

An affirmation of this rebirth of vinyl came just last week when one of the industry’s major labels Sony Music announced that it would start manufacturing its own gramophone discs once again.

The Sony vinyl pressing production was shut in 1989 with the arrival of CDs.

The Japanese arm of Sony Music will open its own record pressing plant in March next year to cope with the demand for vinyl in the Japanese market.

Industry experts say that this could prompt other record labels to follow suit and invest in similar plants.

During the golden age of vinyl from the 1960s to the late 80s, all the major music labels had their own manufacturing plants.

Nairobi, for instance, had the famous Polygram pressing plant, which produced records for the East Africa region until the company closed down.

Japan is following a global trend where vinyl sales have risen in the last five years. About 3.2 million records were sold in Britain in 2016, a growth of 53 per cent from the previous year’s sales.

In Europe, just two plants press the majority of vinyl for major and independent labels, one in the Czech Republic and the other in the Netherlands.

In Kenya, A.I Records is the licensed distributor of vinyl releases by international labels like EMI and Gallo Music, South Africa. In the last few years, the company has been shipping in some select records targeted at a niche market.

Samuel Ombasa, founder of the Crate Society. PHOTO | COURTESY

Samuel Ombasa, founder of the Crate Society. PHOTO | COURTESY

“The vinyl business can only thrive in Kenya if we have a factory that presses records locally, “ says Samuel Ombasa who started a weekly session called the Crate Society in February 2017.

Buyers and sellers of vinyl also engage through the Facebook page Nairobi Vinyl Record Collectors.

“We get a lot of queries on where to buy and sell records and even repairing old turntables,” says David Njuki a long time record enthusiast.

What are the reasons for the revival of a format that had been consigned to the archives of music history?

Long queues

Listeners have adopted what the industry calls a “multi-channel” consumption of both digital and physical formats of music.

There is also a demographic angle: an older generation that is emotionally attached to vinyl and a younger fan base that not only wants to listen to digital formats but also want to own a physical copy of the music.

This is evident in the current Top 40 vinyl chart in the UK that features not just vintage titles, but also current pop hits.

Ed Sheeran, who is a hot favourite among young music fans, tops the vinyl charts with his latest album “Divide” but he faces competition from classic recordings by the legends like David Bowie, the Beatles and Bob Marley.

Promotional events for vinyl records now take place regularly at various venues.

In Nairobi, the Crate Society takes place every Sunday at Kengeles, Lavington as fans enjoy vinyl sessions of jazz, blues, funk and hip-hop played by different DJs.

For the first time, vinyl lovers in Nairobi were part of the global 10th annual Record Store Day in April this year at an event hosted at the famous record store at the city’s Kenyatta Market.

In June, long queues of fans were seen at the UK music retail chain HMV Vinyl Week desperate to but both new and classic albums available in limited edition reissues and new colour vinyl formats.

With the current unpredictable music industry trends, perhaps the gramophone record may just be the one format that is able to sustain its popularity for the foreseeable future.