Why vinyl records have made major comeback


Vinyl musical records on display at a shop in Nairobi: It is great removing a record from its sleeve, wiping it and sliding it down the spindle of a turntable to play your choice of music. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Recently, I was clearing my store of old things when I came across an old push button telephone set and my grand-daughter, who is 16, asked me what that contraption was. Initially I was taken aback but it quickly dawned on me that she was born in the mobile telephone era and she is unlikely to have seen this type of telephone in use.

I took her through the types of telephone devices that have been in use over time, explaining how each one worked.

In the process of cleaning up I also visited my collection of CDs and vinyl records, many going back to the 1970s. I also have a few shellac records which belonged to my mother, including her favourite “Shenandoah Waltz” from the 1950s.

While I was reeling in nostalgia, I came across a news item about how vinyl record revenues are set to overtake CD sales this year for the first time since 1986, in a development that has gained momentum in the last five years.

In March this year, it was reported that vinyl sales grew by 12 percent in 2018, while a report by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) released in September showed that vinyl record sales generated $224.1 million (Sh23 billion) in revenue from 8.6 million units sold in the nine months of 2019.

In contrast, 18.6 million CDs were sold generating $247.9 million (Sh25 billion) over the same period.

Purchases of vinyl have been increasing over the last decade. New research released in February this year indicated that vinyl sales had increased five-fold in the period between 2013 and 2018.

While there is no dispute that MP3s and other forms of digital downloading music far outstrip vinyl record sales there are subtle reasons for the growing popularity of vinyl mostly among the purists and inquisitive young people.

Shopping for vinyl is an experience. I remember spending hours flipping through the stacks of records at the old East African Music Stores on Mama Ngina Street or at Assanands on Moi Avenue in the 1960s and 70s.

The record sleeves themselves were works of art and I recall the beautiful psychedelic renditions on many covers, which appealed to the youthful eye.

When you buy vinyl today, it is like an investment. There are many people buying, collecting and reselling vinyl and it tends to retain if not increase its value over time so you can sell or pass it down to your children as an appreciating asset.

There is something special about removing a well kept record from its colourful sleeve, wiping it down with an anti-static cloth and holding it by the edges before carefully sliding it down the spindle of a good quality turntable.

You watch the automatic stylus arm come to rest with smooth and precise motion on the vinyl record to start playing your choice of music through a powerful amplifier modulated by a two-channel graphic equaliser with eight controls each and finally reproduced through matching man-sized speakers that compliment your furniture!

It has been argued that the quality of vinyl is superior to digital formats, but the evidence does not support this contention. One can say that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

Old record presses have opened up again in Europe and America to meet the rising demand.

The situation in Kenya is pretty much the same and my friend Jimmy Rugami at Kenyatta Market, whom I wrote about in 2016, is doing a roaring business in vinyl and other music related nostalgia. From one shop in 2016, he now has three, one of which is a workshop and his collection has grown tremendously. He sources vinyl locally and sometimes as far as Addis Ababa or Zambia. His clients are both young and old and he ships from as far as Bolivia and Australia.

There are specialised social clubs like Crate Society and Nairobi Soul Club, which play only vinyl.

Some observers have expressed their misgivings about vinyl, arguing that it seems to serve an elitist and well-heeled cross section of society because entry cost of purchasing vinyl is high and the equipment for playing it is expensive.

On the other hand, purists argue that when the music becomes for everybody, it is for nobody in particular and no one is going to pay a premium for it and then next week it will be gone or worthless.

When you sell a record, you know it is going to someone who will place a high value on it.

There is also a personal touch to the process that cannot exist with intangible digital things.

People hang records on their walls, gift them to friends, or sometimes write notes on the sleeves to individual artists, thanking them for their support. All these things can happen with this physical product, which excites people and takes them back to something they remember from their youth.

I am reminded of a song “Everything must change, nothing stays the same………the young become the old…….”. Sometimes the old become the young again! Happy journey down memory lane!