Vinyl records are back in fashion in Britain where they have recorded their best sales for a decade as devotees and new fans relish what they say is a livelier sound than digital formats.
The Soho district of London is peppered with small shops where music fans are once again enjoying the feel of dust on their fingertips as they flick through the racks of albums.
“They love the sound, they love the packaging, they feel they are buying something a bit more special,” said Neal Birnie, of the Sounds of the Universe shop.
“It’s more real than buying an MP3, you are buying more of a product than when you buy an MP3.”
Nearly 550,000 vinyl discs have been sold in Britain already this year, according to music industry body BPI.
If sales continue at the same pace until the end of the year, they could exceed 700,000, which would be the highest since 2003.
While that represents less than 0.8 percent of all music formats sold, it is clear that having almost suffered a death at the hands of digital music, vinyl records have more than survived.
It is not just old re-releases either — the highest-selling vinyl record in Britain this year was “Random Access Memories” by French duo Daft Punk, featuring their global hit single “Get Lucky”.
David Bowie released a vinyl edition of his first album for a decade, “The Next Day”, and British pop-rockers Arctic Monkeys followed suit.
French-Canadian stars Arcade Fire, US indie legends Pixies, Pearl Jam and even Paul McCartney have also put their latest albums on vinyl.
“We’re witnessing a renaissance for records — they’re no longer retromania and are becoming the format of choice for more and more music fans,” BPI Chief Executive Geoff Taylor said.
The principle of the disc emerged at the end of the 19th century. It soon replaced cylinders and remained the dominant format until the mid-1980s.
The main reason for vinyl’s renaissance is clear — it offers a richer sound than downloadable digital songs, which although hiss-free lack the “warmth” of vinyl records.
“We live in the digital age, and unfortunately it’s degrading our music, not improving,” veteran rocker Neil Young complained last year.
But the enthusiasm of collectors has also played a role in reviving vinyl.
At another Soho store, Reckless Records, a rare copy of “Masters of Reality” by Black Sabbath is priced at £400 (470 euros, $640). “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” by Smashing Pumpkins will fetch £225 while early editions of records by the Rolling Stones or the Beatles sell for £80.
Charity shops have also been a lifeline for vinyl records.
Steve Kelly, who runs an Oxfam shop in Dalston, northwest London, said he spots familiar faces returning again and again.
“There’s about 20 different people looking for vinyl whose face I would recognise. They come in at least once a week, sometimes a few times a week.
“They tend to be older, they have knowledge, they are 30 or 40, sometimes older.”
But one group of music afficionados have not been won over by the return of vinyl — DJs.
Christov Brilliant, a French DJ and musician based in London, told AFP: “None of the big DJs use vinyl anymore. It might sound great but we live in a digital world and that also gives us great possibilities.”
Regardless of its claims to have better sound, British music critic Pete Paphides wonders whether the return to vinyl could be a phenomenon in line with the slow food movement.
“The pleasure you get from an experience is often proportionate to how much time and effort you expend. The carrier bag on the bus home. The expectation. The way it looks and feels. Even the way it smells. And that’s before you even place it on the turntable,” he wrote in the Guardian.