For someone at the cutting edge of music download technology, Ian Gordon has an unusual hobby. He collects old records. But according to the founder of iWeb, an e-commerce development company that produces MP3 download systems for clients such as Elvis Costello and Defected Records, vinyl music has a special quality: “The sound is warmer, and it has a better definition than MP3 files and CDs. Music on CD is too clinical, too ‘bright’, I find.” For Gordon, the quality of an MP3 file is acceptable when played on an iPod, for instance, but the way the technology compresses the sound means that the quality does not match that of a record.
“Also, buying a record is a nice experience,” he continues. “I like the look of the covers and the pullouts and posters that you sometimes get. It’s an exciting time to be buying vinyl: so many people have been getting rid of their collections over the past few years that there’s plenty of good stuff out there.”
Gordon’s collection of vintage vinyl is housed in a large purpose-made cabinet, and is focused mainly on soul, jazz and dance records – categories that have developed a growing following over the past few years. He is fuelled by passion rather than prices; a recent purchase was an original album called Alone Again, Naturally, released in 1972 by soul star Esther Phillips, for which he paid around £20, while another favourite is Dexter Wansel’s Time Is Slipping Away, which is now worth around £30.
Although some 630m music tracks were downloaded in the first half of 2011, according to the research group Nielsen, Gordon is not alone in his love of the retro format. Nielsen also revealed that vinyl sales increased 37 per cent in the beginning of 2011 over the same period the previous year, and sales of the vintage variety are also up.
Last summer, a copy of The Beatles’ single Please Please Me, signed by all the band, was bought for more than £9,000 at an auction at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. (The seller was a woman who had persuaded the Fab Four to sign the sleeve after hearing them at The Cavern.) Two months earlier, Christie’s sold an autographed version of London Calling by The Clash from 1979 for £1,625, against an estimate of £400-£600, and last March a rare red vinyl test pressing of Jimi Hendrix’s The Cry of Love (1971) reached £3,865 on the website Vintage Seekers.
“Vinyl makes a statement: people feel it has a certain cachet, and that it’s somehow cooler,” says Ian McCann, editor of Record Collector magazine. “As well as regular customers, who are looking for things such as the first Beatles LP, there are now Russian and Chinese collectors bringing new money into the trade these days, much as the Japanese did in the late 1970s.”
Record seller John Manship has been supplying collectors worldwide with rare pop, funk, Motown, R&B, ska, reggae and soul on vinyl since 1969. He currently has a stock of over 500,000 LPs, 45s and 12in discs, dating from around the mid-1950s to the present day. “It was a hobby that snowballed into a business,” he says. For Manship, the appeal of these discs is obvious: “They’re tangible and tactile. They’re a form of visual art, and you can’t beat vinyl for a beautiful sound. CDs just don’t have the same appeal.”
According to Manship, the 1960s and 1970s have produced some of the most memorable – and collectable – sounds. Scratches are obviously a serious disincentive to collectors. “The best examples are still sealed in their original sleeves and have never even been played,” he says. “For collectors of soul music, it’s usually best if they haven’t been signed by the artist, because that can actually devalue them. There are exceptions, but if a soul record is signed it should be on the back or somewhere unobtrusive. For rock collectors, however, prominent signatures are much more desirable.”
In these days of mass-produced, easily downloadable pop, music fans are increasingly looking for something different that has its own artistic integrity, and a distinctive history. Two years ago Manship sold a copy of an unreleased 1965 single Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) by Frank Wilson, on behalf of a Scottish collector. The track re-emerged during the late 1970s on the Northern Soul scene, but this earlier version, one of only two in existence, sold for £25,742, a world record for a 45rpm 7in vinyl record. More recently, Manship sold an uplifting Tamla Motown-style track called Because of My Heart by Butlers with Frankie Beverly for £3,049. Meanwhile, at online marketplace Gemm, David Bowie singles from the 1970s are on offer at up to £3,500.
For lawyer Tom English, both digital and vinyl have their appeal: “I have a huge MP3 music collection but I enjoy browsing my records, too – I love the look of them, the feel, and even the ritual of slipping them out of the cover, putting them on the turntable, carefully putting down the stylus and waiting for the music to start.” English’s favourite discs include a signed version of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which he bought for about £800 two years ago, and a version of The Beatles’ White Album, for which he paid about £1,500 in 2007.
“My reason for buying them,” he says, “is undoubtedly a love of the music, and things such as the artwork on the covers, but, yes, I’m conscious of the fact that, unlike the stuff on my iPod, these will probably appreciate in value.”