I have wanted to own a turntable, often known as a ‘record player’, for some time now. I realise that the terms can be interchangeable, but essentially the difference is that a turntable needs a separate amplifier and speakers, whereas the other term is usually reserved for an all-in-one unit that does not need external components, as it already includes the turntable assembly, preamp, amplifier and speakers. I used to own a record player, of course. In fact, for my 8th or 9th birthday – I can’t actually remember which – I got my very first record player. It was one with the bit in the middle that could be inserted in order to play discarded jukebox singles from the Alpha Grove youth club that my parents ran from 1978-1982. The memory of this record player was recently brought up again when I watched Stephen Merchant’s Bristol based The Outlaws, which showed a flashback scene in episode 4 to one character, played as an older man by Hollywood legend, Christopher Walken, stealing the exact same model for his young daughter, as a way to win her over. Except mine was bright red. There is also a store called Longwell Records in Keynsham, Bristol, but I have never visited the city. Apparently the owner played a pub landlord in The Outlaws and I met someone from Bristol recently who knows him.
My next record player came as part of a Sony hifi system, so not separates. There was a twin tape deck and CD player with it, too. This was around my 18th birthday. I ‘graduated’ to buying and playing CDs, via 1000+ cassette tapes, then mp3s, then in the last 10 years or so, simply streaming. In 1998, I upgraded to some separates – twin deck cassettes, CD player and speakers again, but no decks. I have not even owned a record player since 1998. It got to such an unlikely point that I would ever play my vinyl records again that in November 2016, with money too tight to mention, that I reluctantly decided to sell all my old vinyl. Most of my LPs and 12″s (seen in the photos) were sold to Beatniks in Magdelen Street, Norwich. There was some really good stuff in there, like Kate Bush’s first five albums, Pixies’ ‘Bossanova’, a picture disc of Nirvana’s ‘Come as You Are’ and a rare Lazarus 12″ by Boo Radleys. I kept nearly all my 7″ singles, though. Do I regret it now? Of course I do!
A few items were sold on eBay and all my Deacon Blue went to a Glaswegian super fan who kindly got hold of a ticket for me for the Barrowlands gig in December that year, which was later released in all formats and included me visible in the crowd on the front cover. The only Long Players that I kept were the original cast recording of ‘Hair’, Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’ – two of first LPs I was ever given, Now That’s What I Call Music II (1984), the first LP that I bought with my own money – although I had purchased and been given loads of singles before that, and Peter Gabriel’s ‘So’ (1986), which I purchased on a school exchange trip to Germany when I was 15 and remains my second favourite album of all time, behind Deacon Blue’s 1987 debut album, ‘Raintown’. Incidentally, the first 7″ single I ever bought was ‘Summer Nights’ from the Soundtrack to the film, Grease. Somewhat appropriately for this post, this was closely followed by Rat Trap by The Boomtown Rats, which actually took over from ‘Summer Nights’ at the number one spot in the UK.
A month after the Barrowlands gig and seeing all my DB vinyl in its new, appropriate home in Glasgow, came the surprise act of winning a 3LP set of David Bowie Live in mint condition with two extra tracks not on the CD version at Holt Vinyl Vault in January 2017. I won a Bowie quiz, put together by owner, Andrew, one year after Bowie’s death. This got me grooved up to get a new record player again. One of the questions was about the identity of the person who made the costume that Bowie wore in David Byrne influenced video, DJ. This person actually walked into the store when I went to collect my vinyl.
I subsequently went another five years (see what I did there, Bowie fans?) before there were any changes. Albums which I have purchased since winning the Bowie set but have remained unplayed, include Suzanne Vega’s ‘Solitude Standing’ (repurchased in October 2017 at a Vega gig in Cambridge), Jess Morgan’s ‘Edison Gloriette’ (bought off Jess at the Norwich Arts Centre, 2019), Sleaford mod’s ‘Eton Alive’, bought at Soundclash, Norwich (2019) with the lads popping by and Ian McNabb’s Our Future In Space (last December) – bought directly from the artist – all signed, of course. I’ve also picked up a remastered version of my third favourite album of all time, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ by Pink Floyd, with recreations of the original postcard inserts, ‘Who Built the Moon’ by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Peter Gabriel’s ‘Rated PG’ and ‘Live in Athens’ and a few more LPs from HMV – all in the past year or so. All together, these have become a ‘tipping point’ to me finally getting round to buying that new turntable and that tangible feeling once more of owning and playing records.
UP HERE IN THE NORTH OF ENGLAND
Vinyl can become an obsession and sales are continuing to increase in what has generally been dubbed the ‘Vinyl Revival’. Last year more than 5 million LPs were sold – an increase of 8% over the previous year, while 1 in 4 albums sold was on the format – its highest percentage for 30 years. This short report on BBC Breakfast recently highlighted this and featured not Preston, where I live now, but ‘Press On’ – a vinyl manufacturer in Middlesbrough. You can watch this report below.
I recently had a ticket to see Ian McNabb play at The Ferret, Preston, but the gig was postponed due to ill health. I still went to support some local acts. You might know McNabb from his Icicle Works days, although he has been a fantastic solo artist since the early 90s. The last time I saw him play was with his original band at the Norwich Arts Centre, 2019. Andrew from Holt Vinyl Vault was also there. McNabb has shared his bitter observations about streaming services recently. In particular the little amount of money that artists like him get from streaming services. Even CDs don’t bring in much, unless produced and sold independently of a third party, i.e. retailer. In addition, the likes of ABBA, Adele, Coldplay and Sheeran take up most of the European vinyl pressing plant production when they release records within a short space of time – as was the case in the lead-up to last Christmas, causing significant delays to artists like McNabb getting their own records in stock. His next release, ‘Nabby Road’ is currently on a waiting list to be pressed. He was also curious about how fans actually listen to his work. Often these days it’s convenient to purchase a digital version from a third party that takes a large proportion of the revenue. It’s convenient to carry music around with you on a portable device. However, some platforms are better than others in how much they pay to the recording artist.
THE NEEDLE AND THE DAMAGE DONE
Spotify, for example, pays about $0.003 to $0.0084 per stream, with an average payout of $0.004 per stream. How much the artist earns depends on many factors. For example, not every country pays the same amount. It also depends on the distribution contract the artist has or whether their music is streamed by users with a Free or Premium plan. To earn more money, artists should be present on multiple music streaming platforms. Additionally, being featured on playlists can significantly increase the number of streams. Of all the money Spotify receives, 70 percent goes to the right holders. That money also comes from a Spotify premium subscription. (FreeYourMusic, 2021).
Neil Young, who I love as an artist, recently asked Spotify to remove all his recordings. OK, this was due to the platform favouring comedian Joe Rogan with his ridiculous podcast deal and the latter’s stance on misinformation on Covid-19 vaccinations. Rogan has been described by the New York Times as “one of the most consumed media products on the planet”. His podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, is Spotify’s most popular. In 2020, Rogan signed a $100m deal that gave the streaming company exclusive rights to the show. The relative ‘damage’ done by streaming, however convenient for the end user, is not as bad as peer-to-peer file sharing in the ‘Noughties’ (00s), which I admit to trying out. As the Y2K bug supposedly gripped the world, a peer-to-peer site called Napster was born. But file-sharing came with viruses.
Later came the less virus-prone ‘torrenting’, but the illegality of sharing music in this way means no revenue at all goes to artists or record companies. The idea of having most of the world’s music available in an instant is, of course, appealing and convenient. So in 2003, Apple launched the iTunes Store, an online music library to be used in conjunction with their flagship MP3 player, the futuristic (albeit antiquated by today’s standards) iPod. – I owned not one, but two iPods, but my 160GB edition is languishing, neglected in a draw somewhere. Early iTunes users were able to download a full catalogue of music for the mere price of $0.99 per song, proving iTunes to be a viable business model and somewhat of a step forward from Napster. MySpace, which I used before joining Facebook, came and went. These days, MySpace has rebranded itself solely as a music streaming service, though it is somewhat overshadowed by more prominent music streaming sites (Brewster, 2021).
I’ve had a sort of conversion since those ‘naughties’ days (sic) to actually paying for things again. Streaming is great for the end user, but not so good for the struggling artist. It helps being in full-time work again and knowing that I can afford this. Go to a gig, buy a record, feel the tangible quality and cherish the association. Whilst I do like the convenience of having access to the entirely of Apple Music on my phone for a monthly subscription when on the move, I am reluctant to pay actual money to streaming services, especially Spotify, despite me using the platform to host my own ‘show’ – which probably no-one listens to. It’s just a place to store audio versions of these blog posts, some auto-generated by Anchor, as my post from one year ago demonstrated.
Back to my aim to get a turntable. This desire was cemented when I realised that one of the closest public houses to the university where I now work is the Vinyl Tap, which is obviously a nod to the seminal rockumentary, ‘This is Spinal Tap’. I guess this has been was my ‘tipping point’ – a phrase heard a lot in the news over the last month or so, more of which later. With everything written in Motörhead font, this super venue is home to a collection of vinyl albums, which can be selected and requested to be played. They do a line of German hot dogs and some nights of the week, the beer, including a Pint of Motörhead Road Crew is relatively cheap. There is something about the tangible aspects about holding a vinyl record, which I am sure I don’t need to explain. In addition, listening to a record, with all its potential scratches and jumps really is evocative of a time when it was the main method of hearing music, long before FM radio. It was in the Vinyl Tap that I spent a good hour listening to Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell on 21 January – the date the singer’s death was announced. Similarly, when original University Challenge host Bamber Gascoigne passed away, I went in for a Motörhead – because, well, The Young Ones episode called ‘Bambi’ when Ace of Spades was played in the students’ ‘living room’! In the racks, they have New Model Army’s first LP here, Eels’ first album, as well as my favourite Bowie LP, Hunky Dory, and a decent range of heavy rock from AC/DC to Zeppelin, via almost everything by Iron Maiden, ‘Songs for the Deaf’ – the third studio album by American rock band Queens of the Stone Age, Queen’s second album, Half Man Half Biscuits debut, lots of Eagles, Springsteen and fair amount of Bryan Adams, too, although the horror song of ‘91 is never allowed to be spun. Plus there are hundreds more, as can be seen in the photo.
On 30 January, I visited a Preston market record stall. Now it must be several years since I thumbed through second hand vinyl at a place like this. Whilst it was interesting to visit Holt Vinyl Vault back in 2017, I did not purchase anything, because I obviously had nothing to play them on. However, that will change in the future as I fall once more into the ‘trap’ of buying vinyl – be it brand new and often signed or previously owned. The Irish owner of this stall found me rummaging and asked me to look out for any records by Cat Stevens, Billy Joel or Fleetwood Mac, as a customer had rung up and asked for these, but the guy wasn’t exactly sure what he had, such is the very changing nature of record owning. As well as a Tears for Fears ‘Head Over Heels’ 10″ (seen in the photo), which is actually my mobile ringtone, and Prefab Sprout’s debut single ‘Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone)’, there were several albums which I sold to Beatniks back in 2016 – not the same copies, obviously, but you never know. There were even several Deacon Blue records, which I also owned before selling to that Glaswegian lass. I came away with The Police’s ‘Synchronicity’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Various Positions’ and The Eagles’ ‘One Of These Nights’ – because I wanted to own the album which has ‘Journey of the Sorcerer‘ on it. Like many traders he uses discogs to check the market rate. I declined to purchase the Sprout single, even though I sold my Sprout collection for £40 on eBay back in 2016, I wasn’t necessarily looking to start over.
Back to the point. On 5 February, the date of the original McNabb gig at the Ferret, I finally bought a new, black Sony PSLX310BT turntable, with the upfront money for this year’s birthday, as well as my own savings. I splashed out, too, on a Cambridge Audio Amplifier AXA35 in Lunar Grey – which means that even at a low volume the sound quality is great. I already had some Eltax monitor VII speakers, donated by my friend, Meriol, when she moved house. These have been connected by some Cambridge audio cables. However, I also purchased some new Sony Bluetooth headphones, as I can’t really play music too loud where I currently am, but I’m already thinking about my next place when I will, hopefully, be able to pump up the volume. Now I’m no technician and a bit ignorant when it comes to wiring or setting up a home system such as this. Fortunately, where there is a Will there is a way. One of my new colleagues and an ex-DJ, Will, popped round to advise on getting connected, but I sought further advice from Richer Sounds, where I purchased the tech. On the day I went back (14 Feb), I received some messages saying that while I was out at work they tried to deliver another identical turntable and amp – a mix-up resulted in a quick dash to Hughes behind Preston prison to recover the gear. I got some free speaker cables for being honest, otherwise I might have had two lots for the price of one! See some photos of the new set up below.
THE TIPPING POINT #2
Talking of ‘The Tipping Point’, my next vinyl purchase will be the new album by Tears for Fears, which comes out on 25 February. It is the seventh studio album released under the band name. In a recent interview they described how they had always written albums from which singles could be taken, rather than the other way round. They see the new album as bookending their whole career, starting with The Hurting (1983). The creation of the album proved difficult for Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, who walked away from the project mid-way through recording. This is not unlike their bust up following 1989’s The Seeds of Love, when Smith had had enough and left Orzabal to carry on the TFF name for two effectively solo albums, until they reunited for the ironically titled, overly saccharine Everybody Loves a Happy Ending (2004). In the meantime, they were the subject of BBC’s Classic Albums – for 1985’s brilliant Songs from the Big Chair, which contains the aforementioned single ‘Head Over Heels’. The lockdowns helped as, like many other artists, it was a chance to focus, write and record. I have only seen the band once, when they played Newmarket Racecourse in 2016, but hope to see them again in Lytham this July. ‘No Small Thing’ would have fitted nicely on ‘Raoul and the Kings of Spain’ (1995), while the title track was clearly partly inspired by the death of Orzabal’s wife in 2017. Listening to new track ‘Break the Man’, it could be 1985 all over again with a topical perspective.
I will continue to listen to Apple Music / iTunes when on the move. However, I may well have fallen into ‘the vinyl trap‘ and already got somewhat addicted to buying records once again! It can, indeed, be an obsession. You know where I’ll be on Record Store Day – its 15th anniversary – probably in Action Records on Church Street, Preston, where the Boo Radleys are playing the week before! You also know that while I live the relatively ‘single life’ then my surplus cash will get spent on beer, records and going to gigs once more now that covid restrictions have been well and truly lifted! Here is a great little documentary about Action Records and how it survived.
Postscript: Talking of the ‘single life’, if you haven’t already seen it, then do check out this brilliant Oscar nominated video (below) based on owning a record player called A Single Life, which has an accompanying Spotify playlist including the titular tune released by Excelsior Recordings. Thanks to Jamie Keddie for alerting me to this short film the other day.
*note: the 20 minute audio / podcast version recorded on Anchor and uploaded to Spotify and other platforms can only be played on the Spotify desktop or mobile app, not in a browser, because it contains original and background music.
Postscript: On Friday 22 April, I did eventually see Ian McNabb play at The Ferret. Just before the gig, I received a brilliant gift of a Longwell Records T-shirt, inside a Longwell Records Tote Bag, brought all the way from Keynsham, Bristol by Haz Whiltshire. Photos below.
BBC Breakfast (2022). Vinyl Revival and Pressing Plants. Featured 9 February 2022 and available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8oRR2q7-cU.
Brewster, W (2021). Musicology: The history of music streaming. Available at: https://mixdownmag.com.au/features/musicology-the-history-of-music-streaming/
Free Your Music (2021). How much does Spotify pay per stream: Streaming payouts comparison. Available at: https://freeyourmusic.com/blog/how-much-does-spotify-pay-per-stream
Job, Joris & Marieke (2014) A Single Life. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzAZnOyMTI4
Longwell, P (2009). Alpha Grove Reunion. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJdghmY5hfU
Merchant, S and Butler, J. (2020). The Outlaws, series 1, episode 4. Available in the UK at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p09zfh6y/the-outlaws-series-1-episode-4?seriesId=m0010zy3
Vinyl Record Life / Joe. (n.d.) Turntable vs Record Player: The Main Differences Explained. Available at: Vinyl Record Life
Walker, E (2018). Moorbrook owner takes on former Preston pub. Available at: https://www.blogpreston.co.uk/2018/09/revamped-pub-the-vinyl-tap-prepares-to-open/he owner of Vinyl Tap.
Yang, M and Beaumont-Thomas, B (2022). Spotify removes Neil Young music in feud over Joe Rogan’s false Covid claims. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/jan/26/spotify-neil-young-joe-rogan-covid-misinformation/