It’s a question that’s hovered over the introduction of every new format. Is the artistry of the album still significant in an age that encourages the short-sharp single? Does the urgency of the instantaneous download ring the death knell against the cohesion and complexity of a full-length LP?

‘Absolutely not’ would be, and has always been, vinyl’s dogged response. Besides, it’s a format that’s kept on spinning, even as each shiny, new innovation that comes along decries its validity in a torrent of hype that is eventually proven to be nothing more than a fad (MiniDisc anyone?).

With the steady decline in CD sales (and cassette tapes, no great loss), and conversely the surging increase of digital music’s dominance, vinyl could well become the last bastion of the beloved album format.

We previously reported how digital sales outstripped physical sales for the first time in the UK. With figures released by the British music industry’s official body, BPI, showing that digital revenue accounted for 55.5% of income in the first three months of the year, therefore overtaking physical sales for the first recorded time.

Despite these numbers, there is a physical format that is steadily holding against the digital revolution, and its one of music’s oldest: vinyl.

There may have been a steady decline in CD sale,s but the popularity of vinyl is uniformly up.In the UK, the Official Charts Company reports that vinyl record sales are experiencing their highest figures in six years with a 55% increase. In the US, market researchers Nielsen, show a similar spike – with a reported 1.1 million increase in units from 2010 to 2011.

Closer to home, ARIA’s own figure-tracking from last year reveals that vinyl sales are up 13% despite the wholesale value of the music industry declined by 0.34% from 2011.

The Age today reported on the state of vinyl ‘getting its groove back’ with not only a feature on Zenith Records owner Chris Moss, who operates the last functional vinyl record factory in Australia; but also an article on vinyl’s national resurgence against a climate of dwindling physical sales and surging digital revenue.

The latter in particular provided a handy chart from ARIA collating figures from the last twenty-odd years of record sales
Recorded music sales.

The results reveal an interesting trend in that while downloads of individual tracks has spike sharply in the last decade or so, digital downloads of albums are barely above that of vinyl’s meagre – yet consistent sales since the CD boom of the late eighties.

Once gain bringing to the fore the question that’s plagued every generation when a new format is introduced. Is this the sounding of the knell for the album format?

Has vinyl become the last bastion of the album? The art of listening to a record start-to-finish in the way that it was designed by its musical creators has been given ever since music was first committed to wax. But the encroaching popularity of digital means of dissemination signals warning bells once again for the act of sitting down and actually listening to a record.

In the very same Age article, Clayton Pegus, co-owner of Melbourne’s Polyester Records, claims it’s this exact ritual that the format encourages, “It’s all about listening to an album from start to finish,” he says.

While Synergy Audio Visual managing director, Phil Sawyer, tells the paper that a boost in music listening habits from the 25-35 age group relies on vinyl’s artistic edge. “They enjoy the sound, the time spent in playing a record and the interaction with the music and the album art,” Sawyer says.

ARIA’s stats don’t reflect people’s actual listening habits, but the generalisation of the iPod generation’s tendency to listen to songs individually, or in an increasingly fragmented fashion, is reflected by the popularity of streaming services like Deezer, Rdio and the recently Australian-launched Spotify.

The introduction of these digital streaming services has had an enormous impact on the music industry landscape (in some cases, a positive one, as Tone Deaf previously defended), acknowledged officially by the UK’s Official Charts Company establishing a streaming chart; followed behind by ARIA, who are planning a similarly modelled chart before the end of the year.

Interestingly the aforementioned graph does not include these new streaming services, nor does it account for the effect that it could have on the album format.

Digital platforms like iTunes and Telstra’s BigPond obviously spotlight albums as an important part of their digital revenue, particularly with the inclusion of their own built-in Albums Charts and regularly discounted ‘album classics.’ But the sluggish increase of digital album sales versus individual tracks cannot be ignored.

Perhaps these new streaming services will further affect the listless increase of  album downloads, why purchase an album digitally – or physically on CD for that matter – when you can simply listen to it a few times on something like Spotify? All for the cost of a few ads?

Vinyl however, specifically flys in the face of these trends.

While digital services rely on their ease of accessibility and immediacy, the decision to commit to a vinyl collection first means investing in a suitable audio set-up. While the older production of record turntables, and the amplifiers needed to give them sound, were bulky and expensive, many manufacturers these days are able to release more inexpensive, compact solutions.

Many vinyl stockists, such as Clayton Pegus’ Thornbury Records, also offer repairs and maintenance at cost-effective pricing. “Our main business is selling vinyl records,” Pegus told The Age, “but without working turntables out there, we wouldn’t have anyone to sell to.”

Nevertheless, listening to vinyl also means more than a financial commitment – the very act of turning the record over, of physically dropping the needle in the groove – are far more involved actions than simply clicking an icon or typing a pop star into a search bar.

But let’s not carried away, the staunch survival of the little wax format that could rests solely on their being a demand for it, not just if the bands and artists themselves continue to release music on it.

To this end, ARIA once again offers strong evidence. The number of vinyl albums sold in Australia topped 65,000 last year, up from 18,000 only four years before. Figures that do not even account for the large numbers of independent releases from unsigned bands and small record labels that press their records onto wax.

The Age’s feature on Zenith Records’ Chris Moss clearly shows there’s a strong enough demand, no matter how dwarfed it appears against the huge numbers that digital downloads and streaming shift, to sustain a vibrant vinyl market.

The demand has grown so great in fact for Moss’ vinyl printing services that he currently operates four separate record production plants, including his Florida-based Alpha Vinyl Record Pressing Inc, his London-centred Only Vinyl, as well as operations in Milan and here in Australia, fulfilling vast orders on typical 7” and 12” pressings, as well as specialised 10” and picture discs that can be produced overseas before being imported.

In summary, is the album format suffering as a result of an increasingly digitised form of music distribution? Potentially, but while it might seem like it’s dying, the stoic sales of vinyl – and in turn the demands of the music fans, audiophiles and artists that use it – suggest that albums are not dead, nor even dying. They’re just quietly surviving.

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