Stand on the floor at the old EMI pressing plant in Hayes, Middlesex – and close your eyes. If the sound is familiar it might have something to do with half-remembered episodes of Ivor The Engine. The rhythmic clunk and hiss of a steam engine is exactly the same as the one made by the pressing plant currently spitting out Franz Ferdinand albums at a rate of roughly one every twenty seconds. Open your eyes again and a second wave of déjà vu takes hold. You’ve gone, a la Play School, through the arched window, into a Britain where things are actually made on factory floors, and men with blue overalls and pens behind their ears regularly inspect the product to make sure it’s up to speed.
In the office of the vinyl plant, manager Roy Matthews sits beside a platter of appropriately retro treats. Fondant fancies, Chelsea buns and jam doughnuts. The seven-inch single is 60 this month, but Matthews – who you suspect is normally far too busy to stand there feeling sentimental about all that – has laid on the treats because he also has a birthday this week (which one, he would rather not say). “I did know,” he says, when asked if he remembers the first record to spin at 45 rpm. It was Texarkana Baby by Eddy Arnold, pressed on green vinyl, in line with RCA’s early plan to colour code singles according to genre.
If Matthews has the air of a man perpetually poised on the brink of laughter, it’s hardly surprising. In 2009, there’s finally something to laugh about. Eight years ago, in line with the rest of the industry, EMI sold the pressing plant and all the equipment inside it. Matthews final job for his old label was to give a guided tour to the property developers that had bought the premises. Had the new owners not fallen in love with the idea of owning a pressing plant and continued to keep it going, Matthews would have retired a long time ago. Now it’s Portalspace – the company managed by Matthews – to whom EMI come when they want to manage the increasing demand for vinyl runs of current albums. Twenty thousand copies of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida were pressed here. Similar quantities of an imminent Genesis box set are currently whizzing through the plant.
The numbers in themselves aren’t don’t quite rival the 1.5 million records that once used to leave here on a weekly basis – but in a market that was already in depression before the current economic slowdown, vinyl specialists who have clung on until now are sounding oddly ebullient. As Duane Davis – 63 year-old co-owner of Denver’s enormous Wax Trax store explains – “there’s a feeling that vinyl sales have finally found their floor, and it turns out [that] the floor isn’t as low as many had feared it would be.”
In fact, Davis reports that 2008 saw vinyl sales in Wax Trax up for the first time in the last ten years. “We’re seeing a pattern with music fans in their 20s that wasn’t necessarily there before.” A typical scenario, he says, involves one such music fan wandering over to the new vinyl section and purchasing the new album by Animal Collective. “Once he’s in there, he might see an album by Miles Davis, one which exists on CD. But what you have here is someone who is deliberately setting themselves apart, paying dues to history. It’s a badge of honour.”
Isn’t this what some people might merely characterize as snobbishness? Matthews doesn’t think so. Having joined the pressing plant as an apprentice in 1959, he has found himself on both sides of the analogue/digital divide. Sheepishly, he admits that he spent much of the early 80s banging the drum for the technology pioneered by Philips which, a few years later, saw music fans throwing out their old vinyl to herald the new digital dawn.
“I actually brought the first CD back to EMI from Philips in Holland,” smiles Matthews, “The first reaction from the people are EMI was that these were rubbish, but I wasn’t convinced. What happened was that the classical fraternity seized upon the CD for the absence of clicks and pops. Of course, with classical music, that sort of clarity matters. But with rock’n’roll, what you respond to is a presence, a warmth. For a few years, people seemed unable to see the wood for the trees – or hear the music for the new clarity that came with it.”
There’s something reassuring in the fact that newer technologies simply don’t know how make certain recordings sound any better outside the black plastic grooves in from which they first sprang. The guitar on a scratchy old vinyl copy of The Four Seasons’ Let’s Hang On is thrillingly predatory compared to its emasculated, digital doppelganger. In Old Rare New – an excellent new anthology of writing celebrating the independent record shop – Cat Power’s description of her mother’s old Otis Redding bootleg accords with my seven-inch live version of Redding’s Shake: “Balls-out, rad-ass, loud soul perfection,” indeed.
Even if Roy Matthews sometimes has occasion to doubt what five decades in the Hayes pressing plant have taught him, he cites the example of his 19 year-old daughter and her friends, who “collect seven-inch singles like trading cards.” Even if the CD album has a few years left in it yet, the seven-inch suddenly seems in far more buoyant spirits than the unloved, uneconomical, uncollectible CD single. Vinyl isn’t cheap for a new young band to produce – 500 singles cost around £900 to make – but it does seem to reach a more evangelical constituency. It stands to reason. Someone who acquires their music merely by clicking on a weblink is less likely to get evangelical about it than someone who ambles over the racks of, say, Phonica in the West End of London and blind-tests some interesting looking curios on one of the ten decks recessed within the shop’s long, wooden counter. Florence & The Machine released just two seven-inch singles before winning 2009’s Brit Award in the Critics’ Choice category. For a format long since given its death rites, it’s amazing to hear Phonica website manager Sam Relleen talk abut DJ Harvey and Scots duo DJ Harvey shifting 300 vinyl copies in one weekend.
What emerges here is not so much a story about a resurgent format – rather a format which has found a loyal, discerning constituency that, from hereon in, will sustain it indefinitely. Just as some people prefer to buy their cheese from Neals Yard rather than Tesco, there are people who see their passion for music mirrored in the service they get from vinyl specialists like Rough Trade and Phonica. In the words of Duane Davis over at Wax Trax, “Vinyl sales have stabilized, but there’s no telling how when CDs will bottom out. In 20 years time, they might come to be regarded by people just as eight-track cartridges are now.”
Having died in May, Eddy Arnold may not have got to ponder the unlikely durability of the format he launched. But over in the North London suburb of Palmers Green, Derek Burbidge, owner of Record Detective Agency – an impeccably messy cubby-hole specializing in 50s and 60s vinyl – offers tea and attempts to put into words why the format refuses to die. “When I was a kid growing up after the war, there was nothing electric in my house, other than this record player. Even the fridge ran on gas. It was so incredibly modern.” He reaches across to the red 50s Dansette on which customers can still try out prospective purchases. “The other day, one customer came in with his son. The boy picked up a Rolling Stones album, and said, ‘What are these?’ And the dad said, ‘Um, that’s, big software. Which, of course, it is. But at the same time, the reason I’m here is that it’s so much more than that.”