Zenith records are one of the few companies in the world to press their own vinyl records.
Calibrating test record.

Records have become an essential promotional tool for bands releasing new material.

The year was 1991 and, frankly, if you were still wandering lost and lonely in search of a vinyl copy of Pearl Jam's Ten, you were, self-evidently, either hopelessly square or secretly Amish.

The start of the 1990s was the benthos for vinyl. The compact disc was king. Once the brash upstart, laughed at by serious music heads, it well and truly dominated the recorded music consumer market.

Flash forward to 2013 and fate has demonstrated, yet again, that it is a perverse and unpredictable force. CD sales are in steep decline as digital downloads capture bulk sales. Vinyl albums, on the other hand, are enjoying their strongest popularity in two decades. The black beast is back, and not just in the grumpy white-bearded unreconstructed audiophile sector. Vinyl albums are on sale at JB Hi-Fi. Sub-hundred-dollar turntables are on the shelves at Target.

Brent Clough,  Producer/presenter of The Night Air ABC Radio National .photograph by Edwina Pickles.

''[Records] carry memories. Files can't do that,'' says DJ Brent Clough. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Online retailer Amazon currently carries more than 100,000 vinyl album titles. The category has recorded a sales increase of 745 per cent since 2008.

The figure provides a notable validation for Sydney-based Radio National announcer and club DJ Brent Clough.

''I played vinyl albums right the way through at the ABC until only three or four years ago, when they ripped out the hard-wired turntables,'' he says. ''I knew it was a resilient medium that wasn't going to go away.''

He was right, as it turns out. In the United States, Nielsen tracking reveals that vinyl sales have risen 33.5 per cent since the dark months of 1991 and are now running at about 4 million units a year.

In Australia, ARIA figures show a strong rise in domestic vinyl sales, with albums up 70 per cent between 2011 and 2012, and singles up 50 per cent in the same period.

The size of the vinyl market is still small. It accounts for only 2 per cent of US recorded music sales, and just $2 million of Australian turnover. But if old-school LPs were a species, they would be off the endangered list.

''A vinyl pressing has become almost a compulsory 'as well' order when bands are releasing an album,'' says Gerasimos Grammenos, of Implant Media, one of two vinyl record manufacturers based in Melbourne.

''It's really taken off in the last few months. We're taking several orders a week.''

Vinyl is particularly popular for album launches and direct sales at live shows.

''It means you can go home with a show bag,'' Grammenos says. ''That's very different from going home with a download. Six months ago, the average musician who was ordering a vinyl run was rather young. It was a person who understood that the digital market is highly volatile and that vinyl is very cool and appealingly retro.

''But now we're finding more established acts are also looking to vinyl, following in the younger ones' footsteps!'' he says.

''Everyone is appreciating that a double gatefold is a beautiful canvas. That's something a CD can never provide.''

In Britain, Amazon's biggest-selling ever vinyl release is Daft Punk's recent album, Random Access Memories. The retailer has been logging vinyl sales since 1999, and the German duo's rapid success quickly eclipsed long-term bestselling vinyl acts, including Adele, Amy Winehouse, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, the Arctic Monkeys and Kate Bush.

Australian bands are well on to the trend too, with vinyl reissues from old hands such as You Am I and Birthday Party jostling for shelf space with newbies such as Clairy Brown and the Bangin' Rackettes and Saskwatch.

And while big retailers such as Target and Aldi have been quick to stock bargain turntables, many vinyl heads seem in it for the long haul. High-end vinyl-playing machines were a big feature of the annual Australian Audio and AV Show, held in October.

Indeed, in a strange way, vinyl might yet turn out to be the savior of the entire concept of long-form music. As consumers shift to individual digital song purchases, the idea of buying a whole album has quickly become anachronistic.

Nielsen figures reveal US album sales in all formats to be 142 million for the first half of 2013, the worst result ever. A decade ago, half-year album sales were around 400 million. Album sales increased - and sharply, at that - only in vinyl form.

Modern vinyl fans, however, are not in any sense Luddite throwbacks. Rather, vinyl is viewed as part of a suite of playback options, not at all inimical to digital alternatives.

At Implant, customers primarily order a vinyl run as an adjunct to CDs or MP3 downloads. A run of 500 albums, cut in Germany and made in France, comes out to less than $7 a unit, making vinyl an appealing promotional item.

Amazon secures its vinyl sales by, in many instances, bundling a free downloadable version of the album with the physical disc, thus allowing both in-house retro cool and iPod transportable convenience. Target's cheapie turntables are all computer-compatible, allowing albums to be ripped onto a hard drive.

Back in Sydney, Brent Clough regularly schleps crates of LPs to play at showcase gigs organised by boutique retailer IHearMusic. For him, the resurgence is more than just an auditory fad.

''I think a lot of people are checking out vinyl now because an album is an object with cultural information on it,'' he says. ''Albums are great art objects. Records carry memories, information, a sense of place. Digital media has largely eradicated that sense of place, I think.''

Clough sees the vinyl resurgence as driven by two sectors: the hip young things and die-hard music veterans. ''There's a sizeable minority which never abandoned vinyl in the first place,'' he says. ''There are a lot of niche music fields that never turned up on CD. For instance, I'm really into Jamaican music and the bulk of that is still today produced on vinyl.''

In the end, though, vinyl's new spring might have more to do with its ability to encode intangibles than its use as a music storage-and-retrieval system.

''Our lives change,'' Clough says. ''That's why we love objects like records. They carry memories. Files can't do that. A file carries no human residue.''

implant.com.au
ihearmusic.com