Vinyl singles make comeback in Britain


LONDON - Physical singles may be losing the war against digital formats, but the U.K. market has found an unlikely hero to lead the fight: good, old-fashioned, 7-inch vinyl.

Fueled predominantly by independent labels and alternative groups like Arctic Monkeys and Kaiser Chiefs, the format -- also known as a 45 in its pre-'90s heyday -- is experiencing a mini-revival in the United Kingdom. In recent years, labels have increasingly added limited edition versions of 7-inch singles to their armory, which are targeted at "indie" rock consumers as trendy collectibles.

"It's a sign of protectionism from the indie community," says Toby Langley, co-founder of Transgressive Records, the indie home to fast-rising alternative bands the Subways, the Young Knives and Larrikin Love. "It's a prerequisite with Transgressive that every artist puts out vinyl. Seven-inch vinyl is a fairer representation of their art and their music."

Langley says vinyl is Warner Music-backed Transgressive's best-selling format -- typically responsible for 4,000-5,000 copies of a 6,000-selling single, with 500 CD sales and the remainder from downloads.

U.K. over-the-counter sales statistics show a clear spike in demand for 7-inch vinyl. According to the Official U.K. Charts Co. (OCC), consumers bought 1.1 million 7-inch singles in the 12 months to September 2006, with growth running at 6%.

However, sales of the format remain a long way off its 1979 peak, when 89 million units left U.K. shops. In the late '80s and early '90s, sales of CDs and cassettes took the shine off vinyl. And by 2001, the format was on its knees, shifting just 178,831 copies, according to the OCC.

The resurgence is backed up by figures from the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), a trade group, that show 2005 trade deliveries of 7-inch singles topped 1.87 million units, a 10-year high, accounting for 3.5% of all singles shipments.

Stuart Allan, rock and pop singles buyer for U.K. retailer HMV, says having a single out on 7-inch vinyl is akin to a "badge of honor" for today's rock bands. More than 50% of all U.K. CD single releases in 2005 featured a 7-inch vinyl version, according to the BPI's "Statistical Handbook."

Dougie Souness, founder of Glasgow, Scotland-based artist management firm No Half Measures, says a limited edition pressing of 7-inch singles strengthens its appeal. "There's been a backlash, dare I say, against the digital world. People are now thinking that little bit of plastic with a hole in the middle is actually a pretty cool thing to own," says Souness, who has guided the careers of Scottish hitmaker Wet Wet Wet and melodic guitar band Cosmic Rough Riders, among others.

Souness' current protegees, all-girl band the Hedrons, cracked the top 20 of the OCC U.K. indie singles chart with each of their first two vinyl/download-only releases. Upcoming single "Heatseeker" (Measured) will be issued on colored vinyl, CD and as a download.

Such is the demand that Britain's few remaining vinyl pressing plants are struggling to keep up. "In our experience, 7-inch vinyl pressings have more than doubled in the last 12 months," says Tony Wicking, factory manager of London-based pressing plant Total Vinyl, which has manufactured recent releases on indie labels including Distinctive Records and Full Cycle. Much of the 7-inch vinyl that hits Britain's retail racks is now sourced from such continental European plants as GZ Digital Media, in Lodenice, Czech Republic, and Optimal, in Robel, Germany.

Meanwhile, to keep abreast of demand from consumers, retailers are expanding floor space given to the format. HMV has recently quadrupled the floor space and racking dedicated to 7-inch vinyl at its London flagship store at 150 Oxford St.

"In years to come, when CD has been superseded by its replacement format," HMV's Allan says, "I'm sure there will still be a niche demand for vinyl."