The emergence of the .mp3 file format in the late 1990s was a crucial development in the distribution of music. Being able to fit entire songs into small files led to the inventions of devices such as mp3 players and iPods, and eventually the ability to play music on your phone. It is also meant that music could be accessed from home, leading to digital online stores and illegal file-sharing sites - where music could be accessed for absolutely free.
This, then, was surely to spark the beginning of the end for physical media. Vinyl had already declined sharply, and other formats such as MiniDisc and Laserdisc had never taken off in the first place. Now, CDs and cassettes would surely follow them into oblivion, as downloading would become the go-to choice for people wanting new music.
But it never quite happened. Cassettes were cast away pretty quickly, but CDs came with their advantages and managed to fight back. Cars still had CD players, as did most people at home, and there were always those who had just gotten into the habit of buying CDs and continued to do so. Even the introduction of streaming hasn't quite been able to fully kill the CD format off.
That's not to say it hasn't come close. Many high street music retailers have struggled in the past decade or so to stay open, with HMV coming close to shutting down on a number of occasions. However, every time they has done so, people have rallied around these retailers to show their support for them in order to keep them open. and a big part of this has been Record Store Day. Introduced in 2007 and recognised globally, it aims to support independent music retailers and brings artists and fans together for this purpose. Artists support it by arranging meet-and-greets and releasing special editions of records that can only be purchased from selected retailers on that day, and the increased attention this has brought to record stores has helped keep them alive during the age of downloads and streaming.
We often hear that time is cyclical, and there has certainly been evidence for that in the last decade. Even as downloads and streaming have grown physical media has started to make its presence known again, and in 2014, vinyl sales in the UK hit the one million mark for the first time since 1996. Those sales tripled two years later, with over 3 million LPs being sold nationwide in 2016.
Even cassettes are on the rise, though not nearly to the extent that vinyl is. 50,000 cassettes were sold in 2018, and those sales grew by a whopping 94% in the first half of 2019, with 35,000 being sold by July. It was predicted that 75,000 cassettes would be sold by the end of the year, and though that is unconfirmed, it still represents a huge comeback for tape.
What's fueling these trends? It's difficult to say, but there is undoubtedly something just a bit more special about owning an album for yourself and being able to physically use it. Furthermore, it allows for different kinds of special edition records; coloured vinyl, special booklets and the like. One band, The Ocean, released their latest album (Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic) on vinyl and one edition came with three actual fossils and stands to put them on, as well as other items. When was the last time you got a fossil with your download?
Even the ability to play it on a turntable is, in itself, more theatrical and more 'organic' than pressing play on Spotify. Sure, you don't have the freedom to skip tracks with a vinyl, but this old-fashioned method of listening to music still comes with a special feeling. Plus, if and when you meet your heroes, it's difficult to get your download signed.
There is a downside to all this, though - the environmental cost. CDs and cassettes, in particular, often come in plastic packaging (known as jewel cases for CDs) which harms the environment when they are thrown out. It may be an idea for the industry to start thinking about more sustainable ways of packaging their physical formats; indeed, a lot of CDs are now coming in packaging made of card, which is a good step forward.
Can the rebirth of physical formats keep going? Logic says that growth will stall at some point, but nevertheless, there is enough proof to suggest that the formats themselves will live on, and long may that continue. It would be a travesty if high-street retailers were to shut down, so buying physical media remains important for jobs as well. If plastic packaging can be removed from the equation, there will be very few, if any, downsides to physical media. Let's support our retailers and keep vinyl, cassettes and CDs alive.