Vinyl: The end of an era

Recent developments indicate that the longest surviving format in the history of the music business will soon become commercially extinct. In addition to the closure of some landmark vinyl emporiums, a series of high-profile DJs have announced plans to forego their beloved “steel wheels” in favour of computers.

Though sales of vinyl fell sharply between 1985 and 1995, many record shops continued to enjoy a healthy, if limited, trade throughout the US, the UK and Europe. In some markets last year, vinyl sales even increased. But much of this ongoing trend was fuelled by the image of Superstar DJs and their 12″ records. Without such support, it suddenly looks like vinyl may finally finish its 70-year run as an economically viable product.

So what commercial and legal issues does this raise? Firstly, it reinforces the mantra that “Technology rules OK”. Secondly, it raises the question of whether “Format Migration” is legal and, lastly, it raises the spectre of (yet another) ratcheting-up of music piracy.

Technology Wins

Though many prominent DJs moved on to CDs years ago, that change was seen as less significant, not least because a CD is a spinning round thing and plugs into a proper mixer controlled with tactile faders. The abandonment of hard-copies altogether is regarded more as a quantum leap into the modern music business.

Mixing computer music files in clubs means, moreover, changes to both the audio and the visual performance. Newfangled DJs now simply turn up with a laptop (full of tunes, usually as MP3 files), plug it in and click away at the mouse. However, the sound is different from vinyl as MP3 files have a reduced frequency range and an inexplicable ‘lack of warmth’, whilst the visual image resembles an office worker (staring at a screen as if checking emails).

A few companies have met the challenge by releasing new-generation computer DJ gear. “Final Scratch” is an ingenious device that uses a real turntable (playing a special record with digital timecode pressed into the grooves) to control music files running on the computer. Ableton’s “Live” software package is a music application that is designed for spontaneous mixing that allows the DJ to actually create new music while simultaneously mixing together music files.

While this seems to prove that technology offering “the same thing but better” always wins in the end, it is equally possible that traditional vinyl simply has hit the wall after 15 years of DJs and artists creating every possible combination to eke out a new trick.


The term “migration” refers to the transfer of content from one (old) format to another (new) format. In the 80s, music consumers migrated (by re-purchasing) their old records from vinyl to CD. Now DJs everywhere are migrating their enormous vinyl and CD collections to computer music files such as MP3, WAM, AAC and AIFF.

But is this legal? Do we all have a right, after legitimately purchasing an album, to change its format? If so, it seems odd that for 20 years we’ve had to pay £16.99 every time we “migrated” an album from vinyl to CD. If not, then how will record companies deal with so many DJs illegally transferring thousands of vinyl records and CDs onto a solitary 40GB hard disk?

The popular perception is that CD owners can rely on the exception in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 which allows a purchaser to make a “back up” copy of a work in “electronic form” if expressly or impliedly permitted (Section 56). This exception was intended to deal with computer programmes, but the definition is wide enough to cover music on CD. Most CD covers, however, carry express terms in the small print to exclude this exception. Vinyl records, however, do not fit into any such exception and many DJs will find themselves in a sticky situation if they invest in the new computer gear only to then discover that, without a legal right to large-scale migration, they have no (legitimate) records to play.

The problem currently has no easy on-line solution. Despite the success of online record shops like iTunes selling widely-known pop music, the vast majority of the world’s recorded music (and especially the cult Dance music of the 80s and 90s that forms the foundation of any self-respecting DJ’s record box) has yet to be officially “encoded” or made legally available in computer music file form.

Yet More Piracy?

Ironically, we may find that rights owners of Dance music have no interest in seeing their catalogues digitised. While an increasing number of pop artists and record companies are finally experiencing success within the digital online business model (eg iTunes), most artists and record companies are still caught between the hope of making digital copies of their entire catalogue available and the fear of such available copies being file-shared. For the specialist Dance music companies, this fear is especially understandable due to the techie nature of Dance music and the tendency to pass tunes around quickly and freely.


Surely, though, the key is to avoid the destructive habit of circling the wagons, and instead to creatively seek ways to exploit the new possibilities. Is it not likely that DJs all over the world would pay handsomely for a download product containing a “cool” compilation of competently encoded Dance tunes? Might this become the new model for “DJ mix tapes”?

Of course it is possible that reports of vinyl’s death have (yet again) been exaggerated but it seems less likely this time. It is significant that this charge is being led by the very people who have repeatedly rescued vinyl in the past. There is, at long last, a proper alternative for DJs that features progressive, creative interfaces and, for the first time, allows for proper spontaneity in live performance. And, perhaps most importantly and undeniably, the success of online record shops and personal devices and the launch of the weekly “Download Chart” in September have all created a comfortable environment for digital music that strongly suggests the end of vinyl is, finally, nigh.

Bulletins are for general guidance only. Legal advice should be sought before taking action in relation to specific matters. Where reference is made to Court decisions facts referred to are those reported as found by the Court. Please note that past bulletins included in the Archive have not been updated by any subsequent changes in statute or case law.