In the last few decades, the way we listen to music has shifted dramatically. From vinyl records, cassette tapes, and CDs, to the current digital age of readily available music and streaming platforms, formats have come and gone. However, despite the rise of new technology, vinyl records have continued to remain a part of the industry. While more modern technology overshadowed this analog form for a while, there has been a significant increase in vinyl sales in recent years in the United States, leading many to investigate this industry phenomenon.
Despite the booming digital era of music production and consumption, vinyl records have stood their ground in the music industry since their introduction in the late 1940s. Vinyl records were king until the CD made it into the hands of listeners everywhere in the 1980s. In the ten years following the introduction of the CD, the market share of vinyl dropped from 40% to 1%. But, vinyl is on the rise once again. According to Nielsen Music, 2017 marked the 12th straight year of increased vinyl sales, and that doesn’t always include smaller record stores and labels, secondhand avenues, and bands on tour. Between 2008 and 2012 alone, more than 15 million units were reported sold, totaling more than all of the vinyl sales from 1993 to 2007 combined. This unique resurgence in the sale of vinyl records has become a music industry anomaly as both classics and new releases stock shelves and hit the turntables.
With the recent revitalization of vinyl comes an abundance of inquiries about what makes records so desirable in a time where listeners can play any song of their choosing with just a few taps on a screen. The answers lie in the physical aspects of the records themselves that work to create a full listening experience for the user. The combination of its sonic aesthetic and the physical rituals associated with the format establish the record as an iconic and auratic cultural object. For both audiophiles and daily listeners, the audio quality between digital and vinyl is striking. While mp3s are compressed to save data space, “the grooves in vinyl contain uncompressed, high-resolution data;” this allows records to maintain the small nuanced sounds of each instrument and provide full, warm, and satisfying tones. In addition, the imperfections of each vinyl, the crackling and skipping throughout the songs, enhance the music and make each record irreplaceable.
The rituals of playing this physical format foster intimacy and emotion with the record, and further the unique experience that you can’t get from a digital download. Flipping the record at the completion of each side commands the attention of the listener; it pushes them to acknowledge the structure of an LP as a complete set of songs and take into account the pause and division of an album. This allows the listener to think of the record as more than simply an object, but rather a powerful, fleeting piece of art that can foster an authentic emotional connection.
With this idea of a record as more than simply an object also comes the idea of the endowment effect, the belief that people attach more value to the things that they own. With the rise of music streaming, listeners no longer own the music but are essentially paying for the opportunity to borrow it. This creates a detachment between the listener and the music as the perceived value of the experience decreases. The unique essence that comes from the ownership of a record creates more importance and a stronger bond to the music, something that listeners are much more willing to pay for.
Along with the sound quality and the emotional appeal comes the package of the record itself. Iconic album covers, like that of Abbey Road by The Beatles, lends itself to the enlarged photo that covers the record’s sleeve. At about 500% larger than a CD cover and even more so for a small photo on a phone screen, this scaled up art is desirable to fans. Modern releases may also include a digital download code and can include lyric sheets or large posters in a curated package deal for music lovers. This only furthers the idea that investing in something tangible, even with the nearly 100% price increase between a digital download and a vinyl, creates a stronger sense of ownership and connection.
While this classic physical format isn’t on the road to taking over this new digital age, it has made quite the impact in the music industry and will continue to do so for years to come. New businesses on both the production and distribution sides are opening up; vinyl pressing plants are opening around the country and independent record stores are popping up as the demand continues to rise through the years. Since the physicality of records is a major draw for listeners, the appeal of shopping for them in person is still a big part of its distribution. From 2012 to 2017, nearly 400 brick-and-mortar record stores opened in the US. Alongside this uptick in record sales come the birth of the annual, nationwide Record Store Day in 2008. This one-day event held every April draws fans into their local record stores to purchase exclusive, limited releases and special variants made just for the day. This event brings music lovers and record collectors into their local stores, brings tax dollars to their community by shopping local, and creates a sense of community. This sense of connection is something you just can’t get from an mp3 download. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of flipping through box after box to find your favorite record and the excitement of having to wait to play it on a turntable, rather than tapping a screen to have the fleeting song right at your fingertips.
So, what does this revitalization of records mean for the future? As this physical format becomes more prevalent in the digital age, an abundance of new technology is on the rise as well. New innovation and new companies are entering the market to meet the needs of contemporary consumers. For example, the new smartphone-compatible player, Love Turntable, retails for $329 dollars and appeals to the contemporary consumer’s need for sleek and modern designs. The player is simple, portable, wireless, Bluetooth compatible, and controlled by the app that digitally scans each album and sends the album information straight to the phone. This is a strong departure from the large, wired, and bulky turntables of the past, mirroring the impact of the digital revolution on a classic format. As the vinyl revolution continues, the industry will no doubt continue to shift towards more modern technology to appeal to the more contemporary consumer in order to strengthen the vinyl comeback.
Many within the industry agree – while sales may be booming, it’s not going to reach the top of mainstream media. According to Tom Corrigan, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, “vinyl sales are likely to remain a specialized market, much like film cameras.” With digital downloads and streaming becoming ever more prevalent, popular, and convenient, vinyl may continue to rise in sales, but will still be seen as a niche product. As John Lippman, owner of the Columbia House record brand, says, “I think there is a sense among a lot of people of looking to get back to the broader experience of engaging with media”.
As many industry experts explain, digital streaming and vinyl are complimentary at this point in time, not necessarily direct competition. The influx of record sales plays on the human desire for a multi-sensory and tactile experience, something that this digital age can’t always provide when the desire for instant gratification is at the forefront of its construction. Streaming is an avenue for discovery, but investing in a record gives music lovers a way to show their support for their favorite artists and albums and feel a sense of ownership and personal importance of the record. As journalist Marc Henshall put it, people are “turning to vinyl to plug the gap where streaming just can’t deliver the same complete experience”. In this time of a booming borrower economy, from the car and home sharing to daily music streaming, the unique essence of possessing something we can call our own–a record–still exists.
It’s clear that regardless of the changing landscape of music consumption, vinyl has continued to be relevant and leave a lasting mark on listeners both young and old as well as different elements of the music industry. Through this resurgence we can see that though much of the modern world has continued down the digital path, analog technology is not necessarily a thing of the past.