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There’s Still Gold in Vinyl

by andrew l. yarrow

andrew l. yarrow — a former New York Times reporter and sometime history professor — was a college disc jockey in his prime.

Published November 6, 2020


How many times have I been judged on my huge LP record collection during the past three decades and found to be hopelessly behind the times? It’s so 20th century … CDs are the future …  iTunes is the future ... Streaming is the future....

I stubbornly resisted this advice to follow the crowd (as I’ve probably stubbornly resisted better advice). Today, I take particular glee that I kept my lovingly collected and curated basement record collection.

Yes, vinyl is back. And who doesn’t relish a comeback — a bottom-of-the-ninth, two-out rally to overcome a five-run lead? Not to get too carried away with the metaphor, though: 33-1/3 rpm “long-playing” discs made of too-easily damaged polyvinyl chloride have hardly won the game, but they do have a player or two on base after a decline into near-oblivion in the 1980s. Last year, for first time since 1986, vinyl outsold CDs. Nearly 19 million LPs were peddled in 2019, with two million pushed out the door in just the two weeks before Christmas. All told, sales were up by 14.5 percent — the 14th consecutive year of growth.

Who Woulda Thunk It?

The vinyl resurgence is striking, given that LPs seemed to have been permanently relegated to the dustbin of history — or at least to the dusty corners of attics. Last year, 4.5 percent of recorded-music revenues came from vinyl, up from the near-death data point of (sometimes much) less than 0.3 percent of annual revenues during the 1990s and early 2000s. Some 300,000 Beatles LPs were sold in 2018, along with at least 100,000 LPs each from Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix.

But more was at work here than nostalgia.Wal-Mart (hardly a nostalgia palace) sells LPs by some 1,000 artists. And the attraction is certainly not cost. The price — $20 to $30 apiece — compares unfavorably to $15 CDs or, for that matter, ad-free Spotify Premium, which allows unlimited listening for $9.95 a month.

So, why the revival? Two factors seem to dominate.

First, a vinyl analog recording can at least in theory sound better than state-of-the-art digital recordings because the analog disc can contain more musical data and exhibit a higher dynamic range. At their best, analog recordings “seem more lifelike and interesting, because they more accurately reflect what a listening environment would be,” explains audiophile blogger Christian Thomas. (Though, it’s also worth noting that LPs can add some distortion.)

Katrina Morgan, a columnist for Scientific American, adds that “analog captures a physical process whereas digital uses mathematics to reduce the process to finite bits of information.” 

The second factor is cultural. Millennials and Gen Zers seem to value the “experience” of using the retro equipment. And what could be more retro than listening to music on the same medium gramps grew up on? Baby Boomers, for their part, get contact highs reminiscing about psychedelic album covers and pawing through albums at used-record stores in hopes of finding, say, a pristine copy of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan (1963) that has changed hands for as much as $35,000. “It’s a sexy, cool product,” Tom Corson, co-chairman of Warner Records, told Rolling Stone. “It represents an investment in music that’s an emotional one.”

“A lot of younger people are discovering records and record players,” said 31-year-old Joe Segal, a buyer for Reckless Records, a Chicago chain specializing in used discs. “They’re excited.”

Since old turntables remain in many households, the turntable business is not enjoying quite the resurgence as the market for vinyl. But there are some modern variations on the old themes ranging from simple Audio-Technica turntables at $99 to the mechanical perfection of a $30,000 German-made Brinkmann.

Streaming may last a long time in some form, but that’s what was said of the CD. On the other hand, vinyl has survived for 90 years, and it looks like it is here to stay.
A Pause for a Little History 

Thomas Edison invented phonographs in 1877 that originally played recordings etched on wax cylinders, and the Edison disc made out of shellac was marketed from 1912 to 1929 — just before RCA Victorintroduced the first 12-inch vinyl long-playing records. Rival Columbia Records came up with the 7-inch disc that spun at 45 rpm. But the LP established itself as the dominant format. Soon after the development of stereo reel-to-reel tapes in the mid-1950s, stereo LPs made their debut.

The LP reigned supreme into the Reagan years while other music-delivery technologies rose and fell by the wayside. Eight-track tapes, partially developed by the U.S. auto industry, took off in the 1970s, only to be overtaken by smaller cassette tapes around 1980. For a brief eight-year period (1983-1991) cassettes were the most popular recording format — remember the Walkman? — followed by 14 years in which compact discs were the preeminent way of consuming music.

It’s not surprising that CDs, which abandoned analog data recording, were seen as the ultimate musical format. They were less subject to damage from careless handling and were initially thought to provide superior sound. “Digital recordings are akin to the computer-assisted cameras used in space,” Time magazine gushed. “Digital records lack the distortion customarily found on LPs.”

For most members of Gen Z (born in the first decade of the new millennium), the CD is as much of a relic as the Edison wax cylinders of the late 19th century. The downloaded single — from Napster to iTunes — had a similarly short, nine-year, life as the most popular way to acquire and play music. That ended in 2017, as digital streaming services overtook music downloads. Along came more hype: “We want to bring the streaming revolution to all” the world, declared Stu Bergen of Warner Music Group.

Streaming may last a long time in some form, but that’s what was said of the CD. On the other hand, vinyl has survived for 90 years, and it looks like it is here to stay. The sentimentalist (or maybe the curmudgeon) in me thinks it’s great to see an old technology make us question the notion of universal progress. Vinyl is sort of like the 1966 E-type Jaguar that can hardly stand up to the 2021 F-type in terms of practicality but is far more glamorous.

Besides, “it’s more purposeful” to play records, suggests Evan Fusco, vice president of Stereo Exchange, a high-end audio store in New York City that would be happy to sell you a music system that costs as much as $400,000. “You choose more carefully what you listen to.”

What goes around, comes around — in this case, anyway.

main topic: Media & Entertainment