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The Rise Of Vinyl

Sales of vinyl records are up in the United States and I have a theory on why some of us are going analog.

Last April, the Recording Industry Association of America released the sales figures for 2011 and reported that US sales have grown for the first time since 2004. Total growth was only .2%, but the industry would have been happy with any semblance of stability, so actual growth must have been a delightful surprise. Another surprise, namely to the people who have not been paying attention for the past few years, is that sales of vinyl records have increased…again.

Listeners spent over $100 million dollars on vinyl records in 2011. That is a 30% increase in both revenue from and unit sales of vinyl in 2010. Big numbers, right? Well, sort of, for vinyl at least, but in this $7 billion industry vinyl does not even account for 2% of total sales. Nevertheless, vinyl sales have been on the rise for the last couple of years and I see no reason for that trend to stop. Aside from posting a decline from 2005 to 2006, vinyl sales have only been on the rise. There was a 36.6% gain in the sale of EPs and LPs in 2007, and vinyl sales doubled in 2008, grew 33% in 2009, 26% in 2010, and over 30%last year. So, why vinyl? I have a theory.

“Technology is cyclical.”
–Dennis Duffy, The Beeper King. (30 Rock)

It seems counterintuitive, but I believe that vinyl is on the rise for the same reasons that the MP3 is on the rise: the Internet. Digital is reviving analog.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s table all the troubles and issues that the digital era has brought upon the music industry (e.g. obsolete business model, piracy, etc.) and simply focus on the ourselves as consumers. The Internet is phenomenal to the consumer. It makes music easier to discover, share, listen to, and own (be it by legal or illegal means). These are not small improvements either – they’re revolutionary. I think we don’t consider the magnitude of it all because as consumers, we have never experienced a cognizable downside from it. I don’t question the free-refill policy at my favorite restaurant. Things are have been going great for us… but there is a problem.

Actually, it feels wrong to call this a “problem.” Imagine having so much money that you didn’t have enough time to count it. You may casually refer to that as a “problem” because you’re too preoccupied counting moneybags to have better word choice, but it’s not really a “problem.” It’s more of a “nettlesome consequence of good fortune.” Nevertheless, this is the type of “nettlesome consequence of good fortune” that music consumers are dealing with.

There is too much easily accessible music on the Internet.

With a couple of keystrokes and mouse clicks, you can hear any song by any artist within seconds. I was younger when the old system was in place, and it worked like this: save up your allowance for weeks, deliberate on which album you wanted to buy, convince one of your parents to take you to the mall, buy the album, and then, for better or worse, you were stuck with that album. Those days are no more. Now, there is no deliberation period. Whether by means of YouTube, Spotify, torrent, or one of any thousand other services, you can listen to any song you want on a whim. If you don’t like it, you’re not stuck with it, just move on to the next thing. This is great for a lot of reasons: it saves you money, you can find more new music, and you’ll never make the unfortunate mistake of purchasing a Metallica + Lou Reed collaboration because you didn’t know any better. The downside is that this insurmountable supply of music is completely overwhelming.

This is best illustrated by example. Let’s say you just heard “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan for the first time. Not surprisingly, you’re very intrigued and begin to wonder what other music he has recorded. Well, before blindly shelling out your hard-earned cash for one of his albums, you’re going to sample his music free of charge on the Internet.

There seem to be two prevailing methods to accomplish something like this. The first option is to use Spotify. If the artist’s music is available on the service – and Dylan’s is – you can listen to it all, free of charge. And not only is it neatly labeled and organized by album, but there’s even an app designed to showcase his music. The second method is to download the music, for free, through a torrent. Although this is the illegal method, that doesn’t mean it is substantially more difficult to use. In fact, I’d bet that with little to no effort, a reasonably tech-savvy person could have Dylan’s entire discography downloading to his hard drive via torrent within 10 minutes. And today, who’s not a “reasonably tech-savvy” person?

So now, through Spotify or other illegal means, you have thousands of Bob Dylan songs sitting in front of you. To play any one of these songs, all you have to do is point and click. You don’t have to pick an album. You don’t have to clean off the CD, rewind the tape, or mail your Mini Disc player back to Sony to be fixed again. You can just go for it! So, where do you start? The beginning and work forward? The end and work back? Put it on “shuffle” and let ‘er rip? It’s not possible to conquer such a body of music all at once. And not many people would have the patience and self-control to do even if it were. Our mouths are bigger than our stomachs, so to speak, and I think people are beginning to realize that. The people who have made this realization want a more intimate and hands-on experience with their music. They are realizing that listening to music should be active, not passive.

When you add in the fact that music is available through thousands of other channels on the web, you can start to better understand the big picture. Think of it like a very large, very complex radio. All the stations are playing all the music and you can find anything you want with the turn of the dial… but there are too many stations to decide between. The listener ends up stuck between the stations. All the greatest music is at your fingertips, but the experience is the equivalent of static. Do you know what happened to the boy who suddenly got everything he ever wanted? He started buying vinyl.

That’s not to say that the static on the Internet and the desire of the consumer for a more active listening experience are the only reasons for the resurgence in vinyl sales. Some people just love antiquity of it. Some people love the big artwork. Some people prefer to physically possess the music they own. Also, the fact that most (if not all) new vinyl releases include complementary digital downloads of the record doesn’t hurt either.

Either way, the nice part about vinyl is that it forces the consumer to sit down and listen. There is no pointing or clicking involved. You can’t spaz out and jump from song to song. The physical process involved with playing an MP3 in comparison to playing a vinyl record is as different as unwrapping an ice cream sandwich and baking a cake from scratch. It’s time consuming. It’s involved. It’s hands-on. It’s active.

Think about the last time you decided to listen to music. Now think about the last time “listening to music” was the sole activity you were engaged in. By this, I mean the music was not just accompaniment to some other activity, like commuting to work, surfing the Internet, or cooking. Obviously music can complement all these things well, but it can also be great on its own.

Anyway, my guess is that it’s been awhile since you put on an album, laid down on your bed, and listened to it for 45 minutes. If I’m correct, I suggest that you try it out. And if you don’t think you have the self-control to do it on your own, maybe buy some fresh vinyl and give it a spin. You won’t regret it… that is, as long as you did your due diligence and sampled a little bit online so you’re not stuck with a clunker.


Joe Petro is a recent graduate of New York Law School and an aspiring entertainment lawyer. More of his writing on music can be found here. You can find his humorous diversions on Twitter @joe_petro.

Reader Comments (9)

Agree whole heartily with Joe on this....And, IMHO there's another influence upon this trend worth mentioning and that's the younger buyers of vinyl. @AltavozDistroCo we believe it's their generation's rebellion from those before them that have been consumed with all things digital.

We all know there has to be a reaction of being told how to behave for each genration. Since by now we should all know that each generation determines how they'll Just Do it and it seems their doing it with Wax.

We Love Vinyl Records #wlvr

July 11 | Unregistered CommenterNelson

I wonder if these vinyl sales figures take into account used records being sold. I've only bought a handful of new records in the last year but I've bought a tone of used. And not all of them cheap either. I don't buy many new ones because I think the 180g is a gimmick and most are digitally remastered anyway so what's the difference?

July 11 | Unregistered Commentervsrecs

Great post. I did chuckle when you mentioned lying down and listening to an album for 45 mins. Part of the problem I have with modern albums is that they are too long by about 3 or 4 songs. Some can be over an hour long and there are too many mediocre songs are being used as filler. makes you lose interest by the end. Not in all case but most I find and that's when the picking and chossing individual tracks comes in which spoils the "album as a whole" experience.

July 12 | Unregistered CommenterDave

The other thing is, I think, is that most mp3's you will find on the Internet for free sound like ass. Especially through a hi-fidelity system. They simply do not compare to the warm, separated and "live" sound of a record. Maybe the younger generation is discovering this?

July 12 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

Vinyl is the future! There is nothing better than the sound of vinyl and so much is lost in digital products.

Very insightful, Joe. Lately I've been pondering many of these same questions... especially thinking about the overwhelming amount of music we have at our fingertips these days. I also grew up on vinyl (first vinyl album was Breakfast In America by Supertramp, second was Back In Black by ACDC). I wore out those records and the experience was fantastic. Nowadays, there's simply too much music to sift through and too little time to "experience" it as opposed to listening as background noise while at work. I thought it was just me getting older but I believe you've helped me better understand what's actually happening. I'll be thinking more about this. Thank you!

I think vinyls are basically sold as merchandise rather than as a medium to listen to the music. The MP3 age has made music intangible and ephemeral. Vinyls are a way to hold and see the music even while it's not playing. The fact that vinyls are physically bigger than CD's and Cassettes make them more suitable for this purpose.

As for the fidelity and sound quality I have my doubts. Most music today is recorded digital to begin with so any analog quality is gone. Also a lossless audio file with a decent DAC is indistinguishable from vinyls.

As far as sound quality goes, most people are listening to music on ipods, iphones etc,which still sound good but not studio quality good.For most people it doesn't matter. Agree with Hugh as well, when everything is recorded digitally these days is there a huge difference in sound quality between a CD on a nice sound system compared to a vinyl record on a nice sound system? If so would the avergae listener know the difference? Myself my r,ecord player is just going through a simple stereo system that I've had for years,so any benefis vinyl has is probably lost on me, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy buying lots of used vinyl.

July 13 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Playing vinyl, for me, carries a sort of Zen quality with it. I carefully remove the disc from its sleeve (LOVE the sleeve graphics and liner notes!!), clean the disc with a professional disc cleaning vacuum device, gently place the disc on the turntable, grab my Zerostat and zap the 'table and disc to eliminate static pops, then clean the stylus with a soft brush, then set up the Dust Bug auto-tracking dust remover, then lower the stylus into the groove. Then I settle in for about 25 - 30 minutes of sheer ecstasy.

That's vinyl for me. There is no video screen in my music room...never will be. It's about sitting in the sweet spot, closing my eyes and being happily and convincingly transported to another place and time. Every time.

CDs can do it too, but you really have to have a good player and ancillary equipment to make them sing. And, yes, under those conditions, they can sing nicely.

I have a bunch of recordings, the same recordings, on vinyl and CD. In some cases, such as SInatra at the Sands (Reprise), the vinyl wins hands-down, because by the time the original magnetic tapes were transferred to CD, the tapes were suffering from signal loss and dropouts due to delamination of the magnetic media. In other cases, such as with Ella and Oscar (Pablo)
the CD wins hands-down as the vinyl formulation used to make the LP suffered from high random noise.

The key thing is getting the playback system right. Do that, and it hardly matters whether one listens to a CD or vinyl disc. However, MP3s don't EVER cut it...flat, hard, grainy and compressed. Fuggeddaboutit!!

January 17 | Unregistered Commenterscootrnc

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