When I was a kid my family used to tell me about times when a new Beatles record would come out, where groups of friends and complete strangers would gather together around the record player and listen to the new album over and over. I would later see film clips and photos of teens and swinging adults playing records and obviously having a grand ol’ time. I often wondered if I was missing out on something special. Turns out I was right, and it took me my entire 20s, and quite a bit of time and money, to try to make up for it.
As one of those odd and sometimes occasionally perceptive creative types milling about the world there are numerous things I don’t rightly comprehend, like most math, photosynthesis, how laws are created and manipulating the stock market through speculation, just to name a few. Though, my all-time favorite mystery is how a diamond-tipped needle scratching a piece of plastic produces this incredibly beautiful sound. Maybe it’s one of those things I shouldn’t understand out of fear the mystery will no longer be intoxicating, or that my passion for music may disappear completely. Regardless of my lack of understanding, I’m glad this little bit of audio technology exists and is gaining some momentum again in mainstream culture. As a record collector, this day and time is a bit of a vinyl renaissance. But, why has the 33 1/3 and 45RPM vinyl record become such a hot item again in recent years, when compact discs and digital downloads own the lion’s share of music releases? What’s the appeal of this nearly 100 year old commercial format, and where is the vinyl record headed in the coming years?
As 47 year-old Kendall Brown, a charter member of Dallas’ Vinyl Preservation Society says, “A record album presents a complete artistic statement. You can’t put a bunch of albums on random play. When you drop that needle, you’re committing to at least one side,15-25 minutes, or a whole single or double album, up to an hour and a half. There’s a dramatic flow. Sure, it’s possible to listen to whole albums in cd or other digital formats, but with records, it’s a requirement.”
Vinyl fans enjoy holding the record jacket in our hands as we rock out to the record going round and round on our turntables. We take in every square inch of liner notes and lyrics that come printed on the album’s inner sleeve. We love the musty smell of a classic LP, and wonder about its long journey prior to landing in our hands. Oh, and we absolutely love the cover art.
“I could wax poetic and nostalgic on this for a while,” says longtime record collector and music lover Teresa Wise. “When you put on an album you sit and listen. And the gatefold cover? Sigh…”
In all the years I’ve been buying music I don’t ever remember feeling ‘connected’ with the listening experience of a CD or MP3. It’s always been treated as background noise in my household, like my mom listening to The Mambo Kings soundtrack while cleaning the house, or while I was working on term papers in college. Playing digital music, although still very enjoyable, blends in with the surroundings and becomes slightly unnoticeable, like some tacky old wallpaper from the 1970s.
Truth be told, vinyl fanatics can’t completely knock CDs and MP3s, or all the other digital music file acronyms that are available to the masses these days. There is a convenience to all those handy portable formats which offer the ease of music enjoyment on the go, whether driving around in your car, walking the dog or jogging. In an age of modern convenience, ease and portability, digital media is a no-brainer. It shouldn’t be surprising digital music distribution is king. When Apple debuted their iPod in 2001 it boasted having the ability of putting your entire record collection inside your pocket. No more lugging around numerous milk crates of heavy LPs up and down ten flights of stairs. When Apple debuted their iTunes online music store it gave consumers the ability to shop from the largest music retailer on the planet from the convenience of your home. C’mon, let’s be real. That is a pretty cool feat in music’s long and storied career. However, some of us want a little more from our record collections than just convenience and portability.
Unlike with CDs or digital music files, vinyl completely demands your undivided attention. I’m sure most people would agree with me that the on-demand world has become too fast paced and too nerve wracking at times. The beauty of a vinyl record is that you have to make time for, and be engaged with the music. There is no double clicking involved. You have to place the needle on the grooves. You have to flip over the record. You take in the music much like you would a great meal, at home, where we typically derive the most comfort and pleasure.
In all of vinyl’s recent success and comeback, as it were, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single, solitary explanation as to why vinyl records have gained some momentum in popularity over the last couple of years. It’s all speculation, really, but as Nielsen Soundscan reported earlier in 2012, vinyl sales have been on the increase since 2009, but still only accounts for 1-2% of all physical album sales. (Would it surprise you to know The Beatles “Abbey Road” is still the top selling vinyl album of the last few years?)
The increased sales are more than likely a combination of young music fans curious in the nostalgia of the format and older adults who grew up listening to records. Even national Record Store Day, which attracts music fans and collectors nation wide, has also contributed to the increased vinyl sales in its five years of existence, partnering record labels and independent record stores releasing limited edition vinyl. Though prices for new and used vinyl records are double, almost quadruple, of what they were in its heyday, music fans and vinyl collectors are snatching up vinyl more and more each year. In what has become a brilliant marketing ploy by artists and record labels, most new vinyl releases come with download codes with the records, too. “With a vinyl for your turntable and a digital file for your devices, you get the best of both worlds,” says Dallas music fan Esther D’Entremont.
There is also that never-ending argument about the sound quality of vinyl records versus digital music files. Which one actually sounds better?
As 34 year-old Texas native and vinyl collector Brandon Bonneau says, “Nothing else sounds like it. Vinyl has a warm, gritty “soul” that is missing from most digital recordings.”
Nineteen year-old audiophile Lindsey Davis agrees. “The sound quality is so much more real. You can tell how hard the artist worked to achieve their goal. It’s just them doing what they were made to do. Songs nowadays have been so altered that it’s not the same quality. You can’t compare the two.”
Digital music files are often described as sounding “tinny” and “sterile,” as the recording is typically compressed during the mastering process. But, some have argued digital music sounds better than traditional analog vinyl. Who is to say, really? I’m sure there are all sorts of charts, graphs and numbers I can show you on the subject, but remember, I’m not that great with math. All the available research out there can fill an entire book, honestly. In the end it boils down to preference, as everyone’s hearing capabilities are different, anyway. I personally, have no need for the turntables and speakers that cost as much as a Maserati. I’m happy with my inexpensive, lo-fi portable one, and it sounds fantastic, even with only one speaker.
The sheer irony of it all is that CDs were supposed to be the nail in the coffin for vinyl, but the classic format hasn’t died off yet, and hopefully never will. That is to say, it may be that this new-found resurgence in popularity with vinyl could be a trend, but it’s a trend I find worth keeping around for as long as possible. Searching high and low in off-beat and unsuspecting places, sorting through box after box of new and vintage vinyl treasures for aural pleasure is still a total thrill.
In a perfect world I would love to see vinyl become the dominant music format again, but that might be wishful thinking. As long as there is some kind of kindled love and demand for vinyl records they’ll continue to be around. Maybe prices will go down a bit, too, despite the basics of economics: supply and demand. Hey, stranger things have happened. It would also be swell to see groups of friends, families and strangers gather around their record players again to spin the latest vinyl release that’s all the rage, even if it’s not a Beatles LP. In the meantime, it’s nice to know I’m not the only person in the world who is obsessed with my vinyl record collection, and I don’t mind spending hours, days, weeks and months taking in every bit of vinyl I own. It’s so much more than just the music. Your life is built around your record collection. It’s hard to say the same thing for CDs and MP3 files.
(Photo by Jonathon Kimbrell)
-Jonathon Kimbrell is a Dallas-based artist
and record collector, and writes for the
music blog Classic Waxxx.