Culture / History of the Media

Put the record back on, vinyl spins again!

Listening to music has never been easier than today. With the Compact Disc, music consumption entered the digital age, and it was soon followed by mp3 files and music streaming services, making music available to everyone everywhere. However, one analogue format continues to live against all odds: the vinyl record. Destined to sink into oblivion, the sound of vinyl records faded out but did not disappear. Resisting obsolescence, the black disc, presumed dead by the 1990s, has come back.
The photograph by Knipsermann is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The photograph by Knipsermann is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The creation of the vinyl record is the result of several technological improvements in the sound recording field. Although Thomas Edison is usually seen as the forerunner of sound storage with his phonograph of 1877, it was Emile Berliner who introduced the flat disc as the sound storage medium, replacing Edison’s cylinder and making it possible to mass reproduce music records. From the 1920s, this disc made out of shellac and other synthetic resins was the only format for music listening. By the end of World War II, the material was changed to polyvinyl chloride, a solider substance. The record therefore became the “vinyl” record. Soon thereafter its standard form was developed. It was the Long-Playing record (a.k.a. the album), a double-sided 12″ disc with a playing time of 30 minutes per side. It dominated the music market until the end of the 1980s.

The demise of the record did not happen overnight. In fact, with the invention and commercialization of the magnetic audio cassette in the 1960s, the vinyl record lost its monopolistic position in the music market and its sales declined gradually until 1980. The audiotape, more convenient and cheaper than the record, gained popularity at the same time as the portable cassette player the Walkman, which introduced portability as an essential part of consuming music. However, it was not until the arrival of the Compact Disc that the vinyl record was doomed[1].

In 1983, the brand new digital technology launched by Sony Corporation and Philips Electronics took over the market. In the United States, the sales of vinyl records fell off, passing from 341 million units in 1978 to 72 million in 1988, namely a decrease of 80% according to the Recording Industry Association of America[2]. Smaller and lighter, the Compact Disc was marketed as a promising device with a better robustness, an extended playing time (74 minutes) and a superior sound quality than the vinyl record[3].

As the world entered the 1990s, the Compact Disc became the standard format for music, pushing the record away from the mainstream market. Yet, the record had a particular significance especially among DJs. Indeed, among club goers, the medium remained alive thanks to genres like hip hop, techno and house music, which were still released on records. The vinyl record, particularly the 12″ Single format, was the preferred medium because DJ techniques such as mixing, scratching or backspinning required the manipulation of the object, a physical connection between the DJ and the music[4]. Moreover, as the record became harder to find, a second-hand market formed among vinyl lovers appeared. Actually, as Richard borneborne, a professor of popular music, puts it: “The irony is that it was the arrival of the CD that enabled the analogue disc to transform its image. It was only now that it could be elevated from assembly-line product towards something approaching an art object”[5].The vinyl record was no longer solely a way to listen to music, but a collectible artifact.

The record might have stayed underground, venerated by a group of vinyl aficionados. However, it turns out that from 2008, the black disc made a surprising comeback in the mainstream music market. According to Nielsen Soundscan data, in 2011 the analogue format was the fastest growing format in the United States, with an increase in LP sales of 36%. In fact, 2011 represented the fourth consecutive year of sales growth. In the same year, CD sales declined 5.7%[6]. Yet, it is important to point out that vinyl record sales, although impressive, still count for less than 2% of overall album sales[7] (the available figures do not include sales of second-hand records, which must be considerable). Clearly, there is a “vinyl mania” going on, a renaissance of an old medium which had almost been forgotten. Indeed, the record’s return contradicts the normal course of technological evolution. What explains the revival of vinyl records in the era of digitalization, when we tend to think of music as having been dematerialized?

One event that illustrates this new popularity of the record in the digital world is the Record Store Day. As a community event created in 2007, Record Store Day is the annual spring meeting of vinyl consumers and independent record retailers. The phenomenon spread throughout the United States and it is nowadays present on the international stage. Nourishing the demand for the precious object, the Record Store Day offers every year limited and special editions in association with music companies, who understand the collectible value of the record. The higher demand has led to the reopening of pressing plants and a renewed emphasis on vinyl by major music companies[8].

Another interesting aspect of the resurgence of vinyl records is that a younger generation, born after the golden age of records, is attracted to them. Although some youth have criticized records as “limited”, less “mobile”, or requiring “a more demanding playback”[9], they find in the record a way to experience music differently. For those who grew up with the vinyl record, purchasing them was a way to resist the introduction of the Compact Disc, which threatened to take the medium away from them. But for a younger generation of vinyl lovers, the purchase of used records can be understood as an act of resistance to a music industry that pushes them to consume music as a mass-market product. According to the young vinyl listeners, records convey a nostalgic feeling; they symbolize the “good old days”, when music was supposedly authentic[10]. On the other hand, the increase in sales of new records suggests that the interest for records can also be seen as the desire to possess a special object, which offers more substance than a simple CD.

The continuous progression of record sales shows that the cultural phenomenon is not just a fad. Although it is the most expensive format to purchase, the vinyl record is thriving. Indeed, the price of simple LP records generally starts at 20€, a price that can double or even triple for a deluxe edition of a new release. For example, the digital album of Stromae, “Racine Carrée” and the CD version cost around 10€, whereas the vinyl record sells as a 40-euro double-album. As for second-hand records, the price can skyrocket depending on the artist, the type of record, and the rarity of the object. The fact that vinyl enthusiasts are ready to pay such prices suggests that the record carries a particular significance for them.

Juan, an experienced collector interviewed about his relationship with vinyl, stresses this aspect of the medium. He admits, “Each collector has his or her personal relationship with a record. When you collect them, you don’t only buy them. You go from one store to another, spending hours digging in crates. It’s a whole thing. You put effort in finding what you’re looking for, and that’s what makes the relation with vinyl records so special”[11]. In his hunt for the precious item, the packaging plays an important role. Indeed, the cover image of vinyl records, about five times bigger than CDs, is an art piece in itself. It is actually the materiality of the object that makes the vinyl record so appealing. That is what the music industry realized. Along with reissues of albums by famous artists, the music industry also emphasizes the physicality of the object, by changing the weight, color and even shape of the record. For example, a standard record weighs 140 grams whereas a heavy one will weigh between 180 and 220 grams, giving the impression of having something significant between the fingers[12]. In other words, the vinyl record is more than simply a medium for music storage and playback.

The listening experience of the vinyl record requires more involvement from the listener. Taking the record out of its cover and its inner sleeve, manipulating it carefully in order not to leave fingerprints on it, then putting the record on the turntable, adjusting the needle on the groove and letting the music play…These gestures form a kind of ritual, leading to a greater appreciation of the music. As Juan puts it, “There is a sort of warmth and depth in vinyl record sound. With them music takes another dimension.” Indeed, the “vinyl experience” depends on physical sensations: the sense of hearing of course, but also sight and touch with the cover and disc, not to mention the smell associated with records. It is this set of interactions that explains the appeal of the vinyl record.

The renewed success of the old medium challenges assumptions about an all-digital world where all music, from the latest pop song to the oldest rock album, is just one click away. Physical formats haven’t had their last word. With files, music tends to be reduced to sound, while with tangible objects there are interactions between the listener and the music that an mp3 file stocked on a computer cannot provide. As long as people want to feel the music between their hands, records will be here to stay.

Works cited:

[1] Plasketes, George. “Romancing the Record: The Vinyl De-Evolution and Subcultural Evolution.” The Journal of Popular Culture 26.1 (1992): 112. PDF file.

[2] Ibid., p.110

[3] Guberman, Daniel. “Post-Fidelity: A New Age of Music Consumption and Technological Innovation.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 23.4 (2011): 433. PDF file.

[4] Bartmanski, Dominik, and Ian Woodward. “The Vinyl: The Analogue Medium in the Age of Digital Reproduction.” Journal of Consumer Culture (2013): 10-14. PDF file.

[5] Osborne, Richard. “Vinyl”. Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2012. 83. Web.

[6] Loynes, Anna. “The Nielsen Company & Billboard’s 2011 Music Industry Report”. Business Wire. Businesswire.com, 5 Jan. 2012. Web.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Kozinn, Allan. “Vinyl Records Are Making a Comeback”. New York Times. New York Times, 9 June 2013. Web.

[9] Hayes, David. “‘Take Those Old Records off the Shelf’: Youth and Music Consumption in the Postmodern Age.” Popular Music and Society 29.1 (2006): 61. PDF file.

[10] Ibid., p.52

[11] Juan. Personal interview. November 2014.

[12] Bartmanski, Dominik, and Ian Woodward. “The Vinyl: The Analogue Medium in the Age of Digital Reproduction.” Journal of Consumer Culture (2013): 7. PDF file.

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