Though for a while they were dismissed as an aesthetic novelty item, useful only to DJ’s and basement storage boxes, in recent years there has been a burgeoning interest in vinyl records. Of the countless mediums, from cassette tapes to compact discs to MP3’s, vinyl seems like an odd choice. After all, it’s big. It’s cumbersome. It requires a lot of upkeep and maintenance. Its…well…it’s a pain in the ass, at least to most people. But aside from digital downloads, it’s the most popular way to get your music. According to Neilson Co. and Billboard statistics, vinyl sales increased by 17% with 2.8 million records sold. In 2011, sales increased 25% with over 3 million and a projected 4 in 2012, puzzling many in a struggling music industry that’s barely getting by.
Sure, there has always been a dedicated community of collectors and vintage enthusiasts willing to pay top dollar for those rare limited releases. The success of independent record shops nationwide is proof of that. But recently, the trend seems to be more widespread. Walk into any Best Buy and you’ll find a section exclusively dealing in vinyl. Go on their website and you’ll find more than 14,000 titles, even new releases from artists like Raphael Saadiq and Kanye West. In fact, most artists choose to release their material on this format, offering it on their websites as a special promotion, LP, or limited 12″ single . That didn’t exist just a few years ago.
So why the newfound interest in this “outdated” technology? It’s pretty simple. Vinyl offers the listener something that a digital download cannot: a tangible connection to the music itself. Sure, you can go on iTunes, download a song in a few seconds, upload it onto your iPod and go. But we’ve become so obsessed, so lethargic with our consumption that it feels kind of empty. It has become a quest of quantity over quality, a mad rush to fill up as much space as possible. Records, on the other hand, require a little bit of effort.
In a way, it’s ritualistic. Turntables are stationary. Thus, you really need to sit down and just listen. It requires finesse and care, gently placing the needle onto the record, listening to that static crackle, waiting for the music to start. It puts the listener in total control. When one side is done, you need to flip it over to continue, not just scroll through a list on a touch screen. It takes a while, and it sure isn’t the most convenient method, but it makes you focus on the artist at hand. In a world that seems to praise the merits of a short attention span, vinyl forces you to sit back and take it all in.
Vinyl also offers an appealing physical package. It puts the vision and work of the artist directly into your hands. Jam-packed with artwork, booklets, linear notes and lyrics, you can really see the tireless labor put into it. While an audio file may be more practical, it doesn’t offer the full consumer experience.
All in all, this newfound love confirms the fact that vinyl, the longest surviving format, is here to stay. Is it nostalgia? Maybe. Real audiophiles will also bring up that age-old argument that “vinyl sounds better”, though that is certainly up for debate. No doubt, it can turn into quite and expensive habit. Yet vinyl collectors are in it for the art. They’re in it for the connection, for the music.
Sure, your records can get scratched and battered. Maybe you’ll break the needle or the volume knob on your turntable. Have no fear. Just head on down to your local record store. They’ll be glad to see you.
Written by Patrick Moody