If you are under the age of 35, there is a high likelihood that you don’t have any memories of buying a vinyl record as a child and an even higher likelihood of never having purchased one.
That’s because in the late 1980s, precipitated by the surging success of CDs, vinyl records were falling out of fashion. CDs would find themselves suffering the same type of decline in the new millennium as digital music formats (specifically the mp3) took the lead in consumer sales. For those of us out there who loved the warm, rich sound of old-fashioned analog vinyl, it became increasingly rare to find new artists pressing albums. Digital was king and we found ourselves scouring thrift stores and specialty shops for old vinyl while praying our record players didn’t fail us because those too were becoming harder to find. Even world famous Rainbo Records in California stepped down their vinyl production, though they kept 14 of their presses.
Call it nostalgia: the vinyl record had gone extinct.
Imagine my surprise when a few months ago I went into my favorite store for used music and found brand new, factory sealed, current vinyl glistening on the rack next to my usual used fare. Was that really the newest Mumford and Sons album on vinyl? The manager confirmed that it was and indicated that the store was getting a lot more vinyl in. (I had a shut-up-and-take-my-money moment.) I walked out with four new albums and a bunch of used ones out of the dollar bin. I came home only to discover that my beloved record player had finally given it up, but my sadness didn’t last too long. I spotted a brand new portable record player at a major department store a few days later. And then? The local Barnes and Noble had an entire section of vinyl.
A music delivery system that had supposedly gone extinct 25 years ago was suddenly hot again. I almost had to arm wrestle a woman for a last copy of the latest offering from Imagine Dragons. I went home with some re-presses of Johnny Cash records and the newest Lord Huron album.
Vinyl records have done the near impossible in an industry that is constantly moving forward: They’ve come back from the dead. According to the Nielsen 2014 music report the sales of vinyl long play (LP) records increased 52% over the previous year, a 19% increase over 2013 and nearly three times more than sales in 2012. Rainbo Records, who may have been questioned for the logic of keeping those pressing machines, was suddenly running six days a week around the clock and still not meeting demand. They bumped production up to seven days a week, but are still running at a backlog. Vinyl is definitely back.
So why is this happening? We live in a hyper-connected world where being able to have thousands of songs in our pocket and almost everything being able to connect wirelessly over Bluetooth sitting down with a bulky, very hands-on form of music seems counter-intuitive. However it is in part that hands-on approach that may be driving the return of vinyl. Audiophiles have long championed the vinyl record. Digital music is composed of a series of “snapshots” of a soundwave that when put together, create the sound. In contrast, vinyl captures the entire soundwave in the physical groove of the record. That keeps the full information of the sound intact, resulting in the “warmth” that self-professed music snobs love. When you combine the fullness of the sound with the ritual like act of taking out a record and putting the needle to the wax, you create something special and intimate. One could argue that intimacy makes things just that much more DIY and one look at Pinterest will tell you that DIY is still a solid trend.
Artists themselves are also helping drive the return of vinyl. Digital music sales, while good for getting music out to the masses cheaply and easily, doesn’t always help the artist. It is pretty easy to simply pirate a digital track rather than buy it. Vinyl on the other hand is complicated to pirate. So artists have been offering up their new albums on vinyl and pairing the physical purchase with a digital download code so the consumer can get the best of both worlds and the artist can definitely get paid. There are also artists, like Matt Nathanson, who have a deep love for the format and regularly champion not just vinyl records, but independent record stores where you can find a plethora of them as well.
Of course there is something to be said for the beauty of album art in a large, tangible format that you can hold in your hand or hang up on your wall.
Whatever the specific reason, vinyl is back. Long live the LP.
Are you a vinyl collector? Let us know in the comments below.