Vinyl records are making a major resurgence. 2017 recorded the most vinyl album sales since Nielsen Music started tracking them back in ‘91. This is not a new movement either – for the past twelve consecutive years there has been growth in the number of physical vinyl records being bought. As CDs become outdated, their sales decline and streaming services overtake buying songs outright, is vinyl making a comeback?
The number one reason, I believe, that records are making waves again is the actual process of going to a record store and fingering through the vinyl. It is akin to treasure hunting – the experience of finding a hidden gem or flipping through a stack of records until you find an album cover that intrigues you or a band you may have heard about. Or maybe you get lucky and find your favorite album on wax that is unmatched on digital platforms. You may go in and find bupkis or come back with gold. It’s exciting to discover new artists by buying an album just based on the cover art or discovering some band you have never heard of before and falling in love after a shot in the dark. Going to the record store feels so much more special than just searching for an artist on Spotify. You feel more invested and connected to the music when you buy a physical album.
KCOU DJ Petey Botts says, “The music means more to me when accessing it is a physical act… I feel more invested in the music and more connected to the artist than when I stream music or listen via other mediums like CD or cassette.” The whole ritual that comes with playing a record makes you more invested in listening to the music. It’s more of a priority than when you’re just walking around with one earbud in using music as background noise. Alec Stutson, another KCOU DJ, aptly compared buying old pre-owned records to owning an artifact. Whenever I buy a record and can see the cover has been beaten up a little I know someone has been enjoying this record for years and it has a special feel. Seeing a few razor marks on an album cover may decrease its monetary value, but it just means that this record has a story to tell and makes it all the more sentimental and valuable to me. Beyond the unique feeling that going to the record store instills, nostalgia seems to be playing a key role in vinyl’s resurgence.
Nostalgia undoubtedly plays a large factor in the growth of the market for vinyl records. This nostalgia, oddly enough, comes not from those who lived through the vinyl age, but from “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection” to a simpler rose tinted era of music (as Allen Ginsberg put it so well). Hipsterdom is often lampooned and ridiculed, but it has permanently infiltrated and influenced our collective cultural consciousness (arguably, for the better). As PBR, fixed gear bikes and other hipster tropes meld into the mainstream, so does the desire to listen to music through a pressed piece of wax rather than listening to compressed ones and zeros on a computer.
Hipsterdom may have its faults, but by bringing vinyl back from the brink of death they have given new life to mom and pop shops all over the country, like Columbia’s very own Hitt Street Records. These hipsters hoarding vintage records for the clout may be the inciting incident that has led to vinyl’s resurgence, but now contemporary artists are releasing their new albums on vinyl and they are selling well. By bringing this medium of music to a whole new generation of people, it almost ensures that this record resurgence is not a fad. Instead, listening to vinyl will be seen as a viable alternative to CDs, streaming or any other modern music medium.
Beyond nostalgia, people have been flocking to records to listen to their music in the highest quality possible. Audiophiles claim that with the correct setup vinyl records can produce the best sounding music, as close to the master recording as one can get. The higher-end setups that will produce that studio quality sound will run you thousands of dollars. Most people cannot afford, and can’t care enough, to be buying the highest-end direct drive turntable, high-end preamps, authentic vintage vacuum tube amps and perfect sounding speakers. Marc Maron put it perfectly on his album Thinky Pain, he does a bit about Jack White’s fifteen $14,000 Macintosh tube amps: “If I woulda bought that thing, every record I put on I’d be sitting there going, Nah, this doesn’t sound like fourteen thousand dollars.”
I agree that vinyl records may sound better than streaming low bitrate music with a bad connection over Spotify, but is it worth a minimum wage worker’s yearly salary for a minute increase in fidelity? In my opinion, I cannot hear the difference between Tidal’s “high quality” FLAC audio, a CD in a car stereo, a song bought off iTunes or a record. Despite my indifference to the actual fidelity of the music, it is the ritual that comes along with listening to vinyl makes it sound oh-so-much sweeter. Some people prefer the highest quality tunes they can squeeze out of a record no matter the cost and I truly don’t understand the need for the highest fidelity possible, but if it gets more people to help keep record stores afloat… I’m with it.
I too have hopped on the trend of vinyl. For about 4 years I’ve owned a record player. Back home I have an Audio Technica LP-60 and here in Columbia I’m rockin’ a Victrola Suitcase player (Gasp. Heresy, I know). I first got introduced to vinyl through my grandfather when he would play me his favorite albums and attempt to expand my musical tastes. By rummaging around through his vast collection of wax and with some recommendations from him, I’ve found some of my favorite artists like Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, Barnes & Barnes and James Brown. I have a connection to these artists and their albums that I first listened to through vinyl, much more so than if I had discovered them through a Spotify recommended playlist.
Vinyl records are no longer a relic of the past, but now (and hopefully forever) a staple of the music industry. Be sure to go out and support your local mom and pop record shop.
By Theo Bloom