Understanding Vinyl

I need to warn you: I’m from the 70s.

Being from the 70s means I was born in the heyday of the vinyl era, saw its decline along with the rise and decline of 8-tracks and cassettes, the rise and decline of CDs and internet-based music, and have lived to see vinyl rise again. From my point of view, the history of music media has moved from analog (wax and vinyl) to digital (CDs, mp3s, streaming), with magnetic tape (reel to reel, 8-tracks, and cassettes) being a kind of intermediary between the two.

Vinyl has made a serious comeback that began around 2010 and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. As a sign of the strength of this comeback, Sony Music, for the first time since the late 1980s, will begin production of vinyl records again. The return of vinyl is usually explained in terms of sound quality (vinyl captures more than .mp3s) and in terms of album artwork. I’m not sure I completely buy the first reason: even if it is technically true, I suspect most people listen to their records on something like this:

If you’re not spending at least $1000 on components and speakers, you’re not really getting better sound out of your vinyl.

By the way, I own the one on the right. Yeah, I’m a sucker.

Now album artwork is another matter. It can be substantial, and the experience of it in a CD package or online just isn’t quite the same. But album artwork is essentially packaging. It doesn’t have anything to do with the music. That’s fine, but this second reason is also complicated by the fact that music aficionados tend to look down on colored vinyl as being a gimmick. It’s not just a matter of the best packaging winning here.

I seriously can’t wait for a new release of Dark Side of the Moon that’s advertised as the “black vinyl” edition. The gimmicks will have won the day.

I would like to suggest that part of what’s really going on is a kind of cult or aura of authenticity associated with vinyl. One component is surely nostalgic: the two low-end record players pictured above are clearly retro in design and intended to be. This aura of authenticity also privileges original pressings over new albums, much like first editions and first printings of books might be worth more than later editions or reprints.

Following first edition market logic, that’s fine, but you need to understand that none of this has anything to do with the music either. Original pressings were on thinner vinyl that’s more susceptible to warping. That 180g vinyl thing isn’t just a gimmick. They’re more durable. 70’s albums weren’t recorded on equipment that was nearly as good as today’s, and oftentimes there would be a hiss in the background: the medium was so faithful it even captured the sound of the recording equipment. A remastered, recent pressing of Dark Side of the Moon is a much better product, at least in terms of music, than a first pressing of that album from the 70s. It would combine the best of both digital and analog.

But I’d like to take this argument a step further. It’s tedious to listen to vinyl, at least compared to listening to music on your streaming service, on an iPod, or on your phone. You have to stop every half hour at the most and flip the record over. Now — and again, this is because I’m from the 70s — my parents had a great, wooden stereo console that took up about six feet of one wall in our living room. It could stack maybe six to eight records. When one finished, the next one would drop down, and the needle would queue up on the next one automatically. The turntable was on springs, so it’d just lower a bit every time the next record dropped. At one point vinyl manufacturers started manufacturing double albums so that sides 1 and 3 were on one disc and 2 and 4 on another. That way you could stack them on players like this and listen to two sides before flipping the album over.

Back in the 70s, we didn’t want to have to flip our albums over every twenty to thirty minutes. We wanted good music in our cars. We wanted to listen to music while we were running or at work without disturbing anyone. And we wanted our music without background hiss. We wanted customized playlists (hence, the mixtape, originally on cassette). We really wanted to be our own and each other’s DJs.

So this 70s’ generation, out of a real concern for music, gave the world cassette tapes, Walkmans, iPods, digital music, and then downloadable and streaming music. It gave us $100 earbuds that have a better sound than any $100 speakers ever sold since the 1960s. The limitations of vinyl were the reason for digital music to begin with. It’s not a coincidence that I grew up in Southern California and the company that gave us everything that we wanted in a digital package, the iPod, originated in Los Altos, California in the 70s, about six hours north of where I grew up. It’s not that no one thought of any of this until Apple, Inc. came along. Apple was just replicating in digital form what was already hardwired into California culture in the 70s.

All of this by itself would make the cult of vinyl authenticity look a bit dumb except for two things:

First, the album artwork really is a lot cooler on a vinyl album. But I’m saying this as someone from the 70s. My friend Tony and I had this conversation about album artwork back in the 80s. He’s a great bass player and professional sound mixer, so he’s all about the music. He asked me back then what we lost by switching to CDs. I said, “The album artwork.” I’m a visual guy in part. He got what I was saying, but he just shrugged his shoulders. It really was all about the music for him, so he wanted it all on CDs.

Next, vinyl gives us our privacy back. No one is tracking your listening preferences to better serve you. No one needs to know what you even purchased, much less what you’re listening to between the hours of 1:00 and 5:00 p.m.

This close tracking of our listening preferences has changed the face of top 40 music. Digital, downloadable, and streaming music have so narrowly defined and targeted specific markets that top 40 music is for the most part nothing but the generic listening preferences of the largest cross-section of US consumers: a banal carousel of 90s’ style R&B, rap, and hip-hop, plus “country” that now sounds like 90s’ pop (except for Dolly Parton — I love you, never die — and “Americana”). New and interesting music is for the most part relegated to indie labels or niche markets, and rock and roll seems to be dying so badly that guitar sales are dropping. A lot of the most interesting music out there is, interestingly, varieties of heavy metal.

But I think vinyl sales tell us that this isn’t the whole story, and used records are coming back along with the increase in new vinyl sales. I think our listening preferences are more complex than the Billboard Top 100 would lead us to believe.

At least I hope so. So I’m taking some hope in the resurgence in vinyl. I don’t think Justin Bieber is the top target market for new vinyl sales.