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The "Resurgence" of Vinyl

The old guys
Kids these days
The real deal
Why not CDs?
Essay topics

Here I offer some of my thoughts about the reasons for, and nature of, the slight uptick in the popularity of vinyl records (mostly LPs) as a music reproduction medium in this, the second decade of the 21st century.

I will offer gross generalizations based on unfounded assumptions and ill-informed opinions in hopes that once in a while I accidentally offer an insightful thought.

Basically, we all know the story. Vinyl is "in". Vinyl is hip. Record companies are reissuing titles that sold over ten million copies originally, often at double the price of a CD. Bands are joining in, with some, while making their music available as digital downloads, only issuing "hard copies" in the form of short-run vinyl releases. These are probably the same bands that embraced the "lo-fi" craze a decade ago, and the "analog only" craze last week.

New gramophone record sales are up twelvefold since 2006, representing two percent of total album sales. After Abbey Road dominated US sales for three years running, moving 110,000 units over that period, only a few years later, 25 sold 116,000 copies in one year! That is new music, selling on an "obsolete" format in numbers that would be very, very good for an alternative or indie act in any medium, at any time.

The old guys

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Kids these days
The real deal
Why not CDs?
Essay topics

(And they are almost all guys!)

Most of these people never got rid of their LP collection when CDs came out. Many of them added to it profusely when everybody else's used LPs came on the market for a dollar a box.

Just as most of us are convinced that the music that was coming out when we were 14 to 21 years old is the best ever made, a subset of my generation (people born in the 1950s and 60s) worships at the altar of the gently undulating grooves on a platter, the warm glow of tiny incandescent light bulbs, the sleek brushed aluminum satin of fine Japanese elctronics, the heft and momentum of a mechanical FM tuning knob, and the imposing sheer potential of the various schools of full-size speakers. For some, the sight alone of a fifteen inch woofer in a box full of tweeters and super tweeters engenders a state of euphoria.

Rubber Soul as the Swedish play it Many of these people are of an age now where they can afford their hobbies in a way they only dreamed about as teenagers. Some of them buy '67 Mustangs or '57 Chevys. This crowd finds the top-of-the-line equipment they once coveted, in whatever condition they can, and restores it (or pays to have it restored) to its original glory.

They own hundreds, if not thousands, of LPs. Many are ones they bought 40 years ago, sporting rips and tears and scuffs and stains that evoke distant memories of youth. Others were acquired almost in bulk, and in their grooves lie many a secret pleasure just waiting to be discovered (and, of course, many a latent scratch just waiting to interrupt the joy).

Due to the glut of old and not-so-old hi-fi equipment on the market (similar to the glut of LPs from the CD takeover era), for small money many of them also have a "collection" of vintage equipment, in various states from utter disrepair to like-new functionality. And it is almost always all about the vinyl LP at the heart of their systems.

These guys haven't bought a new record since 1983, but they do affect the trackable market for used LPs.

Kids these days

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The old guys
The real deal
Why not CDs?
Essay topics

There are a number of factors that I think play into the current vinyl playback youth fad.

Sound quality

Most people born after 1990 never owned a record or CD - they were using MP3s by the time they were old enough to start developing a music collection. They bought their music (or "obtained" it via Napster) on-line, they learned about what they might like from peers all over the world on forums and in chat rooms. And they never had to worry about where to put their collection, or how to move it from apartment to apartment. By the time of the smartphone era, they could travel incredibly lightly, and yet still have their whole life immediately at hand - between their music collection and every friend they ever had being right there on a pocket-sized device, and the tattoos that in detail and variety carried the reminders of every love and passion that make up who they are, they had become, unconsciously, the least materialistic generation since material goods were a thing.

However, all this lightweight portability came at a heavy price - the music was tuneful, but fairly thin and, well, lightweight. It was hard to share in real time, to fill a roomful of friends and dance to, to even play for someone and say "did you hear that - did you hear what she is doing with that saxaphone?"

It is quite likely that the first time a person in this age group heard their own music on a decent stereo with real speakers, it was vinyl-based. They tend to attribute all the huge disparity in musical involvement and dynamic range to the LP, rather than that simple fact that their music collection is compressed and their playback system is an afterthought added to a laptop or a mobile phone via a pair of earbuds.

To an extent, this effect is greater than with CD reproduction, since vinyl records have inherent limitations that result in their usually having a different "sound" than any digital version - the higher frequencies are rolled off, and the low bass is often carefully managed to avoid problems in cutting the grooves and keeping the stylus in place. This perhaps leads to the "warmth" of the LP that many people go on about. That is just another word for distortion. If I play Kraftwerk or Joy Division, for example, I am not looking for warmth - there isn't supposed to be any. This applies to many forms or pieces of music.

The physicality

The sheer simple mechanical nature of playing an LP is in complete contrast to the modern, digitized, streaming, touch-screen, cloud-based world. The artwork we came to miss during the CD era is back in their hands, often with magazine-quality printing on a format larger than an 8x10 glossy. Liner notes can be exhaustive, and require no scrolling or squinting to read.

The wonderful new technology may have a slew of advantages, but latency (time spent waiting) is high: bandwidth is not consistent, crashes, freezes, lockups, and rebooting are common, and when something does not work, it really doesn't work, or at least requires ten minutes of IT work to fix. IT work and listening to music are not very compatible pursuits, especially if one is, um, "mentally prepared" for some great tunes.

Contrast this with the basic simplicity of a record playback system. Everything is right in front of you - a turntable, some wires, a receiver, and a pair of speakers. If it worked last time, it will almost certainly work this time. Turn it on and it is ready to play music instantly. This very second. About the only thing that goes wrong in the normal course of use is a record so badly damaged that it skips. If a friend brings a record over, you can start to enjoy it even before playing it, admiring the album cover, reading the song titles and liner notes. You can play their favorite track as easily as the first one with no fuss.

Steampunk

Steampunk is a fashion trend that favors adorning even high-tech devices with nineteenth-century appurtenances, like dials and valves and pipework. From a modern perspective, a record player is pretty much steampunk right out of the box - a crude mechanical device, with exposed moving parts, that somehow converts little grooves on a piece of plastic into magical grooves in the air. Combined with "vintage" electronics and speakers, to the twenty-something it might as well be from the set of Doctor Who. They already have a facsimile of Star Trek in their pocket ("Siri, play my favorite songs"), but no holodeck. The record-playing system is a cross between the Tardis console and a sonic screwdriver. It is baroque magic.

(The best steampunk works are really made of iron and copper pipe, glass fronted working dials, leather, and brass. The worst is molded plastic crap built into the look of a new product.)

Advice

I do have a few words of advice for those new to this mode of music reproduction.

The youth of today are driving many aspects of this fad, from new LP releases (and even LP-only releases), to the used record market (often fueled by their pervading sense of what they call irony), to sales of both decent and execrable equipment for playing them.

My local college radio station, WUNH, has featured a "vinyl week" since the 1980s and its inception as a faux rebellion against the little silver discs. It has been amusing watching it transition over the decades. For a long time it was just good, clean fun - but we finally hit the time when none of the student DJs owned any vinyl to play. Then it started to become "count the skips week", as the kids dug into the stacks in the basement, pulling out anything that looked interesting regardless of condition, and playing it with no cleaning procedures at all.

(Of course, vinyl week has never posed a problem for the veteran DJs, with, to name a few, their blues, classical, and Americana shows - they just don't bring in any CDs from their voluminous collections that week.)

Hipsters

We all know who they are, and that you aren't one, and neither are your friends. But your ex is dating one.

The real deal

Top of page
The old guys
Kids these days
Why not CDs?
Essay topics

Focus: Zen and the art of music listening

This one plays across the generations, although it would be easy to focus on the smartphone/laptop set.

Ignoring the radio for a moment, a stereo-only record player-based system does one thing and one thing only. It plays music. So when the listener is engaged in this activity, it is often (and should be) all they are doing. The stereo does not interrupt the music with email alerts, chat windows, or pop-up spam. It doesn't mute when the phone rings. It just plays music, for about twenty minutes at a time.

In today's world, twenty minutes is a long time to sit down, relax, and focus on just one thing. It is a Good Thing in life to do. (There is a direct parallel here to people who love books.) At the end of a long day, sitting down with a stimulant or relaxant of one's choice, with the lights dimmed and the doors closed, and just turning off and tuning in, relaxing and floating downstream is of huge personal and psychological benefit. The LP "system" enforces this meditation due to its physical limitations. A lot of music, even today, is sequenced on LP records in such a way as to enhance this experience - each side has a beginning, a middle, and an end, if the artist knows what they are doing.

Doing one thing, and one pleasurable thing only, is a rare and treasured experience in modern life. The vinyl LP is not necessary to engaging in this meditation, but, as with many rituals, it helps.

I think the true revival is in the simple music-only stereo system. Vinyl is just tagging along for the ride.

Why not CDs?

Top of page
The old guys
Kids these days
The real deal
Essay topics

Or even cassettes?

One might well ask, why all the focus on "vinyl", as opposed to other dedicated sources of music to play on the stereo?

To the younger generation, the CD (and DVD) is just an obsolete data storage medium. There is no simple magical leap from a twenty cent piece of plastic that may or may not work in your device to a full-blown mechanical audio system. You can't see it, touch it, or "feel" it. Also, no matter how banged up an LP is, it will usually still play - even its flaws are grungy and almost musical to many. We all know what a bad CD sounds like - nasty digital square waves chopping what remains of the music up into incoherent bits.

It's also quite likely that if one of you younger folk have heard music on a CD, you heard it on a laptop, or through PC speakers. So you don't equate it with a high quality musical experience.

The elders of this club never truly embraced CD in the first place. They were around to absorb the initial reports from the high end gurus that they sounded sterile and cold, and never unlearned it. You can't see it, touch it, tinker with it - you can't spend three hours carefully aligning it, cleaning it, and then listen to what you think you have made better with your own hands.

Cassettes are pointless (although, ironically, there is some fascination with 8-track). They sound no better and usually a bit worse than MP3, they self-destruct when handled poorly, used cassette decks don't work and are not easy to fix (a turntable belt is almost trivial to replace, cassette belts can be a nightmare to deal with), and getting from one song to another - or even playing one twice in a row - is tedious. The "advantage" of the homemade cassette, the so-called "mixtape", was completely wiped out by the MP3 and playlists.

Open reel tape does have some devotees, and some spend a lot of money keeping their decks in tip-top condition. But so what?

Top of page
The old guys
Kids these days
The real deal
Why not CDs?
Essay topics

But what about used records?!

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