With rubbish music coming out like PSY and One Direction, is it hard to believe that overall album sales were down 4% for the first 9 months of 2012? Digital album sales, however, are up 15% and may actually break 2011’s record. This isn’t all that surprising considering we live in the Digital Age, with Smartphones becoming more and more omnipresent in our lives. But there is a sector of music sales that’s been growing at a surprisingly steady rate for the past 5 years. It’s a rather unlikely candidate given the digital revolution and how fans typically discover new music. I’m talking about vinyl sales, of course.
According to SoundScan, vinyl sales are up 16% compared to last year, which puts vinyl on a path toward another record-setting year of sales. So far this year the Top 3 vinyl records are Jack White’s, “Blunderbuss,” the Black Keys with “El Camino,” and coming in a close third is the Beatles with “Abbey Road.” The rest of the LP chart is filled with a hodgepodge of old and new artists. What’s going on here? Could it be that music fans are waking up and discovering that vinyl exists for the first time? Are Hipsters taking over the planet and buying up all the vinyl to impress their friends? Or, is this some kind of backlash against technology, where consumers are ditching newer formats? There are three reasons that may help explain this gravitation toward a seemingly outdated medium. They are tangibility, nostalgia, and sound quality.
When music lost its value as a commodity, it began physically disappearing from store shelves and dorm rooms everywhere, taking along with it large retailers and the neighborhood record shop. At the same time that music was vanishing, it began reappearing on hard drives, portable media players, and more recently, cloud-based services. Not only has music been converted into an intangible and digitized commodity, it is now available from streaming services where the listener doesn’t ever own the song or album. These trends may be why musicians like Jack White are sticking with vinyl. White established Third Man Records in 2001 to act as an independent record label, distributing most of its music on vinyl. Today, the label presses limited edition and exclusive records for their fans. These novel records come in many varieties including tri-colored, glow-in-the-dark, and even peach-scented. Third Man Records is updating the format, and they’re adding another dimension: collectability. By pressing limited quantities of their novel productions they’re appealing to the collector who will stockpile these recordings and possibly offer them for sale on a secondary market.
In a recent radio interview, former Metallica band member Jason Newsted shared some news about his upcoming music project and mentioned that vinyl would be a good medium to explore. He claimed fans still want to experience music through these older mediums because these are “the closest to us that’s the most endearing and the most personal.” Newsted is talking about a different quality of music and vinyl altogether, one that goes beyond the tactile senses. This is the element of nostalgia, or a yearning for a bygone era that persists throughout adulthood. Vivid and nostalgic memories may become indirectly associated with a physical object, in this case the record. Experiencing an album on multiple levels by seeing, touching, smelling, and hearing the music, will lead to a stronger memory. And the greater the emotional response is, the greater the likelihood that a memory will endure. This association becomes more difficult to accomplish when the music is experienced on a spreadsheet-style playlist.
Vinyl enthusiasts often mention the quality of sound as a reason they are inclined to purchase records. Audiophiles insist that the sound alone is somehow warmer and closer to the original sound that a musician intended us to hear. But there are many reasons why the flexibility of digital will outperform analog when it comes to storing and recording music. And while there is some merit that analog captures the original sound wave better (being that sound is inherently analog), the shortcomings of vinyl when it comes to storing and recording music far outweigh the benefits. With vinyl, the sound wave is physically stored in the surface leaving it much more susceptible to deterioration, with a greater loss of sound quality as it ages. Even a small piece of dust, or a scratch, will permanently damage the recording. Also, when it comes to recording music, sound engineers prefer to use digital because it has a greater dynamic range and tends to not capture as much distortion as do analog recordings.
With the CD turning 30 this year its sales continue to slide and make up the bulk of the lackluster performance in album sales. CDs were intended to be a revolutionary format, a milestone achievement for the music lover. But they’re slowly being replaced by an entirely digital system of circulation, probably because record labels can save on distribution costs. When it comes to answering the question of which format is better, it is important to remember that there are differences between all formats whether it’s analog or digital, vinyl or CDs, CDs or MP3s, as well as distinctions between the audio equipment you’re using. So, don’t call it a comeback, vinyl’s been here for years, and it doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.