The Rise of Vinyl

Sales of vinyl records are up in the United States and I have a theory on why some of us are going analog.

Last week, the Recording Industry Association of America released the sales figures for 2011 and reported that US sales have grown for the first time since 2004. Total growth was only .2%, but the industry would have been happy with any semblance of stability, so actual growth must have been a delightful surprise. Another surprise, namely to the people who have not been paying attention for the past few years, is that sales of vinyl records have increased…again.

Listeners spent over $100 million dollars on vinyl records in 2011. That is a 30% increase in both revenue from and unit sales of vinyl in 2010. Big numbers, right? Well, sort of, for vinyl at least, but in this $7 billion industry vinyl does not even account for 2% of total sales. Nevertheless, vinyl sales have been on the rise for the last couple of years and I see no reason for that trend to stop. Aside from posting a decline from 2005 to 2006, vinyl sales have only been on the rise. There was a 36.6% gain in the sale of EPs and LPs in 2007, and vinyl sales doubled in 2008, grew 33% in 2009, 26% in 2010, and over 30% last year. So, why vinyl? I have a theory.

“Technology is cyclical.”
–Dennis Duffy, The Beeper King. (30 Rock)

It seems counterintuitive, but I believe that vinyl is on the rise for the same reasons that the MP3 is on the rise: the Internet. Digital is reviving analog.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s table all the troubles and issues that the digital era has brought upon the music industry (e.g. obsolete business model, piracy, etc.) and simply focus on the ourselves as consumers. The Internet is phenomenal to the consumer. It makes music easier to discover, share, listen to, and own (be it by legal or illegal means). These are not small improvements either – they’re revolutionary. I think we don’t consider the magnitude of it all because as consumers, we have never experienced a cognizable downside from it. I don’t question the free-refill policy at my favorite restaurant. Things are have been going great for us… but there is a problem.

Actually, it feels wrong to call this a “problem.” Imagine having so much money that you didn’t have enough time to count it. You may casually refer to that as a “problem” because you’re too preoccupied counting moneybags to have better word choice, but it’s not really a “problem.” It’s more of a nettlesome consequence of good fortune. Nevertheless, this is the type of nettlesome consequence of good fortune that music consumers are dealing with.

There is too much easily accessible music on the Internet.

With a couple of keystrokes and mouse clicks, you can hear any song by any artist within seconds. I was younger when the old system was in place, and it worked like this: save up your allowance for weeks, deliberate on which album you wanted to buy, convince one of your parents to take you to the mall, buy the album, and then, for better or worse, you were stuck with that album. Those days are no more. Now, there is no deliberation period. Whether by means of YouTube, Spotify, torrents, or one of any thousand other services, you can listen to any song you want on a whim. If you don’t like it, you’re not stuck with it, just move on to the next thing. This is great for a lot of reasons: it saves you money, you can find more new music, and you’ll never make the embarrassing mistake of purchasing a Metallica + Lou Reed collaboration because you didn’t know any better. The downside is that this insurmountable supply of music is completely overwhelming.

This is best illustrated by example. Let’s say you just heard “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan for the first time. You’re very intrigued and you wonder what other music he has recorded. Well, before blindly shelling out some dollars for one of his albums, you’re going to sample his music free of charge on the Internet. There seem to be two prevailing methods to accomplish something like this. The first option is to use Spotify. If the artist’s music is available on the service – and Dylan’s is – you can listen to it all, free of charge. And on top of that, it’s neatly organized by album. The second method is to download the music, for free, through a torrent. Although this is the illegal method, that doesn’t mean it is substantially more difficult to use. In fact, I have no doubt that with little to no effort, a reasonably tech-savvy person could have Dylan’s entire discography downloading to his hard drive via torrent within 10 minutes. And today, who’s not a “reasonably tech-savvy” person?

So now, through Spotify or other illegal means, you have thousands of Bob Dylan songs sitting in front of you. To play any one of these thousands of songs, all you have to do is point and click. You don’t have to pick an album. You don’t have to clean off the CD, rewind the tape, or mail your Mini Disc player back to Sony to be fixed again. You can just go for it! So, where do you start? The beginning and work forward? The end and work back? Put it on “shuffle” and let ‘er rip? It’s not possible to conquer such a body of music all at once. And not many people would have the patience and self-control to do even if it were. Our mouths are bigger than our stomachs, so to speak, and I think people are beginning to realize that. The people who have made this realization want a more intimate and hands-on experience with their music. They are realizing that listening to music should be active, not passive.

If you take this scenario and add in the fact that there are thousands of other channels that music is available throughout the web, you can start to better understand the big picture. Think of it like a very large, very complex radio. All the stations are playing all the music and you can find anything you want with the turn of the dial… but there are too many stations to decide between. The listener ends up stuck between the stations. All the greatest music is at your fingertips, but the experience is the equivalent of static. Do you know what happened to the boy who suddenly got everything he ever wanted? He started buying vinyl.

That’s not to say that the static on the Internet and the desire of the consumer for a more active listening experience are the only reasons for the resurgence in vinyl sales. Some people just love antiquity of it. Some people love the big artwork. Some people prefer to tangibly hold the music they own. Also, the fact that most (if not all) new vinyl releases include complementary digital downloads of the record doesn’t hurt either.

Either way, the nice part about vinyl is that it forces the consumer to sit down and listen. There is no pointing or clicking involved. You can’t spaz out and jump from song to song. The physical process involved with playing an MP3 in comparison to playing a vinyl record is as different as unwrapping an ice cream sandwich and baking a cake from scratch. It’s time consuming. It’s involved. It’s hands-on. It’s active.

Think about the last time you decided to listen to music. Now think about the last time “listening to music” was the sole activity you were engaged in. By this, I mean the music was not just accompaniment to some other activity, like commuting to work, surfing the Internet, or cooking. Obviously music can complement all these things well, but it can also be great on its own.

Anyway, my guess is that it’s been awhile since you put on an album, laid down on your bed, and listened to it for 45 minutes. If I’m correct, I suggest that you try it out. And if you don’t think you have the self-control to do it on your own, maybe buy some fresh vinyl and give it a spin. You won’t regret it… that is, as long as you did your due diligence and sampled a little bit online so you’re not stuck with a clunker.

Photo via flickr. All photos licensed under Creative Commons

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4 Responses to “The Rise of Vinyl”

  1. Michael Bender
    Michael Bender
    April 5, 2012 at 10:30 am #

    My dad got his hands on a very large very diverse vinyl collection. He decided to sell them on e-bay and craigslist. It was crazy the amount of buyers contacting him and paying ludicrous amounts of money for old vinyl. Veryyyy good article

  2. GG Allin
    April 7, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    Took a while to get there, but the summary hits it spot-on. Fits me to a T!

  3. Patrick Lockwood
    July 11, 2012 at 3:02 pm #

    Hi Joe,

    I’m 61, so I knew nothing but vinyl up until the 80s, when vinyl disappeared, for the most part.

    I’ve tried to convey to younger people, with difficulty, the romance of vinyl, and how digital has killed the “experience”, and now, you have done me a huge favor, I’ll just send them your article. Beautifully said, and thanks.

  4. idesign4music
    July 12, 2012 at 5:55 am #

    Artwork and vinyl is a perfect marriage. (sometimes)

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