Remember when Pontiac reintroduced the GTO? Pontiac was excited. So were baby boomers who recalled the glory days the 60s-era muscle car. That was in 2004. By 2007, consumers had moved on. There was no GTO, and its short-lived comeback joined a long list of would-have-been retro product revivals.
The so-called “vinyl revival,” naysayers might reason, is destined to fade just like other waves of nostalgia. However, there’s a major difference between the GTO’s reappearance and vinyl’s recent return to public consciousness. Vinyl records now boast nearly a decade of healthy sales with no slowdown in sight.
The vinyl revival isn’t just happening right now – it has happened. An audio format that seemed destined for obsolescence two decades ago is back. And it’s here to stay.
The numbers don’t lie. Music lovers are loving vinyl again.
Vinyl record sales reached a 28-year high in 2015. At $416 million in sales, vinyl revenues actually surpassed those of all major ad-supported music streaming services combined. Why is this happening? Didn’t vinyl die off with the advent of CDs back in the 80s?
Most people thought so, but something started happening in 2007. Global record sales increased. It wasn’t a big jump, but it was a noticeable uptick from the consistent flatline of previous years.
People were buying records again. Since then, vinyl sales have soared year after year. In 2014 alone, they increased by 50%.
To dedicated digital music junkies, the unshakable revival of vinyl might seem like a head-scratcher. After all, an LP is far less convenient than a playlist full of MP3 files. It also requires physical storage, specialized equipment, and meticulous care. Why are so many people falling back in love with vinyl in spite these apparent shortcomings?
As it turns out, speed and convenience aren’t the only things that matter when choosing a listening format.
Vinyl offers a listening experience that digital can’t match.
If you’ve ever met a photographer who uses medium and large-format cameras, you might have heard a tirade about the virtues of film and the pitfalls of digital.
For starters, there’s the instant gratification aspect. Most people accustomed to digital photography are content to snap hundreds of photos in a session, relishing the ability to admire each shot only moments after taking it. With film, it’s different. You’ve only got 24 shots in a roll, so you’ve got to use each one wisely. You don’t get to review your shots right away either.
Due to those limitations, you tend to spend more time framing the perfect shot. You’re also more patient and precise than you might be with a digital camera. Taking pictures is a very purposeful act – it’s not done casually or thoughtlessly.
Listening to vinyl, like taking pictures with film, is a very involved experience. In many ways, it’s more immersive and multifaceted than listening to digital recordings. Specifically, vinyl gives you:
Long, focused listening sessions
When you put on a record, you’re making a commitment. You’ve pulled an album off a shelf, removed it from its sleeve, cleaned it, and carefully placed it on your turntable. Skipping tracks not only takes effort, but it’s also kind of risky since you might drop the stylus and damage the vinyl. Instead, you tend to listen to a whole album (or at least a whole side) by a single artist rather than a jumbled playlist. You’re experiencing music the way the musicians intended. You’re also listening actively, not passively.
An LP is a tangible object that takes up space in your home. As such, it requires storage and care. Part of that storage and care involves slipping it into a sleeve with unique artwork that was selected by the artist. CDs did this, too, but theirs was a curtailed, smaller rendering of traditional album art. Vinyl, in part because of its cover and inner sleeve art, is far more collectible than, say… CDs or cassette tapes ever were. There’s nothing like combing through the bins in a used record store in search of that hidden gem the other vinyl aficionados skipped over. By comparison, downloading a digital song is too easy. You get the reward, but you miss the glory of the conquest.
Access to your parents’ record collection
Depending on your parents’ musical tastes, this might or might not be a great thing. The point is that there are a lot of old records out there – many of which are out of print – that you can snag for a song (pardon the pun), give a proper cleaning, and enjoy as if they were new. It’s fun to breathe new life into an old recording, and with a new, high-quality stylus, you can go deeper in the grooves to bypass years of wear. You get to enjoy the exact same records that people a generation ahead of you were spinning.
Your music library isn’t some secret collection locked deep into the annals of your phone or laptop. It’s out in the open for everyone to see, so friends and family can flip through your records and pick out something to enjoy together.
But what’s arguably the best part about vinyl is the sound quality. Compared to digital recordings, vinyl has a warmer, more true-to-life sound that’s impossible to capture on a low-bitrate music file.
Great sound is driving today’s vinyl revival.
Vinyl is the most straightforward way to enjoy a fully analog audio format. It’s a one-stop gateway to high fidelity sound.
MP3s, on the other hand, may be convenient, but hi-fi they are not. And if you’re not playing those MP3 files through high-quality equipment, you’re missing even more of the detail and nuance of your music.
This realization is one of the primary drivers of the vinyl revival. People just love the way vinyl sounds.
To be sure, “warmth,” “richness,” and other terms often associated with vinyl are subjective. It’s difficult to describe why something sounds “complete” or “immersive.” It’s better to hear those qualities in your recordings, and millions of people buying vinyl are doing so because they do hear that difference.
When you place a record on a well-designed turntable and run it through a quality phono preamp and great speakers, you’re going to enjoy sound that’s hard to come by in other formats. Among other things, you’ll start to notice:
Low-level details you didn’t realize were there
This is that “a-ha” moment when you hear new sounds that used to be buried in otherwise familiar recordings. You can hear these because vinyl contains more musical information than your average lossy MP3. These nuances add a new layer of complexity to your music and enhance the listening experience.
Warm, midrange tones that are appealing to the ear
One of the things people love about vinyl is its warmth. Admittedly, that’s a non-quantifiable attribute – it’s something you have to intuit rather than measure. If you’re just getting into vinyl, you might think of its warmth as the organic, true-to-life sound it produces compared to digital recordings.
Greater curiosity about your music
Due to the nature of the format, vinyl compels you to listen more actively. As you do so, you’ll start to want to hear and experience your music more often and with greater attention. Vinyl lovers, by and large, tend to be more curious about their music than the average listener. The format itself is a catalyst for that curiosity because it obliges you to hear every sonic detail. Basically, there’s a good chance you’ll start loving the music you already love even more.
Music lovers prefer vinyl for the same reasons coffee hounds love organic espresso and 200-mile/week cyclists covet carbon fiber road bikes. Great espresso tastes great, and great bicycles ride great (and fast). Great sound, likewise, makes listening to music more enjoyable.
You’ve got more listening options than ever.
The new GTO didn’t catch on because it was far too boring. People thought they were getting a muscle car, but it looked more like a standard sedan with some sporty aesthetics tacked on as an afterthought. It bore none of the qualities that people loved about the classic GTO. Most importantly, it added no joy to anyone’s driving experience.
Vinyl’s still kicking hard precisely because it does add joy to our music listening experience. It also complements the vast array of listening options we’ve got these days.
After all, the vinyl revival isn’t composed of stodgy purists who only listen to their music on a turntable. People who love vinyl are people who love music. Vinyl is just one more way to enjoy it.
Think of it this way: At work, you might slip on a pair of closed-back headphones and stream hi-fi recordings from Tidal. On the way home, you put on a playlist to enjoy in your car or don a pair of in-ear headphones for the train ride. Then, when you’re back at home, it’s time for vinyl. Maybe you put on a LP while you cook or after putting the kids to bed.
It’s not the only way you enjoy your music – it’s just one of many ways.
Music, after all, is something that brings joy to our lives. Vinyl gives us a way to increase the joy factor and explore music in new and exciting ways. That joy is the essence of the vinyl revival. It’s why people are gleefully purchasing records again.