A confession: the first vinyl LP I ever bought was Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible. I had bought the CD four weeks before for half the price at Best Buy. I brought my first record home and set it down on my bed, carefully removing the plastic wrapping so I could run my fingers over the cardboard case. I just sat there, cradling my cumbersome new copy of Neon Bible in my lap. What else was I going to do? I didn’t have a record player.
However, Merge Records seemed to have anticipated this and included an MP3 download code for the entire album on a tiny slip next to the physical record inside. In today’s digitally oriented music industry, my first vinyl purchase was my initiation into the new movement known as the “Vinyl Revival,” a term for the recent upsurge in vinyl purchases in a musical age in which the mp3 reigns supreme.
These two formats, mp3 and vinyl, are part of a long debate in music recording that has existed since the advent of the compact disc, the debate between analog and digital format. Today, a good sound system makes it nearly impossible to tell the difference between the two mediums. Most audiophiles continue to contend, however, that analog recordings are truer to the original sound. A digital recording reduces sound output to a piece of data, matching notes to specific values at the price of fidelity. While today’s technology has progressed to a point that captures music with near pinpoint accuracy, some nuances inevitably fall through the cracks. Analog recordings, on the other hand, capture music in a continuous wave of sound. Its distinction most commonly manifests itself at lower frequency sounds, mastering it seamlessly, unlike digital. Audiophiles say these lower frequencies give vinyl a “warmer” sound than mp3s, a sense of greater proximity to the music. But this is a distinction that means more to vinyl-heads than the average listener. It fails to singlehandedly explain the peculiar anomaly in today’s music industry: as mp3s come to dominate the music market more and more, there has been a powerful resurgence in the purchase of vinyl LPs—a small boat coming up in a rising tide.
Nielsen SoundScan tracks record sales in all mediums every year and releases a midyear analysis. As of July 2012, 2.2 million vinyl albums were sold in the United States, a 14.6% increase from 2011. Vinyl sales have been steadily increasing at similarly impressive rates for the second half of the last decade. Record execs have regularly used them to cast the industry’s status in a better light; headlines like “Vinyl sales prove strong despite declining overall” abound today as much as they did in 2005. Though the phenomenon has become trite in recent years, it appears unwavering: mp3 sales are up, album sales are down, and vinyl has been suddenly imbued with a new breath of life.
Many are surprised to learn that this is actually the second so-called Vinyl Revival. The first occurred in the mid-to-late nineties when, much like today, everyone wanted to be a DJ. Teenagers rushed to the record store in dreams of becoming the next Prodigy, Aphex Twin, Chemical Brothers, et. al. With many riding the assumption that spinning would be easier than playing an instrument, vinyl records saw a slight boost in sales that surprised many industry representatives. However, the 90s revival pales in comparison to the magnitude of today’s vinyl revolution and the motivations behind it seem markedly different. Whereas DJ-wannabes of the 90s bought records, today’s aspiring EDM artists buy Ableton and download Serato software. The vinyl sale charts for 2012 are tellingly topped almost exclusively by indie rock artists.
It is difficult to imagine a more fitting vinyl chart-topper than Jack White’s marvelous April release Blunderbuss. Just as he created a modern reinterpretation of the blues tradition with his latest record, White has also reinvented the sale of vinyl for modern times. His label, Third Man Records, issues its music almost exclusively on vinyl and promotes the medium across the country in unique ways—including a truck that roves around the country selling records like ice cream, launching limited edition balloons with flexi-discs attached, and opening a chic vinyl store in Nashville. Yet, beyond his quirkier antics lies a basic economic approach to an era in which vinyl is suddenly in demand. White offers an array of widely released albums on vinyl for the standard $15-$30 value of most albums, but auctions off limited-release pieces from big names to the highest bidder on eBay, with some records going for as much $300. White has wedded himself and his label to vinyl; unsurprisingly, the Alabama Shakes, partners of Third Man, come in at number 7 on Nielsen’s list of top vinyl sales. Jack White and his friends stand at the helm of a subculture committed to the medium. His dedication comes from a sentiment shared amongst music listeners who buy vinyl today.
“The whole experience of vinyl is what we’re after, the romance of it.” – Jack White
Since music has become increasingly intangible, questions regarding our relationship to it have suddenly abounded. Since the vinyl LP appeared in 1948, musical media has evolved greatly, but the age of the MP3 has brought an unprecedented sense of facelessness to the musical community. The 45, cassette tape, and CD all retained an identity specific to artist and album through their inherent palpability; but now all your favorites can coexist is a formless file from Apple. When ownership is defined by a simple click of the mouse, people seem to demand more, and rightly so.
The first record I bought was beautiful, 12” x 12”, slim yet firm, vibrant lines on a deep black. Admittedly, something was silly about it—a freshman in high school cradling an unplayable piece of plastic with an awkward reverence. Still, that attachment was powerful. My dad felt a sense of connection and pride when he dragged out a box of old LPs with his record player. They were a potent reminder that the album cover was once a piece of art—the removable banana peel on The Velvet Underground and Nico, the working zipper on Sticky Fingers, the simple sexiness of Candy-O. The vinyl sleeve remains the best way to appreciate album artwork, where you can pick it up and feel it, examine it in its entirety. Then you pull out the record, textured and jet black. A spinning record creates a feeling of engagement more than any MP3 player ever could; you watch the music emerge from the disc, you hear the difference when something barely brushes the stylus, you see the album progress as the arm gradually moves inward. Jack White captures the spirit of vinyl perfectly: it is a romantic experience.
So we have a revival. A return to the physical, the romantic, the music of our parents. Perhaps it’s a denial of the progression of the medium, perhaps the laptop wunderkinds will frown. Fuck that. Vinyl remains the medium that builds the closest sense of identification with the music we love. That’s a sense we can never leave behind, and yet we can always come back.
Originally Published in the Fall 2012 Issue