When I was a kid, my parents had storage cabinets full of old records. Meanwhile, I was listening to tapes, keeping blanks in my stereo so I could frantically hit REC when a song I wanted came on the radio. Then we all moved on to CDs, and in junior high, I—along with the rest of the country—was introduced to MP3s, Napster, and a million other file sharing options.
Today, streaming music services are everywhere. Companies like Spotify have given us a limitless mixtape of instant-access audio. We can listen to almost anything, anywhere, and independent artists have more opportunity to be heard by huge audiences, regardless of whether they have a record contract or radio play.
Billboard recently released their numbers for 2015; streaming stats doubled to no surprise, and CD numbers continued to free fall, but there’s one place where physical media has seen a rapid uptick: vinyl. In 2015, vinyl sales saw a 29.8 percent increase and moved 11.9 million units. For the past 10 years, the music industry has been watching a trend of skyrocketing vinyl sales.
So why the sudden vinyl revival? Why, when listening to your favorite songs is as simple as a tap on a screen, would fans be flocking to one of the most complicated forms of physical media? They scratch, they pop, playing them often requires multiple pieces of equipment, and it’s just a few songs before you have to flip them.
Let’s be honest: It’s cheaper than ever to be a music fan. You can listen to practically anything you want and never pay a dime, but lots of devotees still crave the ability to build a collection and to support artists. Music fans’ dollars aren’t going away—they’re being redirected. Since you can listen to everything, virtually for free or at least very cheap, fans are able to pick and choose a few higher ticket items to shell out money for. Concert tickets, t-shirts, posters—fans still want to shout their music taste from the rooftops, and audiophiles have long touted the sound quality of vinyl over compressed digital files. Instead of amassing a wall of CDs, fans are picking and choosing vinyl records that feel like pieces of art or collectibles instead of just more computer files. As an added bonus, lots of records come with digital copies, so you’re able to listen to them even when you’ve wandered away from your record player. Members of nerd culture tend to be collectors, and music geeks are no different. Maybe what’s fueling the vinyl revival is that fans still want something to put on their shelves.
Pessimists will say that the increased popularity of vinyl is just another symptom of hipster retro-obsessed culture, but maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s that music fans miss holding something in their hands—that they miss the artwork of an album or the physical act of switching CDs or flipping over a tape.
Every kind of music media has its purpose. I love that I can use my phone to listen to anything I want in the car—that I don’t have to drive around with a giant folder of CDs and that any guest at a party carries around instant playlist additions in their pocket—but there’s a place for physical media, too.
Maybe this vinyl resurgence is just a fad. Maybe soon it will fade off and once again vinyl will be a niche enjoyed only by a few people who stay up scanning ebay for the Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan soundtrack on vinyl, but if that is what happens, why can’t we enjoy it anyway? Whether it remains popular or not, let’s ride the vinyl wave and turn our records up as loud as the speakers can stand it.
(image via Lani Elderts on Flickr)
Daryl Sztuka is a writer living outside Boston with her husband. You can find her reading comics, listening to records way too loud, and having intense staring matches with her cat, Agent Scully. Follow her on Instagram @girlseeksband and Twitter @girlseeksband.
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