Reach into your pocket.
It’s likely your hand is now in contact with a music player or audio storage device. Whether it is an MP3 player, a multimedia phone or a flash drive, music is incredibly compact and portable in the 21st century.
However, in the age of digital sound there are still those who opt for the smooth, black disc that has charmed audiophiles for decades — the vinyl record.
While CD sales and digital downloads constitute the majority of music purchases today, vinyl has made its way back from relative obscurity to be the chosen medium of a significant portion of listeners.
National vinyl record sales reached 2.8 million in 2010, more than tripling from the 858,000 sold in 2006, according to Nielsen Soundscan, a sales tracking system that has been tabulating music sales since 1991.
While the company does not track some small music vendors, the sales leap reported by 14,000 participating businesses indicates a changing music culture.
Daniel Munoz, a Ph.D. student in cross-cultural musicology at UC Santa Cruz, is currently doing field work for his dissertation on noise music in Los Angeles.
He said in an email that vinyl has a special connection to the human condition, which makes it attractive.
“To make a vinyl record [is to] put a physical object back in the hands of the consumers,” Munoz said. “It also says tacitly that this music is going to die over the years. It will not live forever, just like we won’t live forever. Vinyl and magnetic tape (cassettes, 8-tracks, etc.) deteriorate over time, while digital technologies don’t.”
In their recent history, vinyl records have been subject to a cycle of popularity that is influenced by new audio technologies and the subcultures that react to them.
Vinyl made a comeback in the 1980s when DJs sampled records to rap over or to combine into a new song. CDs gained popularity in the 1990s, but critics claimed their compressed audio files produced a different, more metallic sound.
Munoz said some youth embraced vinyl records as an alternative to CDs that flooded the music market.
“Some kids rebelled against CD distribution on the grounds that records were cheaper, cooler, sounded better, and that the cover art on vinyl records was superior since there was a larger space for the art,” Munoz said.
Most vinyl records were cheap in the 1990s. Often you could find vinyl records at flea markets or at Goodwill being sold for change. Vinyl record stores were stagnant, and the music world prepared for a digital overload.
The illegal music pirating boom beginning in the late 1990s produced a generation with access to a multitude of MP3s. Many old vinyl singles never made it to MP3 format, and some music buyers scoured newly reemerging record stores and eBay to collect them.
KZSC music director Tyler Wardwell said the unavailability of some recordings in digital format has led UCSC’s radio station to covet vinyl copies accumulated over the years.
“A lot of the material that we have was acquired or sent to the station in the ’70s and ’80s,” he said. “A fair amount of it is hard to find digitally. It wouldn’t make sense for us to get rid of this vinyl because a lot of it isn’t being pressed anymore.”
By 2006, music giant Tower Records filed for bankruptcy and was forced to close its doors after more than 45 years at the forefront of music distribution, though it still maintains an online presence.
The early 2000s saw a rise of British and American indie rock, which has been marketed by labels that press vinyl. Recently, a whole youth culture has sprung from the “indie movement” that has commercialized the novelty of vinyl records.
Munoz said the recent vinyl revival is reminiscent of the youth CD resistance two decades prior.
“Fast-forward to contemporary hipsters pressing vinyl,” Munoz said. “This is much the same phenomenon that started in the 1990s, with a twist of course. Digital technologies that are shared using a computer take the object-hood out of the process of listening to music. In other words, there is no longer a physical object to hold in the hands.”
Nostalgia for a medium that provides a tangible representation of music has enchanted young music buyers. For a sample of commercialized “indie” culture, go to Urban Outfitters on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz.
You’ll find a small display of vinyl records on the left side of the store. Roughly 125 vinyl records, the vast majority of them still in cellophane, sit in the store.
“Urban” has framed “Pet Sounds” by The Beach Boys and put it on display above the rest, indicating that the aesthetic value of older vinyl record covers fascinates some consumers.
Other artists represented in the store include She & Him, Belle and Sebastian, the MC5 and re-pressings of Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan and Jefferson Airplane albums.
This new generation of record collectors is not generally looking for the authenticity of an original pressing. Most of these albums can be easily found digitally so access isn’t the draw either; it is the novelty of the vinyl record that entices them.
Of course, there is a market for vinyl beyond the trendy “Urban” consumer. It is one that marks up older albums that once lived in the 10-cent bin at De Anza Flea Market in Cupertino, Calif. just over a decade ago. It produces indie rock, metal and pop, among other genres.
Why do Labels Press Vinyl?
New vinyl records are comparable in cost to CDs. Metavinyl Records, a store on Cedar Street, is entirely dedicated to vinyl records. Within its walls, new vinyl is mixed with the old and alphabetized by genre.
On the right when you walk in there is a wall for $1 albums, a new arrivals bin to your left, and a classical bin in the far left corner.
The owner, Jonathan Schneiderman, said he buys vinyl records from over 40 distributors internationally. Some are locally owned in the Bay Area and others are operated overseas.
Similarly, local radio stations receive and purchase albums internationally. Indie rock labels like Matador and Merge press singles and full-length albums on vinyl and send them around the world.
KZSC music director Wardwell said the station frequently receives indie rock vinyl singles.
“We get sent new vinyl from artists and labels,” Wardwell said. “A fair amount of new vinyl is from indie rock artists and they will send us 7 inches with one song on each side.”
While indie labels may be best known for pressing vinyl records, consumer demand has encouraged labels that had seemingly moved on from the medium to return to it. Schneiderman said small labels aren’t the only ones cranking out vinyl.
“Even the major labels are pressing vinyl,” he said. “There’s nothing that’s not available right now.”
Some music lovers note a difference in intentions between small and large labels.
Zachary Watkins, a lecturer in the UCSC music department, teaches History of Electronic Music and lower division studio courses. He writes for Foxy Digitalis, an online music site where he reviews albums. Watkins said money is a great influence on large labels.
“Independent labels are more interested in putting out music than profit,” Watkins said. “Major labels don’t care about music. They care about money.”
Watkins said choosing vinyl gives labels an edge in the music market by setting themselves apart from other mediums.
“Right now there are so many labels out there, and it’s kind of hard to break out of the noise of the output being created,” he said. “Sometimes it takes spending money, meaning putting effort into the design, packaging and creation of the object. Vinyl is the apex of that.”
The quality of new vinyl records is highly regarded. Often pressed at 180 grams, thick, new vinyl plays cleanly.
However, records deteriorate as the stylus, or needle, wears down the grooves that hold information about the sound. Cross-cultural Ph.D. student Munoz described the process in terms of geologic erosion.
“For example, think about the Grand Canyon,” Munoz said. “The grooves in a record are like a canyon, and the needle reads the depths of the canyon, and then that information is outputted to a speaker (or is amplified and outputted to a speaker). But the needle itself erodes the grooves. Thus, records deteriorate over time each time the needle reads the information of the grooves.”
As Munoz points out, new vinyl records cannot stay perfect forever if you play them frequently. Many new record players have USB capability, allowing for transfer of records to digital format.
“The old technology is so prevalent that manufacturers have capitalized on it by making the integration between analog and digital media ever more easy,” Munoz said.
Many labels include MP3 downloads of the vinyl record purchased to increase appeal and provide a similar access to turntables with USB ports.
Metavinyl Records owner Schneiderman said the practice of including an MP3 download code is strategic to appealing to a variety of consumers.
“Labels figure that if you’re going to buy it then you should only just have to buy it once,” he said. “If you buy the record you should get a free digital copy because then there’s really no reason not to buy it.”
Why do we Love to Consume Vinyl?
Labels produce vinyl to meet demand from music buyers. DJs, radio stations and listeners with private collections note many reasons why vinyl is a great option.
Wardwell said vinyl records are an important part of KZSC’s library.
“We maintain a vinyl collection because we play it,” he said. “Music purchases are split between CDs and vinyl. We also get donations, so our vinyl collection is always expanding.”
For Wardwell, the experience of watching a vinyl record spin into music is an enjoyable aspect of the medium.
“I like the physicality of vinyl, and that it’s all done in open space,” he said. “The CD plays behind a plastic shield and you don’t really get to see what’s going on. With vinyl, there’s a human attraction where you lift that tone arm and drop the needle down into the groove, and as the plate spins the disc, the 33 or 45 RPM, you can experience that visual cue of seeing motion become sound.”
Wardwell said the station’s DJs sometimes bring in vinyl records from their “really extensive personal collections” to play on air.
Musicology student Munoz said DJs of live events often prefer vinyl, and have turned the vinyl record into an instrument.
“DJs in the dance music scene (and other genres) still tend to prefer vinyl to spin at live events, especially for scratching and other purposes,” he said. “In this way, vinyl records are more than just a recording medium, but are actually musical instruments.”
Mark Augustine, aka DJ Swift, is co-founder of a music promotion group based in Redwood City called Abide Productions. He DJs at weddings, events, dances and birthday parties.
Augustine emphasized the importance of gauging the audience’s idea of “the classics” in terms of artists and songs. He said he keeps anything considered a classic of its genre.
“As a DJ, I’m always having the audience in mind. I don’t know exactly who I come across, so if it’s a record that I think someone will want to hear in the future I’ll keep it. You have to keep the classics.”
While he does use MP3s often, Augustine said vinyl records are the most respected medium to play among DJs. He said there is nothing like the feeling of a record under your fingers.
“The sound that vinyl has is clean, raspy and gritty,” he said. “Although digital is crisp, vinyl is clean. DJing is my drug. It’s my addiction. And it’s a positive addiction.”
The unanimous complaint about vinyl records is their stationary status. Large and heavy to pack around, vinyl records are meant for in-home listening.
The Future of Vinyl
Many think vinyl will never go out of style. Augustine said nostalgia and appreciation for predecessors will keep vinyl in people’s collections.
“I think the record will always be around,” he said. “Vinyl will be the classic thing that people have.”
Munoz predicts that vinyl records’ appeal will end sooner or later.
“My personal prediction, which is really more of a gut feeling, is that eventually vinyl records will go out of style,” he said. “Vinyl records are already too big and heavy. Their one sonic advantage, quality — that the sounds are continuous rather than discreet — will eventually fade as MP3s are replaced by smaller files with broader frequency responses.”
Some say they will always want vinyl because it’s the best of its kind. Watkins doesn’t foresee anything getting in the way of vinyl’s popularity.
“Culturally, people respect vinyl as a medium and will always seek vinyl, I think,” he said. “It’s the best analog mass-media that we have.”
Digital recordings have surpassed vinyl in convenience and size. However, the warm vinyl sound is still a priority for many. For some serious audiophiles, the further products get from the physical mechanics of producing sound, the worse music is going to translate on a recording.
Metavinyl Records owner Schneiderman said as long as vinyl is top quality there will be a demand for it.
“Vinyl will always have a cult following,” he said. “Unless a better format comes along and surpasses its quality.”