As you may have heard, vinyl records have made something of a comeback in the consumer music industry. But you might not fully recognise the extent of the format’s rebirth.
Vinyl records aren’t just a hipster trend or a blip or a fad. According to a report published in The Guardian back in January, vinyl record sales in 2016 reached a 25-year high, as consumers of all ages embraced physical formats of music. It goes without saying that these numbers seem counter-intuitive. We live in the so-called digital age, when podcasts are the new radio programs, iTunes and Amazon are the new Blockbuster, and streaming and downloads have replaced physical music sales – or so we thought. But the numbers don’t lie: vinyl is back in a big way, and it’s a trend that can be somewhat difficult to comprehend, let alone explain. Nevertheless, let’s look at a few reasons behind the comeback.
Some have credited something called ‘retromania’ with the return of vinyl, and it makes some sense. Older bands appear to be regaining popularity across the board – sometimes through some pretty creative, headline-grabbing moves. This summer U2 teased fans by sending out copies of a cryptic letter which seemed to promise details of a new album. In 2016, Guns ‘N’ Roses lent its material to the game developer NetEnt to become one of the latest games based on pop culture to do the rounds on casino sites. These two marketing manoeuvres sort of cover everything old and new: U2 used paper letters to introduce brand new music; GNR used modern gaming to remind people of classic material. These are just two of many examples of older bands that are back in the public eye, and which could well be driving some of the rebirth of vinyl.
When people consume classic work, they become interested in the material most relevant to it. But because a handful of classic artists can hardly account for the biggest surge in vinyl sales in twenty-five years, we need to look for other reasons too. One that has come up fairly often and which may truly be at the core of the movement is the idea that vinyl simply sounds more ‘authentic’ – which, for a lot of true music fans, outweighs the convenience of digital formats. One article, which incidentally also discussed the idea of retromania) specifically pointed to a distinctive lack of audio cleanness and perfection as a reason that people prefer vinyl. The sound coming through is just a little bit less polished, but that can actually be satisfying because it feels authentic. Somewhat similarly, the same article noted that vinyl is inherently more immersive. It more or less requires that people listen through an entire album, rather than skipping just to the songs they like (which are often just those that stood out on a first listen before the rest of the album had a chance to grow on people). It may also be important to point out that the machines themselves have been updated such that they can fit in perfectly to a modern home or apartment. Record players today aren’t big, clunky, antiques as many might imagine. In many cases they’ve been updated with clean, streamlined appearances that make them not only tolerable, from a decorative standpoint, but desirable. A record player can almost be a sort of furnishing, in addition to a high quality means of playing music in your home.
Whatever the most impactful reason for vinyl’s resurgence may be, it has become undeniable, and the snowball effect has been fascinating to watch. While ‘retro’ groups may be partly responsible for renewed interest in older formats, modern artists have taken notice and released their own vinyl as well. It’s now not uncommon to walk into an electronics store, bookstore, etc. and see racks full of records, from modern and classic artists alike. All things considered, it looks like the trend is here to stay.