The Puzzling Revival of the Vinyl LP
Thursday, January 16, 2014
The numbers are striking: CD sales declined nearly 15 percent last year. But vinyl sales moved in the opposite direction: up 32 percent from 2012, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Trendy retailers such as Urban Outfitters and Whole Foods are stocking vinyl records. Sales of turntables are up and artists like conductor Gustavo Dudamel, pianist Valentina Lisitsa and the Brooklyn Rider string quartet are releasing LPs.
While the black disc never went away among purist deejays and audiophiles, it has made a broader comeback, especially among hipsters, college students and nostalgic baby boomers.
“The whole idea of actually holding a piece of music in your hand has become sort of a quaint concept because you can carry thousands of songs around in your pocket," said Greg Milner, author of Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story Of Recorded Music. However, "if you are going to have a material object, it may as well be something that’s so far removed from digital formats.”
Brooklyn Rider violist Nicholas Cords believes that vinyl records put a listener in a physical space, such as a living room or bedroom. For the quartet, "it connects us to a past, a heritage of string quartet playing that we very much admire. It was a symbolic connection to something we really love."
When Brooklyn Rider released its 2012 album “Seven Steps” on vinyl (as well as MP3 and CD) the group invoked past greats like the Capet, Rosé, and Busch String Quartets, who first became known to the world through their pioneering 78 rpm releases in the 1930s and '40s. Cords dismisses the suggestion that LPs are a gimmick, noting that their creation can be painstaking and costly given the different mastering processes involved. What's more, a vinyl release is a way to connect with a specific fan base.
Detractors argue that vinyl has plenty of drawbacks: it's not portable, it scratches, it warps and player needles wear out. But its advocates point out that, unlike MP3s, the sound of vinyl is not compressed and any surface noise actually adds warmth to the listening experience.
“One of the reasons why people like vinyl is it imparts a kind of unreality to the sound,” said Milner. “People think of it as real but it actually gives you this thing that maybe you don’t hear in real life because in real life you’re not hearing things through the veil of hiss and noise.”
But despite the love heaped on vinyl and its reported comeback, it barely moved the needle for the music industry in 2013. "Vinyl is only about two percent of total album sales, so when you talk about a revival you have to talk about it in the context of everything everyone is listening to,” said Claire Suddath, a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek. In October, Suddath reported that the number of LPs sold in the U.S. represented only 1.4 percent of all albums sold.
While vinyl may not save a troubled industry – one that saw even download sales drop last year – Cords notes that it represents a link with tradition in an age when music formats can seem overly disposable.
"I just don’t see vinyl going away," added Milner. “It’s a good format, it’s durable, it will last a long time.”
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