Why the Disk Hasn’t Died

Vinyl's spiking sales show its cultural clout

Apple can hardly contain itself: It is boasting that 11 million people have signed up for a free three-month trial of its brand new streaming service. But no one has spent any cold hard cash yet on Apple Music (customers will eventually have to pay a monthly fee), so the jury is still out.

Contrast that with the endurance and now resurgence of vinyl, which was supposed to have gone the way of 8-track tapes and other obsolete media.

Why the prediction of vinyl’s obsolescence? The large, fragile vinyl disks require special care. They degrade with repeated plays and they carry far less information than other, newer audio formats. If even Blu-ray disks face extinction, surely by now vinyl records would be a historical footnote.

Not so fast. 

A 2014 Nielsen report showed that vinyl LP sales rose by 52 percent over the previous year, all while CD sales softened as digital music expectedly rose.

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While vinyl still represents a fraction of the overall album sales picture (six percent, to be precise), the jump suggests something unconventional is happening in the musical space. Those antiquated disks just aren’t going anywhere.

“Music consumers like to feel connected to the artists. With digital and streaming, that connection has been severed.”

On top of that, at a time when digital dominates music consumption, 72 percent of today’s vinyl buyers are under age 35, according to Billboard.

Yuri Lysoivanov, a composer and pianist who teaches at Chicago’s Tribeca Flashpoint College, says vinyl buyers aren’t necessarily chasing the best audio experience. Yes, some LP purists say the “warmer” sound produced by vinyl appeals to them. But others are seeking the physical experience they provide.

“Music consumers like to feel connected to the artists. With digital and streaming, that connection has been severed,” said Lysoivanov. “You’d expect that same connection to happen with CDs, but it doesn’t.”

What about the sound chasm among vinyl, CDs and digital music?

“The difference between vinyl and CD is pretty clear. Vinyl records, in general, tend to be a little quieter. You have less bass, less high frequency content than on a CD,” he said. “Vinyl has some clicks and pops. Physical artifacts come out of playing it on a record player.”

Digital music emerged as a far more convenient and space-saving, option in recent years. Compression issues took their toll on the overall sound, a bugaboo for audiophiles. But that is no longer the case with most digital music, Lysoivanov said.

“MP3s are now are much, much more precise than they used to be,” he said. Several major music producers such as Sony and Apple are using “compression-less” processes for enhanced quality. “The line between streaming and CD audio is much smaller.”

Surely the vinyl records being bought represent the older generation’s tastes — The Beatles, Miles Davis and other classic acts, right? Not exactly. Six of the top-10 selling vinyl albums last year represented newer contemporary artists such as Lana Del Ray, Jack White and The Black Keys.

Lysoivanov said vinyl records will remain a small but vibrant part of the audio scene. He compares it to the prediction that the printed book would fade with the advent of Kindle-style readers. Books remain “a social statement” for those who own and proudly display them.

The line between streaming and CD audio is much smaller.

Vinyl represents a potential scarcity, the notion that owning a rare LP provides a hip factor that can’t be downloaded. Vinyl music also connects listeners with a time period in a way digital devices just can’t match.

“People want to hear early 20th century recordings (on vinyl). That’s how it was originally done,” he said.

Lysoivanov has seen his own students forge fresh connections to the medium. One such student created a small business buying obscure vinyl releases and selling them online.

“Vinyl is a niche market, but I still think it has room for growth,” he said.

Billboard put it more dramatically: “Across the country … vinyl sections have grown to take over most of the floorspace. Even major chain retailers like Target, Urban Outfitters and Whole Foods, which sells a curated selection of discs ranging from ‘The College Dropout’ to ‘Amnesiac’ at select stores, have gotten into the act.”

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