The Vinyl : It's Fall and Rise

The resurgence of the Vinyl as a staple in the music industry has been nothing short of a sight for sore eyes; the seemingly out of date and prehistoric musical medium had seemed to be steadily phased out of the sonic realm by the introductions of the CD, Dual Disc and the Walkman. The clutch of nostalgia however, paired with history’s unrelenting ability to repeat itself, has allowed this immersive disc to find its way back into both the hearts and homes of modern day consumers. The grey between these stark polarities do however require some further explaining.

The large and expansive history of the vinyl can be seen to be rooted in the nursery rhyme song “Mary Had a Little Lamb”; this being the first recorded sound that was captured by the phonograph in 1877. The voice present on this recording was none other than Thomas Edison; this product's creator. (1) A decade later Emile Berliner invented the first device that was able to record and play back sound using a flat disc, this is the precursor of the modern record. Before the Vinyl, Shellac was the standard material of the times, and wouldn't be replaced by its successor, until after World War II. The vinyl was a lighter and more durable product, and with more record sales occurring post war due to more families having phonographs with automatic record changers in their homes, a perfect storm was met. Discs were initially released in a five-inch version, before a seven-inch, a ten-inch, and finally a 12-inch version in 1903 were introduced. The creation of the double sided disc shortly followed before a change of the industry standard from 78 rpm to 33 1/3 rpm, allowed a greater amount of music to be recorded on a single disc. A 12-inch, vinyl (33 rpm record) could contain around 20 minutes of music on each side, and this longer-playing (LP) format started to dominate the market after the previous successes of the 78 rpm record. 45 rpm records rose in popularity also, with most containing a single song on each side, earning the now popularized title of "singles." Extended-play (EPs) 45s were also introduced, each of which could contain two songs on each side. (2)

This force of technological advancement coincided with what many dub the golden age of music, with the 60s and 70s being primary benefactors of such a development in resources. Albums such as "Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen (1975), "What’s Going On" by Marvin Gaye (1971) , "Hunky Dory" by David Bowie (1971) , "Abbey Road" by The Beatles (1969) and "Led Zeppelin II" by Led Zeppelin (1969) were allowed to grace the ears of the world through the warm and familiar drop of a tonearm. In the 1970s, vinyl sales peaked at 530m units/year and accounted for 66% of all music format revenues. But with the emergence of newer formats (primarily the CD), the vinyl market dissipated with every further decade. Revenues fell from $2.5B to just $10m/year. And by the ‘90s, vinyl sales dipped to <10m units — a meagre 0.1% of market share. (3)

The CD particularly shook up the music industry due to its error correcting ability, this greatly contributed to the format's popularity with audiophiles. The ability for a CD player to almost mute the effect of a scratch or fingerprint was a huge movement forward for audio technology. The 60-minute playtime of a CD combined with its high audio quality and its reading laser's resistance to interference provided the icing on the cake, as artists began converting their back catalogues to this new format and left the Vinyl with much ground to make up in the audiophile sweepstakes. 2020 marks the first year in more than a generation since record sales — that physical vinyl records surpassed CD sales. Many believed it was Boomers or Gen Xers that were driving this but in fact according to studies it looks to be the millennial consumers that were driving this trend in vinyl sales. For each of the past 15 years, sales of new vinyl have gradually increased. In the first half of 2021 alone, 17m albums were sold — an 86% jump from 2020. This has led to an unprecedented feat of an old technology coming back to not only surpass but displace its newer counterpart. Scott Hagen, (CEO of Victrola) said the following on Vinyls. “I think it’s got a ton of staying power. In 2013, there were about $200 million in sales in the U.S. This year, we’re probably going to eclipse $600 million just in America. I see the future of vinyl being it becoming more a staple in homes where people value listening to music, not ever less”. He also said “Even more compelling for me,” Hagen added, “was that with the younger people 18 to 29, more than 60% had a record player. And others were planning to get one.” (1) The reintroduction of the Vinyl to mainstream music has also created another realm of choice for a rabid and consumerist global audience, which has allowed for the expansion of both today’s volume and genre of music.

Geoff Taylor, the chief executive of the BPI, Brit awards and Mercury prize, speaks to this by saying: “It’s a great time to be a music fan, with wider choice on offer than ever before supported by great value.” “Thanks to record label investment into new music and talent, fans can purchase and collect the music they most love on vinyl, CD and even cassette, whilst also enjoying access to over 70m songs to stream instantly whenever and how often they want, in turn enabling a new generation of artists to create music and sustain successful careers in a global market.” (5)

In Pop Culture, the album “Call Me If You Get Lost” from rapper Tyler, The Creator provides damning evidence of the now charting benefits of vinyl related sales, as Tyler, The Creator managed to break the record for the biggest vinyl sales week for a rap album in over 30 years with this project. The Californian artist released his critically acclaimed sixth studio album in June 2021, with this project going on to win Best Rap Album at the Grammy Awards 2022. Stereogum reported that, ‘Call Me If You Get Lost’ went back to the top of the Billboard 200 chart after Tyler launched a vinyl edition of the album. This was said to have subsequently sold 49,500 physical copies via his official web store. (6)

Subtle production issues have taken a bit of the gloss off the Vinyl's comeback as production logjams and a reliance on old pressing machines have led to what executives say are unprecedented delays. A few years ago, new records could have been turned around in a few months; now it could take up to a year, this has created havoc within artists’ release plans. The biggest stars aren’t immune from this either. In an interview with BBC Radio, Adele said the following about the release of her album "30". “There was like a 25-week lead time!” she exclaimed. “So many CD factories and vinyl factories, they bloody closed down even before Covid because no one bloody prints them anymore.” Her release date was seen to be set six months ago just to make sure vinyl's and CDs were able to be made in time. (7) Many have however questioned this swansong and put it down to an overindulgence in sentimentalism, or rather a harkening back to simpler times amidst all of today's chaos and confusion, but the beauty of owning your favourite artist's work and having a visual replica on display at all times can not be understated. The sound of a vinyl record is something all on its own. The doctored and polished finish of digital tracks are amazing but vinyl's define and create both character and musical integrity. Distinguishable subtle nuances and pure authenticity seep through as artistry is made to feel like more of a homely experience; with the unquestioned touch of nostalgia adding a comforting glow to one of music’s purest forms.

Sources : (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7)

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