Vinyl remains the medium of choice for many audiophiles
The 20th century has seen many cultural innovations go in and out of style: Tamagotchi, VCR, and bell-bottom jeans to name a few. One mighty invention, the vinyl record, has not only stood the test of time but continues to thrive now more than ever. The year 2016 was recently recorded as vinyl’s most successful year since 1988. Its survival through the era of digitization raises questions about both the product and the consumers: Are people attracted by vinyl’s superior sound quality? Is vinyl’s appeal purely vintage? While vinyl has been a longstanding cornerstone for a small niche of audiophiles, its growth comes from recent trends in pop-culture. This trend, unfortunately, does not bode well for truly independent artists in the future.
Physical media for music have always been an important part of an artist’s work. It contains the full-sized album cover, often the lyrics, and other sleeve notes which contribute to the meaning of the album as a whole. Several artistic statements can indeed only be understood in the context of the vinyl product layout. For example, Kanye West’s album cover to Yeezus is just a picture of the disc itself to match the minimalist structure of the music.
The fact that vinyl records have tangible qualities may be a reason for their excellence. Target consumers in general prefer to own physical copies of things rather than digital, as the physical nature adds to its perceived quality. In this era of digitization, millions of tech un-savvy adults may prefer vinyl records for the sake of simplicity. It is not surprising that children all around the world find old records that their parents wish to preserve in their attics.
If you pull out your parents’ favorite Beatles vinyl and pop it onto a turntable, you may notice why your parents have kept them all these years: The sound quality is flawless. In the early days of digital music and the CD, vinyl far out matched its competitors in quality; digital music has to cut off sound above and below certain frequencies to save space. Vinyl records, on the other hand, had no such limitation, allowing for all sounds to resonate freely. Even the methods of audio mastering differed, vinyl records on reel-to-reel and MP3’s via digital interface. Though MP3 files have closed much of the sonic gap, audiophiles are still willing to pay top dollar for that crisper, clearer noise.
The sound quality, however, may not be the root cause for vinyl’s revival. The three top-selling vinyl albums were Twenty One Pilots’ Blurryface, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, and Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool. Vinyl culture has been usurped by pop culture; the artists selling most vinyl are not old or underground, but rather prominent figures in the industry that maintain pseudo-indie followings.
This phenomenon raises a very important question. Is vinyl purely part of a desired popular aesthetic? In short, yes. Pop-culture has appropriated much of hipster culture over the past decade (i.e. the Ray-Ban transition from “classic” glasses to “hipster” glasses). This has propelled vinyl into mainstream consumption, causing overpriced “alt-pop” albums to be sold in Urban Outfitters all over the world.
There are a few who have not connected to this aesthetic. Emilio Joubert (COL ‘19) has a very focused vinyl collection; the hip-hop enthusiast owns records for all of his favorite rap/R&B albums. The first record that he bought was Illmatic, an album that he feels especially moved by. He purchases his records both online and in stores. He also owns a turntable and has experienced first-hand its sonic nuances: “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sounds great on vinyl, but some of them are [expletive]. Like a lot of Wu-tang sounds like it’s mixed terribly.” Emilio is just one of many who fully appreciate vinyl for what it is. In the wake of digital music, however, it has been commodified in its novelty by popular trends.
And finally, what do these trend mean for artists of the future? Nothing good, unless you are already famous. Record stores used to be, and still are to some degree, places for music lovers to discover new music. However, the vinyl revival is not enough to account for the plummeting CD sales and skyrocketing rent in major cities which are putting too
many of these stores out of business. Thus, they are more inclined to sell albums like Blurryface rather than anything remotely underground to stay afloat. Fortunately, through websites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud, independent artists will still have some outlets for self-empowerment.
PC: Emilio Joubert