By Gaurav Sharma
Audiophiles in today’s age revel in digital music, more so because the music industry itself is dominated by Itunes and streaming sites such as Napster, Spotify, Pandora and Tidal.
One of the pioneering inventions of the celebrated digital revolution, the Compact Disc has itself witnessed declining popularity in the new era of online streaming.
Lately however, a surprising development is beginning to gather steam–the revival of Vinyl records–the quintessential music storage instruments of the golden era of 1960’s.
Beginning of Vinyl
The earliest known disc records were made from various different materials including hard rubber. Around 1895, it became a standard practice for companies to use a shellac based compound for making records.
Shortly thereafter, others records such as German Phonycord and the British Filmophone and Goodson records were introduced, however they fell victim to the Great Depression and became obliterated from use.
The Darium records of the 1930’s also did not last long, although their use continued in the United Kingdom and Italy till the 1950’s.
Then, in 1931, RCA Victor introduced their vinyl-based Vitrolac compound for special purpose records. By the end of the 1930’s, Vinyl became the material of choice for pre-recorded radio programming and other critical applications due to its unbreakability, lightweight and low surface noise.
During the Second World War, the 78 rpm(rotation per minute) records were pressed into vinyl for distribution to the US soldiers en masse.
Displacement by Compact Disc
During the late 1980’s Vinyl records started showing decline in popularity.
Although factors such as sensitivity to handling, surface noise and tracking error had their part in fueling the decline of the Vinyl, the major reason behind the downfall was the predatory behavior of the distributors.
With a hawkish eye towards grabbing greater profits, the distributors began restricting their label return policies, a mechanism on which the retailers had been relying on to, for maintaining and swapping out stocks of relatively unpopular titles.
The retailers were charged more for the new product if the unsold vinyl was returned and later stopped credit altogether for the returns.
Fearing that they would be stuck with anything they ordered, the retailers only ordered popular titles which they knew would sell and also devoted more shelf space to CD’s.
Subsequently, many pressing plants were shut down after record companies started deleting vinyl titles from production and distribution.
The rapid unavailability of records further amplified the format’s deceleration and can be considered as a deliberate tactic to make consumers shift towards the CD,
For the first time since 1997, Vinyl sales have surpassed the 1 million mark in the UK. With almost 8 million sales, the US has seen a rapid increase of 49 per cent year-on-year.
So what has fueled the rise of Vinyl in spite of the bulky, analogous nature that defines it against what music stands for in the digital age?
Simon Reynolds, one of the greatest music writers of his generation, underlines one reason as “Retromani”: pop culture’s insatiable desire and addiction for embracing its own past.
Observing the highest selling albums of 2015, however, casts a different picture with an eclectic mix of classical albums such as Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin etc and contemporary acts such as Madonna, Daft Punk and Arctic Monkeys.
Clearly nostalgia is not the only reason driving the revival of vinyl.
The main reason why consumers have decided to delve again into vinyl is because of its superior sound quality compared to the CD.
There is a strong contention that CD’s compress the audio to make it sound as loud as possible, thereby diminishing sound quality and listener enjoyment, a factor known as the “loudness race”.
On the other hand, Vinyl, through the reproduction of analog recordings, produces a more nuanced sound and hence a more immersive experience, fondly called by its fans as the “warmth”.
Listening to records provides a more personal connection between the artist and the fan, than listening to digital music.
Moreover, the aesthetic feeling of sliding the record out of its cover, the gentle nibbling of the disc by the needle and the artwork, design and printed lyrics before the actual listening help build a more personal connection between the artist and the fan, a crucial element missing in all other formats.
While the vinyl sales have undoubtedly soared manifold, yet it can still not be termed as a meteoric craze simply because of the fact that it lags behind in terms of total units in digital format.
According to British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the trade body for UK’s recorded music industry, Vinyl sales account for just 2 per cent of the UK’s recorded music market. Martin Talbot, the chief executive of Official Charts, also acknowledges that the consumer-base for vinyl is “still a niche audience.”
Another factor holding back the Vinyl revolution, is the abysmal shortage of LP (Long Play) manufacturers.
As per a Wall Street Journal feature, more than 90 per cent of the Vinyl raw materials were produced by a single company. This means that if the Vinyl comeback has to last, then considerable investment has to be made in its expensive technology.
Distribution network will also have to be built and expanded, to ensure the sustainable development of vinyl records.
The journey forward
Various hurdles notwithstanding, the popularity of Vinyl is here to stay. Vinyl records continue to be manufactured by rock bands, record labels, collectors and Indie bands.
The direct manipulation of the medium makes Vinyl more suited for use by Disc Jockeys, particularly those playing the electronic dance music and introducing hip hop releases.
However, the trend needs to be taken notice of and nourished by the recording industry.
The popularity of Vinyl has not been reported properly by various communication organizations. No trade body keeps either a track record of used records sold or sales on e-commerce sites such as ebay, arguably the central marketplace for vinyl purchase.
In the end, it’s not just the Vinyl evangelists who profess that the sound of the Vinyl is richer and warmer. Exquisite sound quality rules over all other considerations.