Last year, vinyl sales hit a 25 year high in the UK. That means the last year people bought this many records was in 1991 at the dawn of the CD era.
But with digital downloads and streaming dominating the music industry landscape in 2016, why is it that people keep buying vinyl records? Here are some of the reasons the format has prevailed over several decades.
One of the major downsides of the streaming era is the slow decline of the music collection for many. With nearly every song ever recorded just a few taps of a touchscreen away, there is very little requirement for listeners to build and nurture their own music collection.
Once a major part of engagement with the medium of music, collecting has is now far from an essential part of the listening experience. This is a shame, as building your own unique music library as a reflection of your tastes and personality has long been one of the most rewarding parts of music fandom.
Luckily, there is in fact a large audience of consumers who feel the same way about music collections, still determined to dig through crates, at record stores or even at Tescos, in order to grow a collection they can be proud of.
Some have speculated that this is part of the tendency of millennials to prefer experiences. Even though a records are physical good, the act of owning, listening to and maintaining records is more of an exciting experience than simply clicking “play” in a browser. And the trend of record labels to produce elaborately packaged limited edition records amps up the experience factor even more. Which brings us to our next point.
What about the people who don’t care about the experience of building a collection, or who do not feel that turning a record over every 20 minutes is an enriching form of investment? Throughout the vinyl resurgence, record labels have realised that new records they print must have something special about them to attract those kinds of listeners.
Creating scarcity is one way they have done this. Every year on Record Store Day, thousands of artists release one-off limited edition records. Outkast’s glow-in-the-dark ‘Elevators’ reissue from 2016 is one such example.
Artists are releasing intentionally rare records all year round. The Killers recently printed a 1000-copy vinyl run of their debut Hot Fuss that sold out before it was even released. This forced rarity recreates the joy of crate digging for rare records with the added bonus for more conservative listeners that they are buying music from artists they already know they like.
As well as making them rare, record labels are releasing special versions of records with added novelty selling points. Jack White has been at the forefront of this movement, releasing a record that plays from the inside out, and another with a bonus track hidden in the label.
They may seem gimmicky to some, but inventive records like these, along with box sets and limited edition exclusives are partly behind the reason that vinyl still appeals to customers in the age of streaming.
Ever since the dawn of the CD there has been a raging debate amongst audiophiles as to whether vinyl does indeed “sound better.” The truth of the matter is that while it may not be definitive, vinyl records can sound better.
Some technically minded listeners point out that since records transmit analogue sound, they are capable of covering a wider wavelength than CDs or digital files. However, since many newly printed records are mastered from digital files anyway, this is often a moot point.
That doesn’t mean there is no difference. A well maintained vinyl record from the analogue era, played on a top quality sound system will absolutely sound better than an mp3 file streamed from a smartphone. In fact, it’s not even close.
Then there are the additional sounds that come from playing records: the gentle blip of the needle hitting the groove, the gentle crackles, the “warmth” of a tube amplifier. All of these things add to the sound for many listeners, even if they are not part of the recorded track.
Last but not least, we come to the DJs. Although CDJs and laptops have become popular, and naming no names some “superstar” EDM DJs have been accused of “pressing play” on a MacBook and doing nothing else during an entire set, there are still thousands of DJs who see their craft as an art. They continue to play vinyl records live, often scratching to add another level to the DJ experience.
As long as there are DJs, there will be records, no matter how popular they are with the wider listenership. And for that reason alone, vinyl is here to stay.