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Why vinyl made a comeback?

26 October 2018 •

By: Jo Jackson Technology

These days we need little more to listen to our favourite song than a smartphone and a pair of wireless buds. Our music lives on the Cloud, on Spotify, on Apple Music. It’s constantly available and completely intangible. We pick and choose favourite songs and rarely listen to the whole album. We listen to music while we work, run, drive, commute...

In a way it’s magical. There is little to no friction keeping us from enjoying hours upon hours of music. On the other hand, music has become so accessible that it verges on being a mindless consumable - so omnipresent that we don’t even really listen.

Whenever new technology appears, a pang of collective nostalgia is never far off. With the arrival of the Kindle came a fervent defense of paper-and-ink books. When digital cameras took off, there were deep concerns about the death of film photography. Perhaps underlying that nostalgia is a fear of disconnection - from the familiar, from the past, from the rawness and simplicity of life.

Despite our fears, traditional books and film cameras look set to stay for the long haul, and vinyl records are no different. When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, using wax paper and tin foil for his crudest early recordings, he ushered in an era that has yet to come to a definitive end. With the birth of the phonograph, records became our primary medium for music reproduction right up until the late 20th century. The first discs were commonly made from shellac (a resin secreted by the female lac bug) until polyvinyl chloride (PVC) became the go-to material for record manufacturing from the 1950s onwards (hence the name “vinyl”). 

Even though, in the early 80s, digital media took off in the form of compact discs (CDs), which quickly came to dominate the market by the early 90s, they have since waned and become arguably obsolete. Not only is it hard to get a hold of a computer that still has a CD drive these days, but the actual magnetic data on CDs has a finite life. Vinyl records, on the other hand, are far from becoming obsolete. There has been an average annual increase of 12% in sales since 2006. In 2017 that added up to 14 million dollars of vinyl sales in the United States alone, which in turn has kept a total of 48 record pressing facilities up and running worldwide.

So why this great return to a golden oldie? Beyond the fact that vintage is trendy, there are many reasons why vinyl records have kept people hooked even now they’re no longer a necessity. There’s something to be said for physical ownership in the digital age -  more intimacy in browsing the shelves, holding a cover in your hands and placing the needle on the record than in the disembodied experience of Spotify. Audiophiles talk about the “warm, mahogany-rich sound” of vinyl compared to the compressed audio of MP3s. "Vinyl is the only consumer playback format we have that's fully analog and fully lossless," explains engineer Adam Gonsalves of Portland's Telegraph Mastering, making vinyls the closest to what the artist intended.

Records do, however, have their shortcomings too. Vinyls can easily be mishandled and damaged. Their physical format can struggle to hit high and low notes, and “a longer album means skinnier grooves, a quieter sound and more noise.” Vinyl records are by no means perfect, but perhaps what really attracts people to them, regardless of their shortcomings and their qualities, is the fact that they’re not something that can be engaged with passively. You can’t listen to a record while you jog or ride the subway. To play one, you must set out to listen to it, not just hear it. You have to take it out of its sleeve, drop the needle, sit down in front of your stereo, and flip it halfway through. Vinyl is arguably the most mindful way we have of enjoying and engaging with music.

While the retro aspect of vinyl records is a big pull factor, their format is by no means frozen in time. Contemporary artists and creators are constanty finding ways to rethink and redesign them. For example, when Swedish indie pop band Shout Out Louds released their new track, Blue Ice, a song all about fading devotion, they created an exclusive experience for select fans and the press whereby they would receive a toolkit enabling them to create and listen to the song out of ice. Using a silicone mold, people would be able to fashion an ice record and be the very first the hear the song - but only for a finite amount of time, of course!  

Other kinds of innovation in this space include hand etching holograms onto vinyls by carving grooves that record, not sound, but light. The Force Awakens 2 LP allows you to listen to the music of John Williams while holograms of the TIE fighter spin on the disc! While that pushes the analogue format to new heights, others are looking at ways to meld analogue and digital technologies. For example, musicians Brian Eno and Karl Hyde have created an app which gives you access to an augmented reality experience. You can watch the surface of your vinyl sprout shapes and landscapes on your smartphone’s screen in time with the music. 

When it comes to looking toward the future, vinyl records seem to have taught us that old technology isn’t necessarily destined to become obsolete. If any given format has robust enough strengths, and, as long as there’s a soft place in our hearts for it, we’ll keep it alive and keep playing with it for years to come.

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26 October 2018
By: Jo Jackson

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