Record collectors often prefer the medium for its warm sound. courtesy Flickr

Vinyl revolution a dishonest revival of the medium

Vinyl record sales are outnumbering digital downloads despite the record industry’s transition from analog to digital recording.

I received my first vinyl record in 2014. Tame Impala’s “Innerspeaker,” a relatively overlooked debut in the Australian psych-rocker’s now-household catalog. A few days later, I spent $50 on a cheap, beginner Jensen turntable. The first record I purchased of my own volition and with my own money a couple of weeks later was Arcade Fire’s “Funeral.” My collection grew. Some months after, I was gifted a better turntable and sound system. I kept purchasing vinyl, amassing my collection to somewhere over 100 records with box sets, seven-inch singles and 10-inch EPs mixed in with those classically designed 12-inch vinyl LPs. I had picture discs, see-through, glow-in-the-dark, limited edition, hand-numbered … the list goes on.

I speak in the past tense because I no longer collect vinyl, and not for any ethical reasons, but because it’s simply too expensive. In high school, after getting my first job and not thinking too hard about the future, every payday was a record store day. I spend my money differently now and only pick up a record when it’s something special. I also get my music in differently, though I don’t stream (but that’s a topic for a different time).

A Digital Music News article from July claimed that vinyl record sales are up in 2018. 19.2 percent, specifically. The article pulls this info from Nielsen Music and also claims that the ancient format is beginning to outstrip digital downloads at the market, though they neglected to provide actual numbers on this point.

A March article from The Verge gives some more concrete stats, pulled from the Recording Industry Association of America’s 2017 end-of-the-year report, stating that “digital downloads fell to $1.3 billion last year, whereas physical media, while also falling, only declined to $1.5 billion.” There are two important things to pull from that quote: one, digital sales truly are lower than physical sales, and two, physical sales are falling as well. If these two things are falling, where is the money going? How are people consuming their music?

“Last year, nearly two-thirds of all revenue — over $5.7 billion — came from streaming, an increase of 43 percent,” the same article states. Streaming, from Spotify to Apple Music and Google Music, even to Pandora, is just too convenient, too cheap to warrant a purchase of the record. For less than the cost of your average digital album, you can get unlimited access to tens of thousands for a month. It just makes more sense.

People like me, who purchase CDs and the occasional record, do it for stupid reasons, like the lyric sheets and the satisfaction in having the physical format, in having purchased an artist’s creation at a level indicating far more devotion than a simple stream. I won’t argue the point right now, but that’s a big motivation.

Of course, there’s another reason: audiophilia. Self-proclaimed “audiophiles” desire to hear music in the highest fidelity (sound quality) possible. They spend hundreds on headphones and amplifiers, and some fork over another few thousand dollars on audio systems and, wouldn’t you know, turntables. It’s worth mentioning here that the physical format can’t compete in any way with digital when it comes to sound quality. CD will always sound better than the best vinyl pressing, and the best digital file (in huge, lossless formats) will always sound better than the CD. There are larger arguments in favor of vinyl for the “warmth” of its sound and what-not, but I’ll set that aside for a moment. There are also detractors from the audiophile philosophy who claim that lossless formats only take up more hard drive space and don’t offer any immediately noticeable change in sound quality. There’s a truth to this. Put on your best headphones and try listening to a song (say, from Spotify) in an MP3 format, then try to find a lossless file of the song somewhere and listen to that. Can you really hear the difference?

Most people can’t, so audiophiles tend to be rare and contained to their own circles. If you can’t hear the difference, they say, your music player or your headphones or your computer’s sound card simply isn’t good enough. Some, paradoxically, actually prefer vinyl, not because of its warmer sound, but because it’s of a different nature. There are some hard-to-understand technicalities here, but some vinyl records give a different sound to the music than the cold, calculating digital files. It’s described as “fuller,” “more organic” and other buzzwords by audiophiles.
There is something of a difference, though, and some people spend thousands of dollars in pursuit of hearing this difference. In addition to this quality, audiophiles also tend to reject streaming because their favored levels of fidelity are usually not supported by the streaming service.

Notice that I said “some vinyl records” and not “all.” That’s because the vinyl industry, in the wake of its meteoric recent popularity, is doing something that a lot of audiophiles consider dishonest. I’m not an audiophile, but I agree. Many vinyl factories are opting to press the records from digital sources rather than analog. Before going on, I admit that I’m no sound engineer and that I don’t understand all the intricacies, but this is the basic knowledge I’ve acquired since browsing various vinyl forums all throughout high school.

To simplify a process that I don’t truly comprehend, there are two terms to understand: “digital,” which refers to the electronic and computer-encoded, and “analog,” which refers to things that aren’t necessarily electronic. Old four-track recorders, for example, are analog, whereas the microphone in your laptop is digital. Before the rise of the computer, everything was analog. In the music industry, this meant that the devices on which one recorded the music to the methods by which they listened (the vinyl record) were all analog. Analog is generally considered superior to digital (especially by audiophiles), though this remains a point of contention.

“Vinyl” is an adjective; “record” is a noun. “Vinyls” is not an appropriate way to refer to vinyl records. The ideal vinyl record is pressed from what’s called the analog master tape. Essentially, you want as few things between the recording studio and the record as possible. Ideally, what the artists belt out and what the initial sound engineers mix and master is what goes directly to the wax, but this isn’t always the case.

Especially regarding remasters, things can get dicy. A popular subject of music commentary is the “loudness war” of the late ‘90s, in which remasters of classic albums were notoriously bad due to poor mastering techniques. For this, audiophiles are forever suspicious of remasters, and a trend in vinyl pressing renders this suspicion somewhat valid.

Today, many remasters (or even original masters) are converted digitally before being pressed to vinyl. To most people, including myself, this completely removes the point. With vinyl like that, you just get a digital file that’s been made objectively poorer in its transition to an intrinsically flawed physical format. Vinyl-lovers can’t even claim the “different” or “warmer” sound at that point, because the sound isn’t different in any way. At least when the analog master was pressed to vinyl, things had the potential to sound different. With this new influx of digital masters ending up in the grooves, well, it’s disingenuous.

Why does this happen? Maybe it’s due to laziness, or maybe it’s cheaper or easier. I don’t know, but in any case, it’s a way to package the same master into digital and physical formats and, in the case of the latter, mark the price way up.

Nonetheless, I still love vinyl. There are so many cool things happening with the medium that you just can’t get physically. The colors can be beautiful, the 12-inch album art is always gorgeous and the effort of placing the needle in the run-in groove is supremely satisfying.

Vinyl maestro Jack White even pressed one of his singles, “Sixteen Saltines,” into a special limited edition run of seven-inch records filled with liquid. The Black Keys released a single on wax to be spun in reverse. The medium is ripe for experimentation, but such gimmicks are usually more expensive than they’re worth.

I love vinyl, and sometimes when I see a favorite artist release a new record with a special vinyl edition, I really wish that wax weren’t so expensive. The mastering issues are, honestly, usually far from my mind, because for me, and for a lot of vinyl-lovers who don’t identify as audiophiles, the feeling and the physicality are more important than the extra bits of fidelity.

Post Author: Ethan Veenker