Why are Vinyl Records Making a Comeback?

Vinyl records sales have reached an 18-year high, with many new releases coming out on vinyl as well as compact disc and digital downloads. Of interest is the fact that, whereas the CD seems to be fading in popularity, vinyl continues to surge:

According to data from Nielsen SoundScan, in 2007 CDs accounted for 90 percent of album sales in the United States, with digital accounting for the other 10 percent. Just two years later, that number had shifted to 79 percent CDs and 20 percent digital, with the remaining percentage point being made up of vinyl and other media.

Part of the reason for this is that the CD had two main functions: 1) as a tangible, collectible art object and 2) as a container for music. Digital downloads have largely made the second function of the CD obsolete. If you are downloading a lossless version of a record, you are not getting anything different from what you would be ripping from a CD. And it’s far more convenient to download music than it is to rip and organize a CD. So the only real purpose a CD serves now is as a tangible art object.

When you think about it like that, it makes sense that vinyl is coming back and CD sales are shrinking. I know from personal experience that CDs tend to get lost or destroyed. But I take care of my vinyl, and I collect the records I really care about.

Another factor here is that the vinyl listening experience is considerably different. It is an investment of time toward an album (not just a few singles on a shuffled playlist). Consider Daft Punk’s extremely analog tribute to a different era of music, Random Access Memories. I have this record on double vinyl, and it was obviously designed to be listened to from beginning to end. There is no filler. The hits make sense inside the overall (74-minute!) journey. And the vinyl master is a distinct version of the songs. It sounds similar, of course, but it isn’t exactly the same. And you can’t beat the usefulness of the LP as a collectible, tangible art object. From its large format art to its generous inserts, the LP beats the CD hands down in terms of a physical memento.

I liken this development to what is occurring in the publishing world. We will continue to see a surge in digital ebook sales, since they are cheaper and even more convenient. But alongside this, I expect a continued demand for specialty printing: leather-bound keepsakes and other finely printed books. In the middle, there is one format that will continue to take a plunge: the paperback.

The CD is the paperback of music. It’s comforting to know, however, that in our digital age, some people still like curling up to listen to an entire record, or read a well-constructed printed book. The compromises between convenience and quality are becoming less common. In our time, pure Spartan convenience and lush Corinthian quality are quickly becoming the two major options.

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