Something dark is rising once more. It stalks the old shopping arcades, clawing up from under crates of music long-forgotten, scratching at speakers among turntables and home record players. The mad audiophile scientists have resurrected something, with an unearthly craving for life, that won’t stop until it’s drained every penny from your wallet and ripped away entire afternoons trawling through music shop basements in exchange for one dog-eared sleeve. Let Hal Hewlett convince you why vinyl is the superior listening method.
Vinyl is back! Well... sort of. 2021 saw vinyl’s sixteenth consecutive year of increased sales, also hitting an important milestone - with vinyl sales jumping over fifty per cent in 2021, they exceeded digital and CD album sales, accounting for 38 per cent of total album sales in the United States. In the UK, a similar story: a fourteenth year of increased sales, selling over 5 million albums, an 8% increase. Of course, sales figures are hard to contextualise in the age of streaming. The US figure of 38% of album sales drops to under 5% of total music consumption when compared to music streaming, which contextualises the figure somewhat. The fact remains, however, that in an age of increasing convenience and a digitised existence, even more shockingly than going strong, vinyl has managed to make a comeback. So, the question is, why?
The increased imperative for moral consumption has driven consumers to be more aware of how their consumption can help support artists. I am sure that many people will have heard and subscribed to the mantra of supporting local businesses, making sure that one’s consumption doesn’t homogenise under a single large company, and seeking to give back to the nearest high street shop or local entrepreneurs. Vintage clothes shopping, for example, saw a 17.6% rise in value in 2019, largely due to consumer concerns on the effect of fast fashion on the environment and excessive consumption as a whole. Vinyl allows this cultural dissatisfaction with excessive consumerism to be split on two axes.
"Artist cuts on streaming services are notoriously abysmal, and after listening to so much of an artist without ever actually paying them money, a desire to palpably give back can burgeon"
So firstly, it allows consumers to support artists on a more direct level - I’m sure many of us will have picked up a record as we would a T-shirt after a gig, just as much for the product as for support of the artist. Artist cuts on streaming services are notoriously abysmal, and after listening to so much of an artist without ever actually paying them money, a desire to palpably give back can burgeon. This is especially true in the UK and other countries, where tours from American artists or bands can be few and far between, and it’s harder to simply pick up a ticket to a show.
Secondly, it provides much the same feeling as second-hand clothes shopping does - engaging in consumerism while supporting local shops that are often owned and staffed by devoted hobbyists who attend car boot sales and fairs to find deep cuts. While vinyl may be making a comeback, it’s largely thanks to these second-hand shops; for every Rough Trade or HMV selling pristine new records, there’s a dingy but loveable basement that you make sure to stop into often to see if they’ve got anything new. Even Rough Trade recently introduced sales of second-hand albums, seeking to get in on the rising trend of buying second-hand. The presence of vintage shopping here also mitigates a traditional barrier to buying vinyl over streaming - it’s inherently more expensive, by a long shot. A Spotify subscription is currently sitting at £9.99 a month; buying a single new pressing of an album can often double that price. These local shops provide a comfortable middle ground, making the consumption of music feel both more enjoyable, but still at least somewhat accessible.
And, beyond a purely financial look at vinyl sales, we have to acknowledge the place that actual, physical ownership takes in this discussion. In a point in history in which subscription services are increasingly prevalent - for movies, television, audiobooks, video games, even more unifying issues like travel and housing - being able to actually own something, to have something that you can call yours, that you don’t have to pay to retain, and will continue to be yours for the rest of time if you want it to be, is a nice feeling. People love to collect, and a modest handful of vinyl that you can put on when you’re in the mood certainly isn’t the most far-fetched thing we can spend money on. Once again, music begins to echo fashion; Spotify is the tenth pair of Primark socks that wear through in a month, vinyl is the old beat-up pair of Vans that I held together with tape for years until my mum threw them out. Both served me well, but when pressed for more info on the socks, I couldn’t even tell you the colour. While I appreciate that “it feels nice to have things” isn’t the most rigid argument for vinyl’s resurgence, it might be the best we’re going to get.
"While CDs are certainly convenient, they are still at their heart digital storage methods, and exist as a method of relaying and playing digital recordings"
But, of course, all this begs a bigger question - why vinyl? All of the previous arguments could just as well be made for cassettes or CDs. We may understand why vinyl over streaming, but why vinyl over anything else? The first answer that comes to mind is quality. While CDs are certainly convenient, they are still at their heart digital storage methods, and exist as a method of relaying and playing digital recordings. Sound quality is limited by the quality of these recordings, and the compression needed to fit them onto the disc. Vinyl has no such limitation - being an analog music format, the sound is inherently higher quality, which many listeners find appealing. This has also given rise to a growing community of “audiophiles”, enthusiasts who are interested in high-fidelity sound. While you don’t have to go full-on hobbyist in order for this to matter to you, a desire for better-sounding music is something we can all get behind.
Beyond that, CDs are still relatively recent in the music world. They were invented in 1983, and CDs began outselling vinyl records in 1988. While CDs certainly had a long time in the spotlight, there’s still a large amount of music history that lived and died prior to the adoption of the compact disc, and much of this music is still hanging around today, waiting for interested parties to go and discover it. CD also didn’t have as much of a time in the spotlight; between 1999 and 2009, CD sales were cut in half in the US, from 14.6 billion dollars to 6.3 billion, largely thanks to the introduction of digital music distribution through online downloads and streaming. CDs had a far smaller time in the sun than vinyl, with vinyl hitting its nadir of sales in 2006 and being invented in 1948. Looking at vinyl sales numbers, you’ll consistently find older artists at the top of the charts - Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie and the Beatles, for example, with Abbey Road topping US vinyl sales charts three years running in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Simply put, there is a far larger and richer amount of music that can be found on vinyl that can be on CD or cassette, and thanks to the fact that streaming has encouraged more eclectic tastes among many music fans through sheer broad accessibility, this range of potential finds makes vinyl more attractive.
I’m sure there are tons of other reasons that this frankly outdated format is still rising back up, which at this point is propelled as much by a wave of its own popularity as any other factor. Of course, as much as vinyl is beginning to outcompete CDs, CDs are benefitting from the same move away from digital consumption as vinyl is - their sales are rising too, just slower. We all love music, and whether we want to express that by consuming as much of it as possible, looking for records off the beaten track of our curated recommendations, stacking it up on our shelves, perfecting our hi-fi setup, or even writing about it, if the vinyl resurgence signals that more people are getting into the music they want to and experiencing it how they would like then it’s hard to see how this is anything other than a net positive for the music industry. The longevity of this resurgence has yet to be seen, but one thing is for sure - vinyl defied death once. With sales of DVDs down across the board and an uncertain future in store for print books, I’m sure that other forms of physical media are looking to do it too.
Edited by: Gemma Cockrell