Several years ago, there was a great single-panel cartoon that ran in The New Yorker that was a tasteful clap-back to record collectors. The panel was two guys talking in front of a component stereo system with a stack of vinyl records. The caption: “The two things that really drew me to vinyl were the expense and the inconvenience.”
Let’s not kid ourselves: When it comes to music consumption, on-demand, immediate-gratification digital living is hard to beat. Streaming services have become the new utility bill in many households; the price of one CD at Target will cover you for a month’s worth of access to thousands of releases. Your average-sized external hard drive weighs significantly less than a DJ bag filled with 25 albums and holds 10,000 times more tracks—and you can fit it in your jacket pocket. Yet for all of our digital dependence, people are buying vinyl records and turntables more than ever. According to data compiled last year by the Recording Industry Association Of America, vinyl purchases have gone up 10 percent, responsible for $395 million in an industry that’s creating revenues of $1.5 billion. Of course, it takes a lot more resources and time to create a vinyl artifact (cardboard, petroleum and PVC as opposed to all those zeroes and ones), but there’s a nation of music fans ready to clear out their wallets to start and/or maintain their own collections.
So why do we love vinyl records so much?
“For most music-lovers born before, say, 1978, vinyl was the first format on which they listened to music, so it casts a powerful nostalgic spell,” offers Dave Segal, music writer for the Seattle-based paper The Stranger and AP alumnus. “Beyond that, though, vinyl simply sounds better than other formats. Sure, literally millions of audiophile-intensive arguments have transpired about analog vs. digital, but the people whom I most respect—including Neil Young and AP’s editor in chief—hail vinyl as the ultimate way to listen to music, in most cases. Finally, hauling thousands of pounds of records when it comes time to move residences builds way more character than it does tossing a few hard drives and a laptop into your backpack.”
Mark Pinkus is president of Rhino Entertainment and U.S. Catalog, a division of Warner Music Group whose commitment to vinyl and packaging are practically an industry standard for making records the right way. Pinkus believes that streaming services act as a gateway drug to vinyl purchasing. “We love records because they feel like something,” he says. “Music is so much more than a digital file. The pleasure of holding a record in your hand outweighs the expense and the inconvenience. I think that owning a piece of vinyl creates a deeper connection between the fan and the band. You can stream the Grateful Dead and jump around to the Doors and David Bowie. There’s a very different attachment when you own that vinyl box set. Marketing-wise, there are eight distinct groups who are buying vinyl. So who is going to record stores these days? I’ll simplify it: Everyone.”
“Owning a piece of vinyl creates a deeper connection between the fan and the band.”
“Music is so personal for people,” says Cameron Schaefer, head of music and brand at Vinyl Me, Please, a subscription service that offers premium curated titles on the vinyl format. “The music we lean toward, the bands we like and the music we love is a lot of times an extension of our identity and who we are. And I think the vinyl format is something people can tangibly show that. Someone with a vinyl collection is saying something about who they are. I think people are keenly aware of that.”
“I think it comes down to ‘why do we love music so much?’” offers Jacob Bannon, frontman for American hardcore avatars Converge and founder of Deathwish Inc., the label he oversees that’s responsible for a wide array of hardcore/metal/atmospheric releases. “I think now, with being so digital and nonphysical in terms of what we listen to and how we listen to it, people in the independent music world really appreciate the tactile aspects of a high-quality project. They want to hold onto a release they care about from an artist they care about. They want to experience it in a more personal way. I want to experience the pressing; I want to see the artwork on a larger scale. It’s not easy making music and art, and I think it deserves that attention, you know?”
“No one really seemed concerned it was that expensive or inconvenient 30 years ago,” posits Ben Blackwell, the “psychedelic stooge” behind the scenes at Third Man Records, the label founded by Jack White. “Not much has changed in the grand scheme of things. When a director is making a film, they’re not envisioning someone watching it on a fucking iPad—that’s not their desired end consumption. The filmmaker is thinking about what you’re going to see in a theater. That’s how I like to imagine vinyl records and music creators. All things considered, vinyl feels like perfection.” With over 500 titles in their catalog, Blackwell says Third Man doesn’t let any record go out of print. The collectors’ color variants will disappear, but fans solely into the music can still procure standard black vinyl pressings. “It’s quite daunting, really. I don’t know another label who does that,” he says.
“The biggest problem with digital is that it’s uninspiring,” Schaefer continues. He grew up in the Napster generation where the lure of potentially accessing millions of songs was more important than the reverence of a physical collection. “Back then, I think there was an initial rush for a lot of people my age where they’d have three hard drives filled with music. Just as quickly as you get that rush, you realized that it felt pretty meaningless. There’s something about it that just isn’t as fulfilling as holding an album in your hand. It’s yours, it’s a tangible thing and it’s an extension of your taste. Streaming is convenient: I love Spotify, and I use it every single day. But there’s nothing inspiring about that experience. Whereas physical media—the first vinyl pressing of your favorite album—is a piece of art and has value.”
This Saturday marks the 11th anniversary of Record Store Day, a near-holy day of record-collector obligation, physical media celebration and equal parts joy, anguish and cynicism. Started by a consortium of record store managers in the Baltimore area, the purpose of the event was to create a day for local independent brick and mortar stores still making a go at it in a world of digital everything. With the cooperation from labels major and indie, the idea was to create limited-pressing artifacts only available at designated stores. Previous years have given us all kinds of rarities (Have you spun your copy of Fall Out Boy’s double seven-inch pack of PAX•AM DAYS lately? Maybe Frank Iero Live At BBC Maida Vale? Paramore’s “broken” version of “Ain’t It Fun”?), and this year is no different.