With the advent of compact discs and now digital music players the mainstream music world would have you think that vinyl records are dead and to a degree they are. I’ve seen vinyl records melted to make bowls, lampshades, cut up to make coasters and collages. I’ve seen them for sale for pennies at yard sales where the seller would practically pay you just to take their piles of this worthless bulky outdated medium. But you know what? Vinyl records aren’t dead at all. In fact vinyl records sales have climbed in recent years, with millions sold just last year, and those are RIAA sales numbers that don’t take into account independent record label sales. Indeed there is value to be had in this seemingly ancient media. In addition to it’s mystique also comes along a few benefits missing from the bullets points associated with the digital media we are overrun with today.
For anyone that isn’t familiar with vinyl records I’ll fill you in. There is a huge variety to vinyl and it can be confusing at times. They come in three primary speeds, 33, 45 and 78 rpm. This RPM speed relates to how many revolutions the turn table spins the record per minute. 33 and 45 are the more common speeds and care needs to be taken when purchasing a turntable if you want one that will play 78′s. In addition to the speed differences there are also size differences. In theory records can come in any size or shape as long as they fit on the turn table and are light enough to be spun, they’ll play. I’ve seen square records and even goofy shapes like rocket ships but the most common shape is a circle with varying widths, 7″, 10″ and 12″. They can also come in a limitless array of colors from solids to marbling effects to even having full color graphics. All of this is possible because vinyl records are made of a lump of vinyl, like a big ball and they have the sound information pressed onto them. It’s not a sterile high precision process like with compact discs, seeing vinyl records being made looks like much more of an artisan process. As you can imagine with all of these color and size options an artist can really personalize their release. And with all of this personalization comes collect-ability, something that is virtually non-existent with the current generation of media.
One of the biggest advantages of vinyl over the other popular medias of today is it’s low cost. Vinyl records are cheap to produce which makes them cheap to purchase as well. This low price point means that you’ll find vinyl records to be very popular among independent labels in addition to self produced albums, areas of the music industry where maintaining a low cost-to-market is a major concern. When I was a kid and I was really into punk rock music that was released on independent labels. As a result I have a big box of records that isn’t going anywhere simply because most of that music was never released on any other media. Many are prints of 1000 on small labels that only lasted a short while, the masters are long gone and all that’s left is the vinyl. This is still a common practice and small labels are still releasing vinyl today. Sure these same labels could just make home brewed cds and send them out but a home brewed cd doesn’t compare to a “real” vinyl record with a printed label and liner. The legitimacy that comes along with a vinyl record is a validation to a record label, no matter how small. In terms of value to the buyer I’d much rather have the vinyl then a half assed cdr with a hand written label. Heck, I can make my own cdr using the vinyl as a master whenever I like and this brings us to recording quality.
The validity of an audio format is it’s ability to replicate a given source. The accuracy of which a format can replicate a source or master is the meat and potatoes of the recording world. Through the years other elements have come to the forefront, durability, convenience, portability and cost. Vinyl records aren’t durable in the slightest, you have to watch what temperature they are stored it, they won’t survive a drop very well if at all and they scratch very easily. They aren’t the most convenient medium either, they are big and bulky and anyone with a large collection of them practicably has to have a room dedicated to storage. Portability is nonexistent with vinyl records, it’s comical to think of what a portable record player would look like. And cost? While vinyl records are cheap to make and buy a “quality” record player will set you back quite a bit more then a quality compact disc player. So while the media is cheap the equipment isn’t in the slightest. That leads us to the attribute I mentioned first, sound quality, the most important feature of a recording and this is where vinyl excels.
The inherent problem with digital music is storage size. It is a constant conflict between audio quality and how much space it takes up on the media, weather that be hard drive space or space on your ipod. The only way to make a bit of audio smaller is to truncate a part of it. This truncation is part of the process in creating compact discs and even more so in creating the various computer oriented audio files. Vinyl records do not suffer from this limitation. Vinyl based records are analogue in nature and contain a much larger sound wave then the digital formats which enable them to reproduce the most accurate sound playback of all consumer based media. There are drawbacks though because of the analogue nature of records they are prone to containing a high level of noise on playback. This noise is what has tainted the consumer’s view of vinyl as a whole and made them think vinyl records sound turdy. However on a high end sound system vinyl can be played back without noise and it’s full fidelity can be truly heard. So indeed vinyl is a paradox of being the cheapest medium but requiring some of the most expensive equipment to be fully enjoyed.
I’m not saying we should start a vinyl revival or anything. They are inconvenient as hell an to be honest I don’t break out my record player very often but then again maybe if I had one of those expensive setups I’d play them more. What I am saying is that vinyl does have a place, cassettes and 8 tracks are dead for real but vinyl continues on for some valid reasons. So don’t write off vinyl records. They are a fun way to listen to music and can be a nice departure from the demands of immediate satisfaction placed on mp3′s and compact discs. If you want to switch to the next song on a record you actually have to get up off your ass and move the needle. How’s that for analogue?