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Everything you need to know about vinyl records.
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The mighty record comes back around
It’s not often that a 19th century technology makes a comeback, but that’s exactly what has happened to the phonograph record. After more than a decade of increasing sales, it’s safe to say it: Vinyl is back, baby.
Why are people increasingly paying for the same music on a thin 12-inch diameter circular disk made of refined oil that can only be played on a contraption that costs at least $100, when listeners can access nealy all notable music for $10 a month?
Maybe music lovers were not ready to move on from tangible forms of music. Maybe they wanted a good way to get money directly into the hands of those who make their favorite music. And of course, there are the audiophiles who insist that the hisses and pops make the music world go ‘round.
Whatever the reason, vinyl is ready to rock on.
Let’s go for a spin.
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By the digits
$716 million: Global vinyl sales in 2019
15-22: Minutes of music per side on a 12-inch record played at 33 revolutions per minute
72,000: Turntables sold in the US in 2019
558,000: Vinyl sales of the Beatles’ Abbey Road in the 2010s, making it the top selling record of the decade
$2 million: Price paid by ex-pharma executive and convicted felon Martin Shkreli for the only copy of Wu-Tang Clan’s record Once Upon a Time in Shaolin
30: The number of seconds it takes to press melted vinyl into a record.
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“Steve Jobs was a pioneer of digital music. His legacy is tremendous. But when he went home, he listened to vinyl.”
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1887: Thomas Edison invents the wax cylinder phonograph based on his research with the telephone and telegraph.
1910s: Phonographs are a smash hit. Annual global record sales reach at least 50 million copies.
1948: The LP (long play) record is introduced by CBS.
1960s: Tape enthusiasts start switching from listening to music on cumbersome reel-to-reel players to newly minted 8-track cassettes, which could be played in some cars. Game changer.
1967: The Beatles release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the best-selling vinyl records of all time.
1973: DJ Kool Herc, the “father of hip-hop,” mixes two identical records together to prolong the best parts of a song.
1983: Vinyl accounts for over half of US music sales.
1990: Vinyl accounts for just over 1% of US music sales.
2007: The vinyl revival begins in earnest. For the first time in the 21st century, global vinyl sales increase from the previous year from $36 million in 2006 to $53 million in 2007.
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At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation didn’t look good for the record industry. Record manufacturing plants and stores were forced to shut down due to lockdown measures, and Amazon stopped shipping vinyl records from late March through mid-April in order to prioritize products they deemed more essential.
Through mid-March, data from Nielsen Music showed vinyl sales up over 40% in 2020 compared to 2019. But from March 20-26, soon after the US government advised Americans to avoid group gatherings, only 180,000 records were sold in the US, down from over 300,000 the previous year. For the next four weeks, sales would stay well below where they were in 2019.
Despite Covid-19, through mid-August, 11.5 million vinyl records were sold in 2020, compared to 9.9 million over that period in 2019, a 17% jump. In August, sales nearly doubled last year’s number. Although many stores remain closed, online sales are booming, with increased purchases on online marketplaces like Discogs and Bandcamp.
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Million dollar question
Many audiophiles argue that vinyl records offer better sound than any other form of recorded music commonly available. “Better” isn’t an entirely accurate description, but listening to your favorite album on vinyl certainly introduces you to a different audio experience.
Since vinyl records are analog rather than digital they are “lossless,” which means that they contain exactly what was recorded in the studio rather than a version that has been compressed to fit on a CD or to efficiently stream. This is great for live sound that hangs in the middle of the frequency spectrum, but vinyl isn’t the best for albums a lot of electronic production. Hi-hats and deep bass can throw off the record player’s needle. For this kind of music, you’re better off listening to a high-quality digital recording.
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