Vinyl was supposed to be dead. A clunky, fragile and expensive medium, the format of pressing music and spoken word faded with the years as the 1980’s brought new, more effective technologies. In the 2010’s, though, a curious trend emerged: vinyl sales exploded in popularity. In 2019, vinyl outsold CD’s for the first time in 30 years.
The rapid resurgence of this decade’s old medium is due at least in part to a desire for a musical experience beyond that which the current landscape offers. The physical record offers a unique alternative to the increasingly digital predominance of music streaming.
The alternative that vinyl presents is threefold: first, many albums and songs are studio-mixed to specifically interact with vinyl. Whereas digital audio is largely mixed to be played through headphones in a confined, single-person space or on massive concert venue speakers, vinyl is designed to be played through smaller, in-home speakers in an intimate yet public setting. Vinyl is about ambiance: headphones don’t do justice to the soft crackle of the grooves and the echo of the notes off of apartment walls late at night. The medium offers a richness and warmth of sound that digital, for all its advantages, just doesn’t.
Vinyl is also about atmosphere. Dusty, cramped record stores offer infinite exploration. The turntable motor whirls and the speakers crackle before the record’s sound begins to drift through. Sifting through a shelf of records at home to pick out just the right sound for the moment is a genuinely enjoyable experience. The previously mentioned ambiance that vinyl-mixed records offer also play into this feeling, enhancing the richness of the atmosphere in which the record is spinning. At the risk of sounding like a baby boomer, there’s no scrolling, no screens and no distractions- just music in one of its most prolific forms.
The third alternative that vinyl provides is, unfortunately, elitism. In a perverse sense, vinyl is a method of music for musical elitists: only people who have an ear out for mixing and a desire to experience music in a more vibrant format will care to invest in it. And the investment is great- a high-quality turntable and speaker set could cost upwards of $400, with some sets being as much as $1000. Most records sell for anywhere from $15- $35. Apple Music and Spotify, where a user can listen to and download as much music as they want, is only $10 per month. Owning and expending a vinyl collection is a boast of both prosperity and a higher appreciation for culture and arts, or perhaps a certain quirkiness. I am not in this camp of vinyl die-hards, but I understand their stance.
Some of the best records to listen to, though, don’t require budget-breaking subwoofers. Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut record is one of the purest, most relaxing records I own. Maggie Roger’s “Heard it in a Past Life” is a beautiful, endlessly-replayable piece of indie pop. Songs on Mac DeMarco’s sleepy “This Old Dog” drift seamlessly between each other, crafting what feels like a single, 45-minute-long ballad.
Although I have almost 40 records in my personal collection, I am surprisingly picky when it comes to deciding what records I want. I prefer to stumble across the records I want to buy, rather than buying them online or going to a shop with the express intention of purchasing a specific album. Of course, it plays into the atmosphere of the medium.
My primary method of music is still digital streaming, so I most often pick out records based on albums that I already know and enjoy. Certain tunes and rhythms may sound better than others in the ambiance of vinyl, so I pay close attention to that. I maintain a list of albums that I keep my eye out for any time I’m in a record shop. But I rarely end up chipping away at that list. Instead, I get lost in some other record and end up picking up much more than I can realistically afford.
That is perhaps the fourth draw that vinyl offers: it is deeply addictive. Finding a record that you love tucked away in a hole-in-the-wall venue is a dopamine-soaking experience, and it draws me back for more. I love listening to a wide variety of sounds, genres and artists, many of which, like Drake and Travis Scott, might not at first seem congruent with the very classical method.
I am glad that I made the plunge to begin experiencing music through vinyl. In a world of fleeting digital downloads and month-to-month subscriptions, it is a new- and very, very old- experience to hold my music in my hands and feel it around me in a personal but shareable way. If the digital world of music is too flighty and overwhelming for you, the slow-paced ambiance of vinyl might be your home.