Vinyl Makes a Comeback

By Rob Patterson

In 1982, when I was the staff writer at PolyGram Records, I penned the first press release for the American market announcing a new audio format: the compact disc. Developed by the label’s parent company Philips in conjunction with Sony, it was seen as an audiophile format and touted for its superior digital music reproduction qualities. Little did its developers or I know at the time how the CD would affect music sales within just a few years.

Ironically, at the same time, I was undergoing my own format shift from 12-inch vinyl albums to cassette. Living in New York City at the time, I did a lot of my music listening on my Walkman as I walked the Big Apple and rode the subways. Plus, as a music journalist, I was regularly sent advance copies of albums on what were nearly clean cassettes onto which I could record music in my vinyl collection. Cassettes were of lesser audio quality than albums, but certainly convenient.

By the mid-1990s, both vinyl and cassettes were decidedly on their way out as compact discs became the dominant format for music sales. But now, lo and behold, both formats are making a comeback as the CD declines.

Last year, 40% of all music sales were digital tracks sold online. Yet at the same time, vinyl albums enjoyed a 35% growth, according to Neilsen’s Soundscan measurement system, which doesn’t even track sales in small independent stores that sell a substantial amount of the resurgent vinyl format. The rebound of vinyl can also be observed at my local full-service record store here in Austin, Waterloo Records, whose vinyl racks have been expanding from some used collectible 12-inch long-players to bulging bins of new product on vinyl over the last few years.

At the same time, in the recording studio industry, analog recording to tape, which had been suffering a slide, has also bounced back, thanks to the richness of its sound quality. And old analog signal processing equipment — especially those with vacuum tubes — is also prized for the sonic warmth it brings to recorded music. Sure, advanced computerized recording programs that allow all sorts of correction and manipulation of music that was unavailable on analog (including the dreaded auto-tuning programs used in both studios and live performance that allow “singers” who can’t sing all that well to become viable artists and even stars) is an essential tool in music production. But savvy producers and engineers value the benefits of initially laying down music tracks on tape.

So even as the compact disc verges toward irrelevance in our increasingly digitized world, the values of analog are not just holding but making a nice resurgence. Part of the reason is how producers, mixers and engineers in the hit pop music market have stressed certain high-end tones to make their tracks stand out on radio, resulting in music that can sound brittle. But the main reason is, as the audiophiles the CD was aimed at prize, analog signals and vinyl records simply sound better, with fuller and richer fidelity.

Many of us who grew up with the packaging of the 12-inch record album continue to prize it — and sometimes I even have to use a magnifying class to read credits on CD covers and booklets — while younger listeners are also discovering the aural and visual merits of the vinyl album and its cardboard covers. This has spurred a surge in the used, vintage and collectible record market I see in the crop of small independent record stores focusing on vinyl that has blossomed in my very musical city of Austin in recent years.

And most recently cassettes have found a hip cachet in the indie rock world. They are also an easy and still cheap way for small, offbeat and cult artists to disseminate and sell physical music product. And can sound better even with the limited signal capacity of their quarter-inch tapes.

Sure, it’s not really back to the future. Digital music is here to stay for now (though I’ve come to learn that one never knows what future technology may bring). But it’s comforting to know that even in our brave new digital world, the old school merits of analog technology are not being lost in music, and are even making a comeback.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2010

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