If you’re over the age of 24, you probably had a Walkman as a kid. And if you’re a bit older than that, you may also have had a VCR or tape player. Or maybe you had records, or you remember your parents having a record player on display or, more likely, tucked into the back of the basement closet. But no matter what media you consumed, we all have the common ground of knowing physical relics that no longer exist — or, that are no longer in regular societal use.
We live day-to-day with a nagging urge that what we have is not quite enough.
Advertisements shout at us everywhere we go, telling us of the next greatest thing we need to improve our lives, our happiness, and our wellbeing. A new iPhone comes out pretty much every year, with only slight upgrades, yet everyone still wants it because it’s new. In the past forty years, vinyl records were promptly overtaken by Sony’s compact disc (CD), only to have the physical aspect of music consumption taken away through the intangible age of digital streaming.
Now, in the last decade or so, vinyl sales are rising again. They may not be soaring as they did in the 20th century, but their sales have been increasing steadily since 2008, and 2020 marked the first year in about four decades that vinyl sales were higher than those of CDs.
The question stands: why are vinyl records becoming popular again, in an age of digital media? We can listen to all the music we like from across the globe with a simple tap on our phone screens, carrying hundreds of thousands of albums around with us in our pockets. And yet, there is a clear resurgence in vinyl, and physical forms of media consumption, in recent years. Why is our society slowly reaching back in time to previous methods of music recording and consumption, when the future is at our fingertips?
The vinyl record player dates back to the nineteenth century, when Emile Berliner patented the gramophone. This original version of what we know as the record player used rubber discs in the early 1900s, which later evolved into a synthetic plastic, or polyvinyl chloride. In many ways, vinyl and record players in this age were seen as revolutionary; both in the ability to play and listen to recorded music, allowing for a greater breadth of cultural consumption, and in the capacity to expand physical products. The use of synthetic plastic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflects a desire to create new products and improve upon existing aspects of consumer society. It expresses a captivation with innovation, both scientific and artistic. At the time of vinyl’s creation, it was seen as modern and original, but of course to us now, it seems dated and imperfect in many ways. Perhaps this can be tied into our yearning for our roots, for something that once held so much import in the modern world, building a sense of nostalgia decades later.
But this early interest in expanding physical consumerism with plastics also shows how modern creativity and innovation can create long-term negative effects. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, synthetic plastics were unlike any other products, and considered a priority in revolutionizing modern society for the better. Now, as we continue to learn, synthetic plastics are heading towards being a leading source in carbon emissions, and annually contribute “to around 13.4 million tonnes of CO2” in the EU. It is important to acknowledge how humanity’s previous decisions on furthering consumerism in media have affected our lives today — both from a cultural point of view (with easier access to musical recordings), and from an ethical one (with climate change effects). The pros and cons of vinyl and record players have created clear connections within our society; and if one of the principal motivations for vinyl resurgence includes community connection, we should also assemble our efforts of community to make nostalgic music experiences globally ethical.
Thinking about records in opposition to streaming platforms or CDs, a stereotype of music snobbery comes to mind. It seems familiar to think of owning records as a version of musical and cultural elitism, expressing the opinion that we’ve all heard before: vinyl simply sounds better. There are certainly aural differences between the two that disclose more obvious reasons to prefer one over the other; vinyl has a lower dynamic range than digital recording, which means the former’s recordings are often quieter in volume, as any recording that is “too loud” can affect the disc. For some, this may feel limiting, since digital allows for a greater range of dynamics, but others may see this as an advantage, and find a quieter sound less abrasive. Another distinct audible difference between vinyl and digital is its clarity – vinyl recordings tend to pick up ‘background sounds,’ which can be described as adding warmth to the sound, and a sensation of feeling closer to the musicians who are recording. Digital recordings have clearer audio quality, without the crackles or distortion found in vinyl recordings. Digital and vinyl recordings do sound different, but preference of one over the other is just that — a preference, subjective to the individual.
The return to vinyl also seems to mark a romanticization returning to the ‘origins’ of musical creation and consumption, mainly surrounding the action of listening to a vinyl record compared to listening to an album — or perhaps what’s more likely, just a song or two on a streaming site. Charlie Randall of McIntosh Labs, an audio manufacturing company, says “[…] it’s natural for any generation to think that the technology of their time will be replaced by future technology and go extinct.” The physicality of the vinyl — listening to music on a tangible disc, with elements of the musicians’ natural lives embedded into the ‘scratchy’ sounds of the recording — have a certain appeal. Listening to music through a screen (accessed by a simple tap of the finger) can seem inauthentic, unnatural, abstract. With vinyl, the listener must purchase the record. They have to consider which albums and songs they want to own; they can hold the album and admire (or even display) its artwork, designed specifically for that album and its listening experience; there are often notes accompanying an album exclusive to the vinyl, that offer insight information on the artists, the recording, and the meaning and story of the music itself; and the sound of the music has a distinct, unrefined quality to it that humanizes the musicians and their work. And because a vinyl record is tangible, it “can be displayed, gifted, shared, traded, and passed down through generations,” offering a greater sense of longevity and legacy to the art form.
There is also the story of the music (and its recording) that the artists intended to tell. By listening to a record, one absorbs the music in the order that it was curated, or even recorded, onto the vinyl disc. The experience of listening to an album in full can feel like a connection to the musicians, as one is consuming the album how the its creators intended it to be heard. And, as Charlie Randall expressed, modern technology is always pressing forward and evolving; Although we are all ‘connected’ through our phones and social media, we can often feel disconnected from people, from the human experiences that evoke feelings of community and common understanding. With the global pandemic of COVID-19, we have found ourselves disconnected from other humans on, for many, a deeply intolerable level. Vinyl has offered a path to connect with others through music, and way to feel linked with others in a time when physical bonding is still limited.
In a time of isolation, with the desire for connection comes a desire to build rituals. As Casper ter Kuile writes in his book, The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices, our current “absence of community” has pushed us to “rethink what it means for something to be sacred,” and find rituals or spirituality in simple, daily practices, particularly ones we already do. With religious traditions as an initial baseline, ter Kuile outlines how “we can find ourselves in the emerging story of what it means to live deeply connected [… through] collectively form[ing] our contemporary spiritual life.” He describes how we’re all already performing little daily rituals, but offers ways to make them truly ritualistic, spiritual, and even sacred. For many of us, vinyl records play a similarly ritualistic role. Our hyper-focus on productivity, consumerism, and media engagement, makes us constantly feel the need to be exposed to the ‘outside world.’ Listening to a vinyl record is a process that, in a way, takes planning and time — to choose and buy records, to acquire a record player, and (perhaps the most crucial part), to listen to the album in full, beginning to end, rather than just selecting a song on a playlist or shuffling an artist’s top hits. The physicality of the vinyl itself adds to the ritual — not only does one purchase the physical copy of the recording, but to listen to it one must take it out of the sleeve, place it into the record player and adjust the needle to the correct spot on the disc. The way we engage with the music, the practice of listening to it, becomes significant. In a way, vinyl forces listeners to “slow down” and appreciate the music itself through the recording, as well as the efforts that go into putting the record together for this experience. It also requires focus, as opposed to listening to music in the background as we complete our daily tasks. As Avery Hurt writes, musical consumption today is “so easy and commonplace that its value has been diminished,” and the ritual of listening to vinyl offers a sense of meaning once again to this practice and artform. Although it may not always feel like we are busying around in a tech-focused world (you may even think you do pay great attention to the music you listen to, and set aside time for) what is important here is that we are turning towards practices that are familiar to us, and giving them greater significance through dedicated focus and time. Vinyl records happen to present an entry point into these rituals of sacredness or reflective engagement, perhaps nodding towards their increased popularity of late.
In the end, there is no single reason why vinyl is resurging again, after several decades of gathering dust in the wake of digital recording and streaming services. But this resurgence does show that we feel an innate need to look back to our roots, to seek a sense of nostalgia. We are inclined to reflect on our history, and appreciate both change in media consumption, and artistic differences and practices that are evident through music consumption and discussing aural preferences. By turning back to vinyl records, our physical connection to art is invoked; we seize those feelings of connection and community. In many ways, the global COVID-19 pandemic has heightened this desire for nostalgia and connection. There are many details that go into the vinyl resurgence that can both join us together in community, but also create individual, and thus unique, experiences for listeners; aural and spiritual elements of connection being some examples, but also ethical elements, such as vinyl’s physical effect on the environment. While vinyl brings us together in nostalgia, preferences for music consumption are, ultimately, individual.
Perhaps we should be considering the distinctive and wide-ranging effects of our media consumption, as it evolves to combine previous methods (like vinyl) with forward-looking digital systems. We’ve already asked ourselves why vinyl is resurging; but maybe we should be asking why vinyl (and its many layers of impact) is important — and, ultimately, what effect it will have on us and our world.
Why is our society slowly reaching back in time to previous methods of music recording and consumption, when the future is at our fingertips?