Vinyl Revival: A Brief History

by Jerome M. Hendricks

My dissertation explores the actions of intermediary firms in periods of rapid technological change. By asking how new developments in listening to and owning music have changed the music retail industry, I offer the independent record store as a case of such an intermediary. Through a longitudinal multimethod content analysis of media and industry documents, I consider the massive decline of music retail from 1992 to 2012. By investigating patterns of composition and understandings in the field, I argue that independent record stores exemplify the uneven, reciprocal processes of legitimation required to alter the meanings of goods and services, enable survival, and change markets. In order to properly situate my argument, it is necessary to consider the backdrop of circumstances in which these processes develop. The posts that follow are explanations of various important industry issues that provide the requisite backdrop. I invite any suggestions or comments on this exercise as it unfolds…

Part 1, Format Wars: Analog vs Digital

Because of the intermediary position that the independent record store occupies in the music industry, it made most sense to me to start with a discussion of the product. Specifically, I look at product format debates that threaten the viability of brick-and-mortar record stores. In purely economic terms, the purpose of independent record stores is to purchase product for resale and profit from price manipulation, providing immediacy, coordinating buyers and sellers, and guaranteeing quality (Spulber 1999). Yet retail spaces are often valued as sites of self-development (Miller 2006) and reflect an arena of social and economic interaction where continuous processes of qualifying and requalifying products determine what is evaluated as worthy or unworthy. This evaluation of product emerges from practical activities, including discourses within the store, between stores, and with audiences. The vinyl record serves as a physical manifestation of these qualification processes where a history of sounds, visuals, and rituals coalesce.

Technological developments in how we listen to and own music have rendered these processes, places, and products obsolete for many. And while the digital shift in the music industry has changed the choices of products and places to consume them, this is yet another stage in the evolution of music value. As early as 1922, the recording industry was attacking new technologies (at that time, we’re talking radio) for offering free music to would-be consumers. The recent revival of vinyl records is wedded to criticisms of the quality and experience of digital music technology; some legitimate, some less so. In the discussion that follows, I consider those qualifications that make the vinyl format valuable and the issues many fans have with digital replication. I find that the benefit independent stores might gain from this format war may have less to do with what product is “best” and more to do with challenging consumers to determine what they value in music.

The Quality of Vinyl Records

At the heart of any discussion of music formats will always be some debate over sound quality. As John Kunz, owner of Waterloo Records in Austin, TX, asserts in Record Store Days, “We have these wonderful analog listening devices on the sides of our heads that don’t want to hear zeroes and ones. They want sound waves, a human-size arc.” Indeed, the reproduction of sound waves etched on a vinyl record as opposed to the replicated sample of musical sound in digital recording is a reoccurring issue when discussing how recorded music should be heard. Vinyl reproduction is often credited with providing a level of dimension and realism to music missing in digital replication due to the rate at which the sampling takes place and the types of compression applied to the sounds. This intimacy and warmth is regularly extended to the discussion of imperfections caused by dust or damage over time that produce hisses and pops especially evident in silent or quiet moments on a vinyl record.

An aural analysis of vinyl recordings and their digital counterparts is beyond the scope of this work yet it is important to note that the issue of sound appears much more subjective than one might assume. In terms of the creation of sounds, many recording engineers prefer CDs because of the accuracy in which the format can replicate the original. In fact, in some cases, the warmth attributed to vinyl records is a slight distortion of the bass due to signal processing in the recording phase and the quality of the turntable being used. Moreover, due to digital recording hardware and software that is largely standard today, many new vinyl records are little more than a copy of a high quality CD. The advancements in digital recording have been significant since CDs surfaced in 1983, yet audiophiles remain convinced that with the proper sound system only vinyl records can create the illusion of live instrumentation. This suggests that a component of the sound quality argument may have less to do with the production of the music than it does with its consumption.

Accordingly, I find that in most debate over music format the road eventually leads to the practice of vinyl record consumption. Many argue that in the shift to digital products, music lost some of its romance. People simply did not interact with CDs the way they did with vinyl records. Much of the intimacy discussed above can be attributed to the ritual of putting on a new record, vetting the musical statement of the artist(s), and exploring the object itself. As artist Sammy James Jr. of the rock band Mooney Suzuki once stated, “rock ‘n’ roll needs to be seen, touched, smelled, and tasted just as much as heard. I want to unroll the poster, open the gatefold, explore the cover art and the liner notes.” This practice exemplifies what Beckert (2010) describes as an imaginative bridge to the transcendental. The intersection of sound, imagery, and feel in the vinyl record ritual produces a social and contextual link to the artist(s). Such an imaginative link allows the consumer to “participate” in the artist’s style, statement, protest, humor, creativity, and so on.

The Digital Shift: Why do CD’s get such a hard time?

As Mark Richardson, Editor-in-Chief of Pitchfork, wrote in a 2013 Op-Ed piece, over time the disdain for poor mp3 sound quality has been translated into a generalized opinion about digital audio that isn’t entirely accurate. In fact, when CDs hit the market in 1983, their main selling points were not much different than when vinyl LPs replaced shellac records; they offered longer playing time and better sound quality. CDs are seventy-four minutes long thus surpassing original LPs by around 30 minutes. This eliminated the need to “flip sides” and offered new, novel control through skipping or randomizing the tracks on the disk. Perhaps more importantly, CDs offered a range of 96 decibels while LPs were only 70 which provided more volume from recordings. In addition, digital replication made silence completely silent; an impressive dynamic for music consumers use to the hiss and pops of vinyl records. According to Travis Elborough in his book, The Vinyl Countdown, by the end of the 1980s, widespread consensus was that the striking, rigid precision of digital replication did sound better and perhaps much of that was because of the newness of the technology and the dynamics of the sound.

While Elborough argues that this extreme clarity came with an overall lack of warmth to the sound where “everything appeared a little clinical”, it is important to note that many early CDs were recordings made for vinyl. And rather than remastering these works for a digital medium, record companies chose to release products that fell short of the full potential of the format. Regardless, for the vinyl record fan, the physical presentation itself could never match the appeal of the LP sleeve. While the CD artwork was the same, it was reduced to a booklet the size of a postcard and the plastic cases cracked and scratched easily. What is more, the digital format made the artist’s work one continuous whole thus rendering the consumer’s engagement with the original sequence of a piece less meaningful. As record companies began to include bonus tracks or “b-sides” to add value to products consumers may have already had on vinyl, the integrity of the artists’ expression was further devalued. In many respects, CDs get a hard time because they ushered in a new form of music consumption. They carried on a tradition of convenience rooted in the cassette revolution of the late 1970s and early 1980s while establishing a new level of luxury and modernity appealing to conspicuous consumption.

Despite the criticism CDs received, by the end of the 1980s sales were skyrocketing and most companies stopped production of vinyl records altogether by the early 1990s. Around this same time, there was an increasing commercial interest in compressing media files for various purposes like sending digital sound files over phone lines or fitting video files on CD-ROM disks. In 1988, the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) was commissioned to evaluate various digitization procedures and standardize industry coding practices. Through a series of tests performed with professional engineers, audio companies, and radio stations, the MPEG team standardized a digital audio format that conformed quite well to the music industry standards of the time. The result of this work was the MPEG Audio Layer III; the MP3. By 1993, the MPEG team introduced the “.mp3” file extension in commercial applications that coded and decoded audio for internet transfer.

As Johnathan Stern details in his book, MP3: The Meaning of a Format, the work of MPEG set in motion a series of critiques that have contributed significantly to the debate over formats we find today. First, a major innovation in their work was layering the digital sounds based on a psycho-acoustic approach that exploits the limitations of human hearing. Often referred to as masking, this approach gave the MPEG team the flexibility to discard sounds people don’t hear and embellish those they do. Thus by further compression of what were now smaller data files, the MP3 standard enabled efficient file sharing via the internet despite significant decrease in the overall sonic quality. Second, these new coding practices were tested on popular music by industry experts. Or, as Stern argues, a small group of audio engineers have ultimately determined what a good recording should sound like. Thus in addition to issues of sound quality, these audio data files were diluted further by catering to specific popular styles of music recording and mastering.

Despite their limitations and clear lack of sound quality, the brief history of the MP3 has proven that in many respects, people simply do not care. In some sense, the rise of the MP3 is yet another pivotal moment in a history peppered with conflict over the commodification of an art form. Since the early 1920’s, the music industry has been in an ongoing battle with radio, illegal distributors, bootleggers, pirates, and so on over property rights and profit. Technological advancements such as the cassette tape decks, CD burning drives, and file sharing applications continue to make it easier and easier to share music. When the free (or inexpensive) MP3 became readily available through websites like Napster and later iTunes, it is no surprise that consumers chose this format over an $18 CD. In addition, the MP3 and its associated tools have provided unprecedented convenience and closeness to music. Since the advent of the Walkman in 1979, the social demand for having our music with us has exploded. While this closeness may not resemble the intimacy some find in a vinyl record listening ritual, it can certainly change a dreadful commute. And while a renewed passion for vinyl records continues to rise, perhaps the debate over format is ultimately an issue of consumption practices.

An Issue of Value and Music

Briefly speaking from personal experience, here are a few things my appreciation for vinyl records never stopped me from doing: 1) taping music off the radio when I was a kid, 2) making mixed tapes (and later on mixed CDs) for friends, free of charge, 3) blasting rock music in my car everywhere I went as a youth (difficult to do with vinyl), 4) buying a Walkman, Discman, an MP3 player, and now using a smartphone to carry music with me… everywhere, and 5) using Napster. As the legendary DJ, Bill Brewster said in the book, Old Rare New, “Bottom line is, I collect music – not formats – so while it’s sad, there has never been a better and more accessible time for music.” But is it sad that music has become more accessible? Hasn’t accessibility been a major goal since the beginning of recorded music? Clearly, the issue for the independent record store is maintaining a space for vinyl records as a special “method of access” to the artists we cherish. This niche seems sustainable for the collectors as an antique or collectible item. Yet new and reissued albums are reaching $25 or more and independent record stores must consider how the value of the vinyl record ritual will be perceived by the broader music-consuming fan base? Is there a point where it simply isn’t worth the price? Are we already there?

The poor quality of an MP3 doesn’t sound any worse than those overdubbed tapes I used to pull songs off the radio or share something with friends. But sound quality wasn’t the point; we were looking for a convenient way to access the artists we loved despite limited resources. The digital shift in music is a series of innovations that champion convenience and access while rarely including a sound quality discourse in its equation (I reserve the right to abridge this statement as streaming services become more sophisticated). While these innovations have significantly disrupted the unprecedented financial growth of the recording industry, to suggest the value of music has never been lower is simply untrue. Its market value may be at its lowest levels in decades but the value of music has never been higher. Look no further than vinyl records with free download links. These products give the consumer the sexiness of vinyl records as an object, the intimacy and warmth of the vinyl record ritual, and the portability of a digital format. In this format, music need not be worthy only in certain circumstances. We don’t need to adhere to an either/or debate when both/and is available.

In the award winning documentary, I Need That Record, Chris Ashworth, CEO of United Record Press states, “Vinyl requires that you sit down and listen to the music. MP3 players basically give you the optimal portability… Now what [consumers are] doing is saying, ‘Ok, I’ve got my portability. I’ve got my quantity. Now I want my quality… give me the listening experience.’” Perhaps the digital shift has renewed a desire for a music quality lost in the compressed precision of digital replication; an intimacy and warmth to ones music of choice. I am hopeful that the independent record store can continue their impressive survival story through products like those that offer both analog and digital formats. However, as Ashworth implies the value of music lies in the interconnection of the object and the practice and this is evident throughout the debate over analog and digital formats. Far from arguing that the sound quality issue is irrelevant (because MP3s can sound quite awful) what seems more important in the format wars is that we acknowledge the practices we find valuable and appreciate their role in our relationship with music.

Sources

Beckert, Jens. 2011. “The Transcending Power of Goods: Imaginative Value in the Economy.” Pp. 106-125 in The Worth of Goods, edited by J. Beckert and P. Aspers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Calamar, Gary, and Phil Gallo. 2010. Record Store Days: From Vinyl to Digital and Back Again. Sterling.

Elborough, Travis. 2009. The Vinyl Countdown: The Album from LP to iPod and Back Again. Soft Skull Press.

Miller, Laura J. 2006. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. University of Chicago Press.

The MP3: A History Of Innovation And Betrayal.” 2014. NPR.org. Accessed June 26. http://www.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2011/03/23/134622940/the-mp3-a-history-of-innovation-and-betrayal.

Pettit, Emma. 2008. Old Rare New: The Independent Record Shop. Black Dog Publishing.

Richardson, Mark, July 29, and 2013 at 11:30 A.m. 2014. “Does Vinyl Really Sound Better?” Pitchfork. Accessed June 26. http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/29-vinyl-records-and-digital-audio/.

Rose, Joel. 2014. “For Better Or Worse, MP3s Are The Format Of Choice.” NPR.org. Accessed June 26. http://www.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2011/03/18/134598010/for-better-or-worse-mp3s-are-the-format-of-choice.

Spulber, Daniel F. 1999. Market Microstructure: Intermediaries and the Theory of the Firm. Cambridge University Press.

Sterne, Johnathan. 2012. MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Duke University Press.

Talk of the Nation. 2014. “Why Vinyl Sounds Better Than CD, Or Not.” NPR.org. Accessed June 26. http://www.npr.org/2012/02/10/146697658/why-vinyl-sounds-better-than-cd-or-not.

Toller, Brendan. 2008. I Need That Record! The Death (or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store. Documentary, Music.

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