During the mid-2000s, the advanced technology of the time, such as CDs and MP3 players, were on the rise. However, the fate of the vinyl record was not looking good. At the time, the prediction was that long-playing records (LPs) — or vinyl records — would become a nostalgic antique for Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers due to the appeal of newer technology. The sale of LPs continued to decline from the mid-2000s until 2014 when, according to ratings from Nielsen and Soundscan, roughly 9.2 million vinyl records were sold. Overall, 2014 saw vinyl sales grow by 52%, as record companies started releasing more music on vinyl. Ultimately, this trend made the music industry rethink the future of record production.
In 2020, LP sales surpassed CD sales for the first time in more than a generation. According to the Recording Industry of America’s annual year-end revenue report, LP sales increased by 23.6% between 2019-20. CDs saw a 33.6% decrease in units shipped at the same time and digital subscriptions and streaming saw a 13.4% increase. Meanwhile, permanent downloads, such as songs from iTunes, had an 18% decrease.
My childhood of listening to LPs gave me a sense of intimacy to the music that digital streaming services failed to deliver, and, ultimately, shaped my music taste. When I am driving and listening to music from my Forester’s outdated speaker system, the music is less meaningful than a spinning black disc complemented with the crackling sound.
Collecting LPs is also nostalgic for me, from listening to my mom’s 1970 copy of The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” to finding “Ladies of the Canyon” by Joni Mitchell at the local thrift store. During the holiday season, I would dig out my dusty copy of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain Christmas” from my closet. Now, when my friends come over, we listen to Sufjan Stevens’ melancholic discography while playing Cards Against Humanity. The experience of listening to vinyl is arguably a slower, yet more memorable way of listening to music in our fast-paced world.
“The more corporate things started to feel, the more of holding the actual record in your hand is a lot more personal,” Mason Kirkpatrick ’21, vinyl enthusiast and general manager of the student-run radio station KLC, said. “You also get all the extra artwork and there is more of an experience with vinyl.”
Kirkpatrick also mentioned that Record Store Day may be one of the reasons for the rise in the popularity of vinyl. The annual global Record Store Day event began in 2007 and occurs on a random Saturday in the month of April and every Black Friday in November. The event intends to “celebrate the culture of the independently owned record store.” Record Store Day promotes purchases from local record businesses, not corporations. In 2013, the event was credited for the highest record sales in the United States. The 2014 event resulted in independent retailers recording the highest percentage of physical album sales. Marc Fayd’Herbe, the sales manager of Universal Music, claims that Record Store Day is “the single best thing that has ever happened” for independent record shops. This year, two Record Store Days will take place on June 12 and July 17.
Kirkpatrick also suggests that Spotify and other music streaming services’ recent scrutiny for unfair business practices is a driving force for the digital to vinyl transition. Music streaming services have received criticism for their lack of transparency on how they pay artists. Most notably, Spotify’s official shareholder document revealed that 43,000 creators constitute 90% of the streams, despite its base of 3 million creators. Even among its top creators, Spotify does not ensure a decent wage. For instance, last year, English classical violinist Tasmin Little disclosed her income of £12.34 ($17) for 5 to 6 million streams. Spotify also consistently takes 30% of all revenue earned on its platform. A subscription to a streaming service may be a more economical option, yet buying a record or other merchandise is a more direct gesture to support the creator.
“Buying directly from an artist, the margins of that are pretty great,” Kirkpatrick said. “You are better supporting the artist by buying the physical copies of their records than streaming it online.”
The way we have listened to music has transformed over the years. Decades ago, we were excited to have music become transportable. Today, we hear music almost anywhere, whether it be at the gym, the coffee shop or the car.
No matter the prevalence of digital music, LPs have had a recent appeal to younger generations and continuous admiration from older music aficionados. For most vinyl enthusiasts, there is something fascinating about opening up a large album complemented with unique artwork. For others, they may just be attracted to the idea of reviving an antiquated listening medium. Vinyl aficionados, like myself, want music to remain meaningful in the digital age.