Will the vinyl record revival last…for real? I will preface this article with some of my thoughts on the two formats in question; which include both a great digital and analog rig in my setup of which I enjoy both. Currently, I am in the middle of a review of the Darlington Moving Coil step-up head amp as I write this post.
Not having a distinct dog in this fight, I see each format as a capable one that has its distinct place within this hobby. What I am much more concerned with is the in-studio mixing and mastering for this in itself can yield the best-sounding results whether it be analog or digital as your choice of playback formats. (Glad to get that off my chest!)
Nostalgia is a hell of a thing. Through the years people have spent millions of dollars on things just to bring back a certain time in life. Over the last few decades, I have seen absurd amounts of money paid for classic cars or rock-in-roll items like guitars played by a certain musician. Are these items better than their contemporary counterparts? Not a chance but for the people buying them they don’t care. They represent a time in history or a feeling that these new owners get out of owning such items.
The allure of vinyl records is surrounded by a combination of nostalgia, perceived or prescribed sound quality improvements, and owning a tangible piece of music history.
For this essay, I plan to dissect the vinyl revival to see why it is that people are now obsessed with a music reproduction format that in many ways does not fit our new digital lifestyles and theoretically is somewhat outdated. More importantly, will this revamped interest in vinyl survive the test of time and outlive people’s short attention spans and quick-changing ideals today?
The data table shown above shows that vinyl has been on a sales incline. They show sales figures of around 600,000 in 2017 to around 41 million in 2021 with sales still on the rise 21.7% in 2023 compared to last year. This data does not separate new or used vinyl nor does it classify how sales of collector’s item records play into these sales. According to my research used record sales are around 1.5 times that of new records purchases based on 2021 numbers.
While a lot of analysts are surprised by these sales figures there have been numerous ideas as to why, as I have some ideas of my own as to why this is happening
If you look at the age demographic for record sales things get even more complicated. I can understand the 55+ people that have either reinterred the market for vinyl or never stopped buying it. People in this age group no doubt grew up listening to vinyl and there are quite a few people in this age group that like the manual operation of putting the record on the table and playing away, with no computer, phone, app, or other software-based playback . I have been my family’s technical support guru for years so I know software complications are frustrating for some in this age group.
The graph also shows that people ages 35-44 and 45-54 are about the same in the number of records purchased.! This age group was around as computers came into the fold and started to become a daily part of our lives. But folks in this age category have no quibbles about saying they could live their lives without this technology. There are a lot of people here who have both digital and analog playback in their systems and love both for different reasons.
The 18-24-year-old demographic is a little harder to get to the bottom of. Having visited several record stores over the last couple of years I asked young adults why vinyl is important to them. In my talks with these age groups, I get a multitude of answers. Most of these young adults grew up in a download or streaming world where owning a tangible CD or record just wasn’t that practical to them in their on-the-go smartphone worlds. But something changed when this demographic made it to adulthood.
Some of these young adults buy the records as more of a tangible memorabilia and never play the records! To them, it is a poster with something in it. But to my surprise, there are some very knowledgeable people in this age group on turntables and record playback. I have had some of my best talks about cartridges, turntable types, and phono amplification with people in this group.
Looking at the chart above it is clear to see that this “Vinyl Revival” is in reality just a fraction of what vinyl sales were in their glory days. I wanted to add this as a reality check to show that even though vinyl sales are strong today compared to the 90s and early 2000’s it does not hold a candle to vinyl sales in the hi-fi heyday of the 60s and 70s.
This makes sense as almost every homeowner or apartment dweller had a stereo system back then. I’m sorry if I sound like a broken record(pun intended!) but back then people didn’t have devices like we do now. There weren’t smartphones, computers in homes, CD players, DACs, streamers, or any of the other conveniences that we take for granted today.
People today that are not involved in our hobby generally have their music listening covered by their car stereos and mobile devices via Bluetooth headphones and are quite happy with that. The people buying vinyl today are either audiophiles, music collectors, or kids wanting a blast from the past or something to hang on their walls. The reality is that no matter how much is talked about vinyl going through a revival the numbers prove that the glory days are over, there are just too many good options. In fact, with streaming and digital-to-analog technology getting better and better it will be interesting to see how strong and how long this vinyl sales uptilt will continue.
What are the reasons for increased vinyl sales?
Well, there are multiple reasons for this increase in the sales of vinyl. The shift in younger adults wanting something to own that is tangible is one of the big reasons for sure. But what about the sound?
In my opinion, the record companies should take some of the blame for the shift. When the CD came into its own in the 90s (after years of audio engineers figuring out how to get the most out of this new format) the audio engineers noticed the kind of dynamic range they could get on this format.
With this finding the record companies barged in like a moose on drugs and instead of using this newly found super clean dynamic range to make the music sound better and more realistic they told the engineers to squash the dynamics down using compression and then raise this compressed music to the clipping point! The result? Music that sounded like hell with digital clipping and over-saturated sound all over the place. Anyone with a good to great sound system was forced to listen to music that even at low volumes sounded like a clipped signal! All because the record companies had to be the loudest on the radio!
Well, one of the limitations of record playback just happens to be a much lower dynamic range along with overall peak level limitations compared to CDs or digital. This limitation forced the record company’s hand on the overall loudness of the record releases much like the levels before digital. The last thing they wanted was to have record returns because their records were shooting styluses off the record!
I have heard many of these younger adults tell me that they buy records a lot of times because they sound less stressed and overloaded. I just tell them that they are probably right but not to expect huge overall quality differences in some cases. Record companies are money first sound later, this is just the way it is. I would tell them that there are some new records out that sound just as squashed and compressed only quieter! (This is not always the case as there are some good-sounding versions of new alums out there on vinyl).
Nostalgia just is another motivator that must be discussed because it is a driver of sales but also the weakest in sustainability of all the reasons listed Imo. Right now, people are struggling with things like getting over the Pandemic, The housing crisis and home prices, and costs of goods and services through the roof, and when times are stressful or hard we as humans always seem to think of a simpler time, it’s fashioned into our lives to do so.
For a lot of the record-buying public when they think of these earlier times they go back to their teenage years (I know I do!). So these people get home from a long day at work dealing with today’s workplaces, driving their overly computerized car home, dealing with food prices as they go by the store, all while trying to talk and text at the same time on their phone!
When they get home, they simply want to go in and sit down and put on a simple-to-play record and go back to those simpler times. Sounds great doesn’t it? But the main issue with this reason for record purchasing is that these same people are aging and the people replacing them on the nostalgia train grew up with digital music on CD or download. I have already heard the winds of a CD resurgence in the making. And to put that into the perspective of use the CD is just easier to play, easier to care for, and less upkeep on equipment compared to turntables. The turntable isn’t going anywhere anytime soon but its place as king of the audiophile kingdom will not last forever.
The other motivator in record sales is supporting the artists. Streaming does not pay enough to the artist as of right now so the artist is forced to do long tours selling tickets for their income. The addition of record sales helps these artists live and keep making the music they love. This has gotten bad enough that the public is noticing and choosing to buy the vinyl copy even if they do not have a turntable at this point in time.
The example above shows just how pathetic the pay structure is around music streaming. While some are better than others the truth is the performers can’t count on streaming revenue to live on! Many fellow audiophiles will admit they stream music and when they find something they love they buy it on vinyl; if it is available. This helps give the artist a real paycheck they need.
The final reason I will discuss here is the fact that the vinyl resurgence started right about the time that lossless music streaming just started to take off. I believe a lot of people got fed up with the limited sound quality of MP3 streaming and intermittent playback issues in the days of slower internet speeds. Looking at the graph above 2019 was the first year when vinyl sales almost doubled over 2018. Ironically 2019 is when Qobuz came to the US and Tidal was pushing MQA and lossless CD-quality music.
In my opinion, this is an important timeline because after years of very bad-sounding MP3 streaming people woke up to the fact that there was a format that offered better quality, had a hands-on quality about it that was different and cool, and made people cherish each album more than a stream could. While the good ole CD offers both lossless audio and tangible ownership people chose vinyl.
While all of these different reasons might not be the sole cause but working together, they have made owning a vinyl album a compelling change. Taking each day slower while enjoying family and leisure activities more was icing on the cake for this vinyl revolution. Gratefully, we have choices when it comes to our music reproduction and all of them can deliver an exhilarating realistic experience if everyone involved does their part.
There are undoubtedly, some truths about formats that need to be understood.The first thing is that there is an almost obsessive-compulsive amount of concern for the most minute-of-spec differences when it comes to equipment.
When I sold high-end audio in the 90’s you would be surprised how many times customers would choose one product over the other just because one had a very minute amount of lower distortion on paper. I sold turntables to customers that they chose just because the signal-to-noise ratio was just slightly higher. Paying attention to the specifications is important but should not be something that stresses you out.
The fact is on numbers alone digital beats vinyl for sure in dynamic range, distortion, no disturbing pops and clicks, scratches and almost inaudible noise. These are some large differences but studios should start taking advantage of these differences to make better-sounding recordings instead of butchering recordings for profit. I have heard both digital and analog rigs over the years that are both earth-shatteringly good and would impress anyone.I think it would benefit many music lovers and audiophiles if they either took a class or at least got to see the workings of a music studio just to see everything that goes into it. This would help that overwhelming compulsion to worry about every spec on a product.
When music is made in the studio the first step from the microphone itself is the microphone preamp. This one signal-amplifying device in the chain possibly puts out more distortion than the figures obsessed over. When music is produced in the studio there are a lot of microphones, amplifiers, effects, and mixing channels. All of this can change or add minute distortion to the music. With all of these steps and the possible manipulation of the music, the chance of you purchasing a record or digital download (stream) and having it sound just like the band in that room is virtually impossible! Studios working with music in the digital domain improve noise and distortion but some artists still use analog.
The unfortunate truth to this is that we music-loving audiophiles are in the minority. The studios don’t mix and master albums for us! They are mixed and mastered with cheap earbuds and factory car audio systems in mind. If they sound halfway decent in those environments the record company is happy. It costs money and time to mix and master an album to sound good.
The record company wants it as loud as possible and as cheap as possible. They want just good enough to sell millions of copies but be cheap enough to produce to make the largest profit. There are exceptions of course and studios like Blue Note and Octave Studios are bucking this trend albeit at a very small scale in comparison.
Once I realized these truths I had to rethink music reproduction completely. It made me sad that producing albums has become the cheap production line that it is today, but it also lowered my anxiety! We as audiophiles are a small part of the music-buying public so we don’t have the pull we need to get the record labels to change their ways. All we can do is build systems that allow these recordings to sound the best they possibly can (and people wonder why older jazz recordings are played at audio shows). Buy competently designed equipment that you can afford and sounds good to you.
Using the information above you quickly realize that the choices engineers make in the studio are much more important than the delivery format. I have examples of great recordings that sound great on both vinyl and digital. The reason why is simple. Competence in the studio and making the recording for the love of the music will result in good sound whether streaming or spinning a plastic disc!
It seems quite obvious that the straw that breaks the camel’s back on vinyl sales in the future could be price. While wealthy die-hard audiophiles will keep on spending crazy money on records the public at large has its limits. With supply chain shortages in abundance, manufacturers have struggled to keep up with the demand for vinyl records.
Between these limitations, and the inherit higher cost to produce records due to the need for pressing plants (which are few and far between) and labor, records will always be higher priced than their digital counterparts. But the upward tilt in demand over the years since around 2017 has allowed record labels to once again bare their greedy fangs.
Just this year alone the price of vinyl records has risen in some cases by 30% making the barrier to entry to getting into record playback even harder for young audiophiles. To add insult to injury, the cost of turntables has gone up as well. While there are turntables out there for around $200 and up, to get the most from the format you will have to spend more. The fact that most turntable manufacturers only design full adjustability into their upper-range tables makes things even worse.
Most tables under $1,000 come with a cartridge and while it might be a fine cartridge– if you choose to upgrade, things get complex quickly. Most companies will design these tables to work with the stock cartridge setting the tonearm height at the factory for that line of cartridges. If the owner chooses to move to another brand of cartridge they have to worry if the table will be compatible as most of these affordable tables do not have vertical tracking angle adjustments on them to set the cartridge up correctly. Most of the people buying this level of turntable could quickly become confused and let down by their vinyl experience. I have seen for myself people getting into vinyl playback only to abandon it when they find out the cost and complexity involved.
Even with shortages in supplies and the seemingly ever-increasing prices of vinyl records there still will be people that love vinyl for its perceived sound characteristics and hands-on approach to playback. Audiophiles that take a vinyl-only approach will be lifelong customers of vinyl and will likely never change.
The big question is whether the growing number of young audiophiles and music lovers will stay with this vinyl trend or abandon it once the dust has settled and the fad is over. In my travels to audio shows and music stores, I have seen very passionate young music lovers wax on almost poetically about vinyl and its traits.
But I know that with all the options for entertainment today when it comes to music or video streaming keeping dedicated to one format is difficult. With the monthly price of streaming being a fraction of the price of one new record in today’s prices, I could see people eventually turning their backs on the format.
I understand that using an inflation calculator will show that the higher prices of vinyl records aren’t that bad in comparison to years before, but that is not the point. Back then there were very few options other than vinyl if you wanted the best audio quality. In today’s world, the options are plenty. If these prices continue to climb I could see a time when even some die-hard audiophiles will tire of the price hikes and move on.
In the end, it will all depend on how dedicated the music-consuming public will be to vinyl playback. Will they continue to spend more money on their music to ensure the artists get paid? As good as digital music playback is today will they continue to support an older format that on paper has limitations in comparison? Will they tire of the record cleaning and turntable maintenance required for proper playback?
If both formats are treated correctly to give the best performance they can both will ultimately be rewarding and sound fantastic. It is an interesting time to be a music-loving audiophile!!
WHERE the MUSIC BEAT meets the AUDIOPHILE ELITE !
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