Chances are, you’re one of the 77% of Americans who owns a smartphone.  And it’s highly likely your device includes Spotify, Apple Music, or TIDAL.  If you’re into the indie scene, you’ve probably got Hype Machine, SoundCloud, or Bandcamp in there somewhere as well. 


Streaming is singlehandedly saving the music industry.  More than half of its 2016 revenue came from subscription services like Apple Music and Spotify.  And also thanks to streaming, the music business has seen positive increases for the first time since 1999.  With millions of songs at your fingertips, there’s never been a better time to be a music lover.  But the biggest story in music isn’t about swiping open the newest app.  It’s about what you can hold in your hands, slide in and out of an album sleeve, and play with a needle.  That’s right—vinyl is making a comeback.


Forbes predicts that vinyl records will sell upwards of 40 million units this year alone.  That could equal $1 billion in sales—something the U.S. hasn’t seen since the 1980s.  While that figure is impressive, it signals the rise of a music counterculture.


Why, in an era that’s seen the total disruption of the traditional music industry, would listeners forgo convenience to buy physical records and turntables? 


Preserving the Good Stuff


2016 saw its fair share of major music moments.  From Beyoncé’s activist-minded LEMONADE to Drake’s record-shattering Views to popular movie and TV soundtracks, there were plenty of tracks to fill up your playlists.  But the one downside of these big cultural moments?  They were almost exclusively digital.  If you want to revisit your favorite songs five years from now, you’ll need to search and scroll through your apps.  For some guys, that level of access is perfect.  But for others, they’d rather pull a record off the shelf.


Before the dawn of the MP3, record collecting was a favorite pastime of many guys.  Listening to their favorite records was an experience—smelling the album sleeve, hearing the scratch of the needle as it touched the LP.  These days, buying vinyl is a way to rebuild record collections with today’s hits.  And some of the industry’s biggest artists are cashing in.  Vinyl releases for the La La Land soundtrack, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., and Ed Sheeran’s Divide have all been fixtures on Nielsen Music’s vinyl top 10 list.  It seems fans want their music in their hands, not just on their phones.


Becoming Active Listeners


As technology has advanced further, music has become more of a passive experience.  Music lovers turn on a playlist and let hundreds of songs play in the background as they work, clean, or relax.  Given that most streaming subscriptions cost between $10-14, they’re investing far less, which means they’re less deliberate about discovering new tunes.  In the heyday of CDs and cassette tapes, albums could cost as much $25.  So, buying music was a choice—one that was well-researched and planned.  Fans of vinyl are chasing after that same active listening experience.
“Going through the motions of physically sorting, opening, finding, buying, viewing, smelling, touching and discussing vinyl is not a chore.  It’s an activity.  And one that clearly people are craving,” writes Ari Herstand for Digital Music News.  Buying vinyl forces the listener to make a choice about what they’re listening to, and thus, they enjoy it (and remember it) much longer.


Better Sound


For ages, music purists have argued that vinyl offered the best sound quality.  The more compressed the sound was, the worse the result.  It’s an argument that’s raged on since the introduction of the cassette and continues to this day. 


Vinyl production requires a more complex process than digital files, and it also requires a bigger investment upfront.  More money upfront means better sound on our end.  In a 2015 TIME article, Juno Records specialist Jon Lloyd pointed to the low-quality of many downloads as a catalyst for the rise of vinyl.  “That glut of low-quality, sloppily produced music has likely put off many music listeners,” he told the magazine.


A New Experience


Millennial guys, many of whom are in their early 30s now, came of age with CDs and cassettes.  Vinyl records were nothing more than dusty, historical artifacts that belonged to their parents.  Now, as nostalgia fever grows, these guys finally have a chance to experience the sound their parents loved so much.  If for no other reason, they’re turning to vinyl for the novelty.


The Hipster Effect


Back in 2013, Quartz boldly declared that hipsters were buying records just to be cool, but they weren’t actually listening to them.  As with anything that makes its way through the hipster culture cycle, vinyl has gone from a niche way to enjoy music to a bigger, mainstream movement.  Perhaps it’s the hipsters of Portland and Williamsburg that we have to thank for this vinyl resurgence.


There’s no threat of streaming slowing down anytime soon.  But there’s clearly a demand for a more organic music experience, both in discovery and listening.  Vinyl seems perfectly poised to meet those needs.

 

Jefferey Spivey is a New York-based freelance writer. He's the founder of Uptown Bourgeois, a think piece website. And he's the author of the personal essay collection, It's Okay If You Don't Read Everything.

Aug 07, 2017 | CULTURE