Very few industries have gone through as much of a tumultuous history as the music industry. In the past 40 years, the industry has gone through SEVEN music distribution mediums (8-track, vinyl, cassette, CD, MP3, ringtones, streaming). In 2019, only two of those are growing: streaming and vinyl.
Yet, when I tell people I own a record player and a not-insignificant number of records, they often write me off as a hipster millennial. Why would you pay $20 for a 12” disc that you need a speaker system and turntable to play?
Well, I can give you five reasons:
1. The Sound
Okay, let’s get this one over with first. There is a lot of debate over the ‘sound quality’ of records versus other mediums like CDs, MP3s, and streaming. All these formats have strengths and weaknesses, but at the end of the day, the average listener isn’t going to notice much of a difference. Why is that you ask?
There’s multiple rounds of compression, conversion, and sampling involved in the chain of events that brings music from a recording studio to you. Beyond that, unless you’re listening through an expensive audiophile setup there is even less of a noticeable difference. It is impossible to know on an album by album basis how a CD copy will compare to a vinyl edition. Given this, the sound quality is equal between formats, but I still prefer the sound of a record in many instances.
For me, a CD/MP3 can be too pristine and clean sounding. Manufactured almost. The crackles and pops and variations in vinyl make it sound more real and authentic. A CD/MP3 sounds the same every time you listen to it. A LP sounds like your at a concert, where slight variances make you notice different layers of the song every time.
2. Support Artists
Music industry revenues are growing for the first time since the CD market crashed, but they’re still half of what they were at the peak ~2000. This means there’s less money to go around and more artists trying to get a piece. I’ve written about my own internal conflicts with Spotify and streaming. These services take advantage of artists, but at the same time, it is impractical for me to buy CDs since I don’t even own a CD player, nor a computer with a CD drive.
Records open up the possibility for me to buy a limited selection of music for artists that I want to support. Beyonce and Taylor Swift don’t need my $10 for a CD, they’ll get by on the $0.006 per stream payout from Spotify. A band starting up though could definitely use the $20 I can afford to spend on their record.
I bought “A Conversation Between Us” by Small Talks on vinyl after hearing them play about three songs at a show six months before the album came out. I didn’t know if I would love every song on the album (I did), but I knew I loved what they were trying to do.
Beyond that, the 12” x 12” covers are artwork. One of my favorite albums I own is Paramore’s “Ain’t it Fun” single, an amazing gift from an ex-girlfriend. While impractical to listen to on a daily basis, it will look cool hanging on my wall if I ever find the time to actually do it.
Vinyl holds its value over time more than any other music format.
MP3s have a $0 value after you buy them and CDs aren’t much better. Looking up a variety of CD on SecondSpin, the buyback is generally $0.15-$1.00. The same Vinyl LPs sell for $10–20 on sites like Discogs and eBay. Granted there is more work involved with selling LPs, but they will definitely hold their value more overtime.
There are also people who collect rare record releases with the intent to profit from them. Most ‘collectibles’ aren’t worth anything when it comes time to actually sell them. This holds true for records, too. Maybe 1 in 100 are a rare variant of some breakout album that you could sell for 2–3x what you bought it for, but rarely would it ever be life-changing money.
They can also have a second life in art projects. Not that I advise doing this with albums that are in functional condition, but over the years records get damaged. These can have a second life as bowls, coasters, decor, etc.
The next two points are in a way related, yet different.
Each side of a full-length record holds 15–22 minutes worth of music, depending on how it’s cut. This makes it hard to listen to play songs in piecemeal and means you have to physically change what you’re listening to every 20 minutes. Is this ideal all the time? No, but I enjoy it in particular situations.
If I’m working and put Spotify on, hours could go by in an endless stream of unmemorable music. I might sit down to write something and look up to see two hours went by. With a record, I have built in 20-minute breaks and makes taking them easier and more thoughtful. Beyond this, an album tends to be more consistent track to track making concentrating on work easier. Rarely do you go from soft-rock on one track to EDM on the next as you might get on Spotify.
Another situation is if you’re having friends over or a party. Vinyl can be a much more thoughtful and intimate means of selecting music versus some random Spotify playlist that gets thrown on for the night. Or worse, the people who complain about the music and try to steal the AUX cord / Bluetooth speaker. If someone doesn’t like what’s on, here’s a stack of albums. Put something you like on when this side finishes.
By experience, I am talking about buying and listening to music versus MP3 or streaming services. Services like Spotify are algorithm driven and in some cases money driven by labels to promote album releases (*cough* Drake’s “Scorpion” *cough*). Now, if you’re on the Spotify free tier, this is what you signed up for — ads. But as a Spotify Premium member, I am not supposed to be guaranteed an ad-free listening experience. These tactics and supposed organic curation are advertising no matter how they try to justify them.
Going into a (local/independent) record store and browsing their selection is an experience. Even the smallest record shop you would have a hard time going through their whole collection in one go. Digital is a never-ending shelf filled with a lot of great niche releases but also a lot of junk. Your local record store is more of a curated selection of titles. It might take you some time to find a store that’s selection matches with your taste, but that’s part of the journey and experience too.
Experience is the most important aspect on the list. The relationship between art and money is complex, and in an ideal world, artists would be able to support themselves through their work. But with the devaluation of art/music with the rise of the internet, physical experience is the best way to create value in your work. The experience you can create with a record release blows anything digital out of the water.