Why are we buying vinyl?
The market is the biggest it’s been in decades, but why now?
A few weeks ago, I went to a house party in my mid-sized college town. I took a seat on the couch and looked to my left where not one, not two, but three copies of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea sat prominently on the windowsill. Immediately, my mind began reeling with questions: Why three? Why this band? Are these things gonna appreciate in value? Where’s the record player?
The vinyl industry is on track to sell 40 million units in 2017, with sales nearing $1 billion for the first time this millennium. It’s an industry that seems to be making a major comeback after a sharp decline in sales following the invention of digital music, so naturally I became obsessed with finding out what it is about vinyl we love so much, and why now, in 2017, it’s capturing the hearts of so many people once again.
The most obvious reason is also the most discouraging: It’s a big, tangible thing that’s perfect for showing off our good music tastes to others. I prefer to think that’s not the case — I’m an optimist to a fault — but it’s something too possible to be ignored. When records can range in price from $20 to $40 and a Spotify membership costs only half that, what’s the benefit of shelling out the extra dough?
Many — most, probably — will tell you it’s the sound. I’ll be the first to admit, the low hum and static pop of a needle threading the grooves of a record brings out a kind of nostalgic quality that I’m a complete sucker for. Real audiophiles will tell you it adds to the quality of the music — they’ll use words like warmth and color and high frequency rolloff. And they’re right, analog does all those things better than digital, but I can’t help but wonder how much of that is a placebo effect. I wonder if I A/B’d that Flume vinyl next to a digital copy, how big would the difference really be? And how big would that difference have to be to justify my purchase?
More likely, I think, is the possibility that we buy the records not only for the unique sound but the ambiance of them as well. Walking into a room with walls lined with vinyl is sort of like having a blanket wrapped around your shivering body — it’s comforting in a way that words can’t explain. Being surrounded by all that music is something that sets your mind in motion, it lets your thoughts wander through the liner notes and wonder what kind of sounds are waiting for you inside. It’s a feeling that Spotify, even with its 20+ million songs, will never be able to recreate.
You can stream Flume’s second album on Spotify for $9.99 a month, you can buy it on CD for $10.11, or you can buy it on vinyl for a whopping $31.28. So I wonder, on that windowsill in the house near the couch where my ass sat, what did they spend the extra $20 on? Something big and tangible to flaunt their tastes? Something vintage and nostalgic and a bit warmer sounding? Or was it the ambiance they paid for, something to bring the room together and let the mind wander?
I could never say for sure. But what I can say is that as I began to look around that room and take in all those other records — stacked against walls, tucked behind couches — I began to feel something. That feeling could’ve been anything, but right then, it sort of felt like a big soft blanket falling around my shoulders.