Record Store Day and the Rise of the Vinyl

The importance of adding value in a time when everything’s free.

Today is Record Store Day all around North America. Here in Montreal almost every record store is having some sort of live performance. You can see not only established names playing for free but also up and coming acts and even amateurs out with their instruments. I just walked past “Paul’s Boutique” on Ave. Mont Royal (not to be confused with the record store of the same name made famous by NYC’s own Beastie Boys). On the sidewalk was a talented — although unknown to me — guitar player, jamming along a drum beat that he played with a pedal.

After many weeks of walking by this record store, it was only this time that I felt truly compelled to walk along those narrows aisles and submerge myself in years and years of used vinyls and CDs. This was the only time the place had its door opened wide. Although this could be explained by the Record Store Day or the wonderful weather we’re having today (after a week with even snow showers). This combination of live music and nice weather made it easy to subside and get inside.

Among the carefully ordered and tagged boxes of records you could find tens of original Beatles’ vinyls, even in their European and North American editions (I came upon “Long Tall Sally” more than three times while browsing one of the boxes) but also some rather unknown hip hop albums, many of them printed by the Canadian record label “Island Def Jam”. I’m sure that if I had spent more time I’d have found many other albums worth mentioning, probably even some collector cherished ones. Paul’s Boutique is graciously tiny and mostly focused in old and used records, but it reminded me of some conversations I had in the past.

What makes vinyl records so valuable is that you can smell them, you can touch them, they are objects that are unbearably seductive for collectionists. They generate a strong sense of desire.

A few days ago we were walking down Rue de Bullion with a friend when we started discussing the rebirth of the vinyl industry. I told her about some new encouraging numbers that showed that while the CD is definitely about to take its last breath, the vinyl is more alive than ever. What’s interesting about this phenomenon is that it’s not about the music. Yes, there are some true benefits to the way a vinyl sounds in comparison with a CD (or MP3 for that matter) but that is not what makes them unique. Apple has been offering lossless audio for a while now and audio aficionados can get most of their music in the FLAC format without much hassle. What makes vinyl records so valuable is that you can smell them, you can touch them, they are objects that are unbearably seductive for collectionists. They generate a strong sense of desire.

Since digital formats for audio and video became truly mainstream, the reasons for getting physical, plastic, copies of the media we consume keep becoming less and less convincing. If in the beginning the reason for buying CDs or DVDs was that they allowed us to listen to an album or watch a movie, those reasons are not at all appealing anymore. I think the last time I listened to a physical CD was in 2007, right before I moved out of my parents house. The same goes for movies, getting most of them by torrent before Netflix came out in Argentina in late 2011.

In spite of that, I kept buying CDs, most of which I’ve never played in a CD player. I did this for the same reason a lot of people still buy physical copies: we, humans, are materialistic beings. We love beautiful things. We enjoy having objects, collecting them, putting them in order, filling shelves with colors and shapes. We love to hold them, feel their weight and textures, and put them back where they belong. When it comes to albums, we like reading the booklet that comes with it and trying to get the most we can from the experience of the album, that extends from the mere audio.

We, humans, are materialistic beings. We love beautiful things.

Vinyls offer the best experience in this sense. Even the record, the plastic disc that holds the audio information, is physically unique. While a CD, except for the label printed on it, is identical in each case, each vinyl is uniquely carved with the audio information. They even come in colors! Also, they are enclosed by a paper or cardboard envelope and not a plastic case. We rarely see plastic as a noble material (at least the clear plastic that CD cases are made of) whereas we tend to think highly of paper. Just pay attention to the way people fall in love with books and paper crafts.

We got so accustomed to everything we want being free that we can hardly see the economic value of information such as audio or video. We feel reluctant to pay for something that we can easily (and rapidly!) get for free, that we inadvertently lose sense of the monetary value of things. On the other hand, we feel attracted to paying for a vinyl and in some cases even compelled to do so. In the age of free, we still don’t have mixed feelings towards paying for physical objects (I’m not saying that this is not going to happen, I just point out that it hasn’t happened yet). For a more thorough —and inspiring— view of what this ‘age of Free’ entails, I suggest Chris Anderson’s wonderful read “Free: The Future of a Radical Price”.

Vinyls offer a physical experience for the music we consume. In a way, it’s closely related to concerts or merchandising, in the sense that they provide us with an added value to the music we consume. Paradoxically, while historically musicians haven’t gotten much money out of record deals, they in fact got most of their revenue from merchandising and concerts which are not, strictly speaking, their product but rather sub-products of what they do.

In the age of free we have to focus on what people actually covet and not keep mourning over market practices that just aren’t effective anymore. People won’t come back to do what they used to, but they will still go after the things that make them happy and satisfy their most basic human need for enjoyable physical experiences. All is not lost with the digital age, but cultural industries must adapt to sustain their profits.