The Real Reason for Vinyl’s Resurgence - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Real Reason for Vinyl’s Resurgence

Music on vinyl outsold compact discs in the United States last year. The last time that happened the Soviet Union, Eastern Airlines, and Roy Orbison still existed.

The grooved disc record, whatever the size or speed, essentially spent a human lifetime as the primary way Americans purchased recorded music.

Its predecessor, the cylinder record, found a champion in the technology’s inventor. The face of Thomas Edison, and not the Peerless Quartet, Ada Jones, or Billy Murray, generally appeared on the packaging (at least of the records his company sold). Although “wax” remains slang for vinyl records, the shift from wax to plastic began around the turn of the century. By 1908, advances in technology essentially doubled the number of grooves that allowed four-minute records to replace two-minute ones.

Despite the improvements, and the fact that Victrolas required a needle change after every play, cylinder records yielded to disc records shortly after the sinking of the Titanic. Edison, so loyal to the cylinder and the purchasers of his lunchpail-looking playing contraptions, continued to sell music in that format until its release of organist John Gart’s version of “If I Had You” in 1929. But consumers, then and forever after, preferred the format that saved space. One can stack disc records or efficiently place them on shelves. A collection of cylinder records invades space and does not lend itself to easy-to-find organization.

The flat discs also offered two sides of play. Electricity allowed speakers to replace horns and circuits to replace hand cranks. Just as converters allowed cylinder players to play two- and four-minute records, the flat-disc players allowed for shifts in speed, with 45s and 33s overrunning 78s after World War II. Progress meant clearer and longer play.

From Billy Murray to Michael Jackson, disc records reigned supreme. Challenges arose during the mid-1960s that ultimately toppled vinyl supremacy two decades later.

The 8-track tape, introduced in 1966, peaked at a quarter of the market share in 1974 and remained fairly steady before plummeting in popularity at the end of the decade. By 1981, the 8-track’s share dropped below 8 percent.

Cassettes, which similarly benefited from portability and automobile play, largely accounted for the demise of 8-tracks as consumers once again preferred smaller to bulky. By 1983, cassettes accomplished something its bigger (but not older) brother the 8-track never did in outselling vinyl. Its market dominance continued until 1991, when compact discs surged to 55 percent of all sales. By 2002, compact discs accounted for $19 of every $20 spent on commercially available recorded music in the United States.

Five years later, CDs collapsed and downloads reigned as the top format by volume, though not by dollar amount. For just a few years during the last decade did downloads generate the largest money spent of any format. Streaming, subscription- and ad-supported, became king in 2016. The downfall of downloads occurred more sharply than that of the 8-track. It now amounts to less than 3 percent of revenue for recorded music.

Remarkably, revenue from vinyl now exceeds that for CDs and digital downloads combined. Its 2022 share increased from the previous year (though CDs and downloads cratered to a greater degree).

What accounts for the resilience of this medium?

Self-described audiophiles point to a richer, warmer, less-tinny sound. One wonders if human ears really operate with such sensitivity. Perhaps some do. Touch, sight, and even smell likely account for the taste for physical records more than hearing does.

An album cover, for instance, showcases the visual of, say, The Dark Side of the Moon, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Disraeli Gears. Liner notes provide context and lyric sheets inform that, yes, he sings “In a gadda da vida.” Even something as seemingly innocuous as the label standing behind the artist — Dunhill, Stiff Records, 4AD — provided a signal to the consumer. People want that tactile experience. They also want to advertise their musical tastes the way they do their intellectual tastes on shelves. That hunter-gatherer impulse to search out music (or, better yet, for it to find you) in an actual store and collect over time plays a role. Algorithms do not control the choices of everyone. The bother of getting up means that listeners absorb the entire album rather than cherry-pick songs as they did prior to the 1960s and beginning again during the early 2000s. Listeners not suffering from sonic ADD like that aspect of LPs.

Earbuds, though an improvement over the intrusion of the ghettoblaster, make music a more atomistic, insular art form for the receiver. Records generally create a communal experience. This, perhaps more so than even the preference for physical over digital, strikes as a way records rebel against the age.

Something bigger than all this seems at work.

The small but growing segment of listeners who embrace technological nostalgia join a much more massive segment that rejects modern music. A shocking reversal in recent decades now sees “catalog” — music 18 months or older — dwarfing the sales of “current.” People prefer actual humans playing analog instruments to the soullessness of autotune, C3PO on drums, and songs written by committees that overpopulate the airwaves.

The resurgence of physical records represents the extreme manifestation of the rejection of 2023 popular music, which isn’t all that popular. The music industry should listen to those not listening to it.


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Daniel J. Flynn
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Daniel J. Flynn, a senior editor of The American Spectator, is the author of Cult City: Harvey Milk, Jim Jones, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco (ISI Books, 2018), The War on Football (Regnery, 2013), Blue Collar Intellectuals (ISI Books, 2011), A Conservative History of the American Left (Crown Forum, 2008), Intellectual Morons (Crown Forum, 2004), and Why the Left Hates America (Prima Forum, 2002). His articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, New York Post, City Journal, National Review, and his own website,   
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