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Sure, Vinyl Is Back. But Why?

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A million years ago, I kept my records displayed in alphabetical order by band and in chronological order within each artist’s section. In some cases, I would play an album until the grooves (literally) wore out and then re-purchase it.

To illustrate the palpable appeal of vinyl, please allow me to tell you about a kid I knew back in rock music’s glory days. His name was Dominick. I was about 13 at the time and he couldn’t have been more than 11. Dominick was just getting into music and asked me to help him pick out his first album. I was delighted as we made the trek to now-defunct Record Spectacular on Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens.

Dominick’s eyes grew wide as he took a good long look around the store at the bongs, “Bambu” rolling papers, and risqué blacklight posters. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer blared over the sound system.

With a little prodding from yours truly, he purchased Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones. The clerk placed Dominick’s treasure in one of those thin paper bags specifically designed for albums and off we went.

After a few attempts at conversation, I surrendered because all Dominick wanted to do was sneak peeks at his purchase. Finally, when we were about halfway home, he couldn’t take it anymore. “Hold on,” he said, “I need a minute.”

He sat on the nearest stoop, took out the album, and held it firmly in both hands, just staring at the infamous Andy Warhol zipper fly cover. “My first album,” he said wistfully, “I can’t believe I’m holding my first album in my hands.” He looked up at me and added: “I don’t wanna let it go.” I nodded to let him know I understood. And with that, he carried the LP (without the bag) for the rest of our walk.

Up until recently, I’d expect an anecdote like this to elicit a sardonic, “OK, Boomer” (even though I’m way more Gen X). But, as Emerson, Lake, and Palmer sang that day in Record Spectacular: “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.”

Vinyl records have yet again risen from the dead. For the first time since 1986, they’re more profitable than CDs. Here are the Recording Industry Association of America sales numbers from July 2019 to July 2020:

-Vinyl records: sold 8.6 million units, generating $224.1 million

-CDs: 18.6 million units and $247.9 million

Sure, vinyl isn’t gonna overtake Spotify any time soon but such stats do warm the hearts of those who still fondly recall liner notes, cover art, and the unique experience of owning actual albums.

Randy Stewart is host and producer with KSMU/Ozarks Public Radio. “A lot of younger people think there’s something really cool,” he said, “and there is something really cool about a 12- inch LP for no other reason than you’ve got something large and tangible in your hand.”

As they say in South Florida: “BINGO!” Streaming services are incredible and it’s intoxicating to have all that music at your fingertips. But an album collection is a cultural statement. It’s part of your decor and your personality. Like an epic wall of bookshelves, your albums create their own vibe.

Speaking of “vibe,” vinyl also provides a different kind of listening experience. With earbuds in place, you can click through playlists on the subway, riding your bike, during a workout, or on a long, socially-distanced walk. Albums are different. Much different.

When you choose an LP, there’s a tiny aspect of “meditation” involved. You slide the album out from its protective dust cover. You gently lay it on the turntable. You then — even more gently — place the needle at the precise point of your choosing. This isn’t a casual act of selecting “background music;” setting up an album to be played is the main event.

Related: “Wine & Vinyl: All Episodes”

Not to mention, there are plenty of music fans who will fight you over their firm belief in analog audio versus digital. There is a vividness to the music that’s somehow lost in all of today’s technological wonder. Those voices you hear singing on that record sound, well… they sound human.

The world was a whole lot different back when I watched Dominick swoon over his first LP. But today, it’s encouraging to know that vinyl persists as a growing subculture. As Ani DiFranco once sang:

“People used to make records

As in a record of an event

The event of people

Playing music in a room”

Listening to an LP sets you up for a mindful trip, a sensual experience that transports you back to that room full of people playing music together — in the same space, at the same time. For many of us, it was once a communal listening “event” as well. And now, more than ever, that sense of community is what we’re missing – and what we need.

-Mickey Z

Photo by Alina Vilchenko from Pexels

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9 comments on “Sure, Vinyl Is Back. But Why?

  1. Richard Short

    Really nice article. Brings back great memories. The story of you and Dominick – wonderful. Makes me remember the first album I ever got. Christmas morning, 1965 or ’66?, a big square thin present wrapped under the tree. What could it be? I had no idea. Twelve years old at the time. What could it be? Tore that wrapping off and Glory Be! A record album, Beatles ’65. The Beatles! Fantastic. Never fooled again after that when I saw a square, thin present. Thanks Mom and Dad. Another great article could be about album cover art. Thanks Mickey Z, keep up the good work.

  2. I first fell in love with albums by constantly studying my mom’s collection. She had everything from The Beatles and Stones, Zep and the Who, to Barry Manilow and JOhn Dencer. At first, I was attracted by the covers – they were so interesting to look at! I specifically remember being mesmerized by Janis Joplin’s “Pearl”, Quincy Jones’s “Smackwater Jack” and The Who’s “Who’s Next” (Of course, “Sticky Fingers” was another favorite. After a while, I started playing the ones I liked and discovered that I liked the music even more! The first record I ever bought was “Crimes of Passion” by Pat Benatar. In 1980 I was finally old enough to take the bus to Main Street (in Queens) and visit the record store there. “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” was a hit at the time and I simply fell in love with Pat from that record cover. Back then, it wasn’t so easy to see what the artists looked like. All we had was radio. And album covers. Simpler times, great times. Thanks for the article and conjuring up nice memories.

  3. James L Heiberg

    Aside from appreciating the art and being able to actually read the liner notes, I simply do not understand the cult of vinyl. I spent the first 20 years of my life praying that we could get music in a format without pops and scratches and we got it in the form of the CD, which when mastered correctly is an infinitely superior format to the LP. Heck, I would rather listen to an iTunes download than vinyl.

  4. Mickey, what’s missing here is the production cost per unit sold. I’ll take your word that vinyl is more “profitable” but notice here that CD’s still generated more total $$ in pure sales. Just a guess, but I should think the costs for production and handling, etc, of vinyl records is higher than CD’s. Then again, vinyl sells for prices way out of my league, nowadays, so there’s also that as a “profit” factor. Great article!

  5. Spot on! I listen to iTunes with my headphones on those long, socially distanced walks, but I also make time a few times a week to play a record album in my “music room/office/den” and it really creates a mood. I look at the album cover, display it where I can see it while I listen, hear the music crackle out of my parents’ old, way-too-large speakers, and go into the world of that album for the duration, about 20-minute segments, which allows for fuller concentration in the limited time.

  6. Thank you, everyone, for taking time to read the article and leaving such great comments and sharing your stories. I truly appreciate it. And Larry, that’s an excellent point about production costs. I’d have to do a little research to come up with a useful reply.

  7. I’m an oldie and I still have my vinyl collections, both LP and 45s. Money was scarce when I was growing up so I couldn’t afford to buy records except for the occasional 45 that was sold for 50 cents at Owl Rexal Drugs. I didn’t get my first album until I was about 15. It was (and still is) “Presenting Dion and the Belmonts.” A really good album. One of the last new vinyl albums I bought was Lennon’s “Double Fantasy.” After I bought it at Tower Records in San Francisco I went to Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store in North Beach for a glass of wine. I remember looking at the back and front of the album and the song list in great anticipation. I never suspected there was a shadow hanging over it.

  8. Mainly, vinyl just sounds better. But yeah, I still listen to my first LP, Walk, Don’t Run, Vol. 2, by the Ventures. I’d just seen them on Shindig and I Ioved the bass glissandos, the reverb, and the guitar bird chirps in “Diamond Head.”

  9. I have the Ventures Christmas Album where they play Christmas songs with intros copying the intros of the hits of the day, circa 1965. Still play it every Christmas.

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