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Not so long ago, when visiting my friend in her room, I noticed an old vinyl record of The Beatles on the shelf. Intrigued, as it certainly wasn’t there before, I soon learnt that she has bought it in a second-hand shop for quite a low price, which certainly would not be surprising–if it was not for the fact that she does not have a gramophone, nor does she intend to buy one. The record was going to just stand on her shelf, unused; she simply bought it as a collection item, following the vinyl craze of our age.
This boom for the old audio formats, starting in 2006, is a peculiar development, and an unexpected one. With the advent of mobile digital sound technologies and cheaper CDs, one might have thought the vinyls will soon become forever obscure, like symbols of nostalgia, perhaps only kept alive by hipsters of the same sort that still purchase cassette tapes (1). But, according to Pitchfork, this once-forgotten format feels closer to the mainstream than it has in decades- vinyl sales keep rising and currently peak in 2018 (2). With a high demand, the supply follows, and many of the most popular artists decide to release their albums on vinyls along with the CDs, creating a new supply, in an ever-increasing cycle. The industry is doing great and the trend is becoming more widespread with every year. One question is left: why do people still buy vinyls, having so many simpler options? Multiple answer can be found: in the nature of sound itself, but also in the concepts of authenticity, retromania, and cultural capital.
The Vinyl “Sounds Better”?
A frequent argument of the fans of collecting vinyls is that the LP (long-playing) records simply sound better than their CD counterparts. These people proudly call themselves audiophiles, for whom the subtle differences in sound in different audio formats matter a lot. The public debate on the issue is, however, two-sided. From the technical side, both vinyls and CDs seem to have their advantages. The process of sound reproduction would speak in favor of analog (vinyl) recordings mostly due to the simple fact that the original sound is always analog; and needs to be fractured when converting to a digital format, and reconstituted when it’s played out. Recorded and replayed digitally, CDs have a chance of losing or altering the raw sound wave, even if the changes are minor and hard, if not impossible, to hear. Vinyls as analogs do not need to convert and fracture the sound, as a result being more true to the originally recorded audio (3). On the other hand, CDs enjoy advantages such as a higher available range between the loudest and the softest sounds, lack of the gramophone’s mechanical noise, precision of speed, and longevity–no matter how many times you’ll play the CD out, it will sound the same, while the vinyl would begin to deteriorate (4). From a more human-centric perspective, Pitchfork explores how the “cheap and bad” mp3s led to the digital format as a whole becoming perceived as such, while there can be, of course, great variance in the quality of CD sound (5). In addition, it can be argued that the true special element of the vinyl audio lies more in the distortion that it introduces, a home-like warmth and a sense of closeness that the analog sound can introduce in opposition to more “mechanical” digital sound, rather than in the accuracy of it (5).
Authenticity and Retromania
A quite interesting pattern to notice about the sales of vinyl records is the massive lead that the rock genre enjoys in that industry (2). As such, it needs to be considered whether the concepts of authenticity and fidelity (described by Philip Auslander as crucial to the conservative, exclusionist rock ideology) might be at play in generating a large part of the vinyl craze. Drawing from the technical vinyl properties (as described in the previous paragraph), the perfect reproduction of the original, live sound wave may be of importance to hardcore rock fans even if they cannot really hear a difference–only as an expression of authenticity. In the rock ideology, what really matters is liveness, put in opposition to the “fake”, mechanical Other of pop (6). Extending this binary opposition of the “real” versus the mechanical to the raw, distorted analog sound and the flawless, converted digital audio, it is easy to understand why rock fans could feel drawn to vinyls more than to CDs. The authenticity ideology is less conservative in other genres but may still play a role in LP record sales, especially when it comes to buying older music in its original format–but in this case, authenticity crosses its path with the domains of retromania and symbolic capital.
The older vinyl recordings specifically may be subjected to a particular type of authenticity drive related to the memory- something the music critic Simon Reynolds calls retromania–an addiction to the past that our age specializes in. A part of his argument for the reasons of vinyl popularity is its “freaky” format–recording the voices of often dead musicians and long gone bands in a form that replicated the sound wave exactly, without fracturing; a ghost medium that once dead is now coming back (7). The return to the past through the vinyl can give the listener a thrill, a feeling of nostalgia, of being back in the past–even if the practice of collecting older vinyls is often, in his opinion, superficial and selective (7).
Listening to vinyls can be important to people in terms of sound, ideology, feelings, and memories; but these arguments hardly explain why some, like my friend described in the introduction, invest in LP records they will probably never actually listen to. Hoarding and collecting is a phenomenon that is not only specific to humans; but an interesting idea that can explain why is it the vinyls rather than CDs that most collectors decide to fixate on enough to spend money on just possessing them, is Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital: a capital that is based on the cultural value of goods, experiences, and skills: such as the value of famous art works, a high school diploma or a learnt language (8). According to Bourdieu, the cultural capital is eventually indirectly transferred into economic capital, and hence is worth spending money on. In the case of vinyls, one can argue that possessing a collection of vinyls is quite prestigious, regardless of whether they are actually listened to. Prestige in turn, in Bourdieu’s terms, rises one’s social/class position significantly, eventually contributing to one’s economic position (8). Most vinyl collectors are probably not consciously seeking economic profit from their hobby, but prestige could already be an important factor for them–either to show off to friends, impress strangers, or justify claims to being regarded a true music fan... and a true audiophile.
Behind the simple statements of “vinyls sounding good” or “vinyls being special” a whole set of theories, and underlying, hidden concepts can be spotted-this brief article presents only some of the possibilities. Because of that, LP records can appeal to many different people, and are entering the mainstream rapidly; and as the trend expands so does the desirability of vinyls. If no new craze breaks the cycle, we can be sure that the vinyl obsession is here to stay-and generate the highly needed profit for the music industry in the era of battles for copyright.
Source for images: see (2) in Bibliography
Auslander, Philip. Liveness. Performance in a mediatized culture. Routledge. London/New York, 1999.
Bourdieu, Pierre. “The forms of capital”. In: J. Richardson (Ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, New York, Greenwood, 1986.
Hogan, Marc. “Is Vinyl’s Comeback Here to Stay?” Pitchfork, 2018. https://pitchfork.com/features/article/is-vinyls-comeback-here-to-stay/.
Is the sound on vinyl records better than on CDs or DVDs?”. HowStuffWorks, 2000. https://electronics.howstuffworks.com/is-the-sound-on-vinyl-records-better-than-on-cds-or-dvds.htm.
Reynolds, Simon. Retromania. Pop culture’s addiction to its own past. Faber and Faber. New York, 2011.
Richardson, Mark. “Does Vinyl Really Sound Better?”. Pitchfork, 2013. https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/29-does-vinyl-really-sound-better/.
Tufts University. “Does music sound better on vinyl records than on CDs?”. Phys.org, 2016. https://phys.org/news/2016-07-music-vinyl-cds.html.
Wells, Jonathan. “Why the return of the cassette tape is a hipster trend too far”. The Telegraph, 2016. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/style/why-the-return-of-the-cassette-tape-is-a-hipster-trend-too-far/.