words / MAX NEASE
Soft footsteps echo throughout the room as someone tries to shuffle past a fellow customer, crammed between two long aisles of records. A muted, “Excuse me,” and, “I’m sorry,” as they move ever closer to the shelf where their favourite artist’s LP will be available for purchase. A hushed sigh of relief as they finally arrive at their desired location. An audible gasp when they notice the words “Special Edition!” written directly on the vinyl’s sleeve. Overjoyed, they contain their excitement to a single exclamation, “Finally…” All the while staying respectfully quiet as a record spins over the store’s speaker system, thoughtlessly tapping their foot along to the beat.
Moments like these are all too common at any independent record store, where providing new and used vinyl to an ever expanding demographic of music consumers is the first priority.
Vinyl, once a defeated medium, has made a dramatic comeback. According to Statista, vinyl sales in the United States have grown from 300 thousand units sold in 1993, to almost 12 million in 2015. On top of this, The Recording Industry Association of America has marked the revenue of vinyl at $416 million in 2015, the highest it has been since 1989 when revenue was slightly over 200 million. Now even mainstream artists are jumping on the vinyl bandwagon: Artists such as Taylor Swift, Adele, and Bruno Mars have all released music on the giant discs that once commanded music publishing.
People in the music industry are thrilled about the trend, as it is helping distributors branch out, small businesses survive, and allowing music lovers to experience the art in what some consider the most beautiful form.
As vinyl sales continue to skyrocket, the question on everyone’s mind is: In the heyday of the digital age, how did an old-school technology like vinyl stage a comeback?
After CDs were introduced to North America in 1983, vinyl’s clock began ticking. Smaller, sleeker, and much more portable, CDs instantly gained popularity over their more cumbersome competition. By 1988, CD sales had surpassed those of vinyl albums, according to Billboard Magazine.
Never again would vinyl be at the top of the sales charts, as digital downloading emerged in the mid-2000s, quickly becoming the most popular means of acquiring music. How then, did a format of music listening so dated, cumbersome, and on the brink of being forgotten, find its way back into the spotlight?
If you ask Ian Boyd why he thinks vinyl has reemerged over the past decade, he will tell you that it has something to do with your brain. Co-owner of Compact Music in Ottawa, Ontario for the past 25 years, Boyd believes vinyl triggers something in the human mind, unattainable with any other form of music vessel.
“When Thomas Edison invented vinyl, I think he got it right,” explained Boyd. “Vinyl does something to your brain that digital doesn’t, and I don’t think people recognize it until they are told.”
He revels even in the small flaws you can hear on an old record: the slight crackles in the creases of each and every groove; the occasional pops where microscopic imperfections have formed; the sense of warmth emanating from the dated discs, once a breakthrough of modern technology.
When Boyd plays vinyl in his store, it forces him to stop and listen. To him, CDs and digital download go unnoticed over the store’s speaker system, but when a record starts to spin, his ears can’t help but pay closer attention to the sound.
While vinyl’s sound may be considered superior by many music enthusiasts, renowned sound engineer Garth Richardson, co-founder of the Nimbus School of Recording Arts in Vancouver, British Columbia, does not consider it to be the best sound. Despite this, Richardson shares Boyd’s fascination with the effect it can have on you.
“Vinyl lets you in and makes you sit and actually listen, that’s the wonderful thing about vinyl,” explained Richardson. “Digital is like, ‘next song, nope don’t like that, next song, nope, skip,’ you know?”
Just because vinyl has a distinct effect, does not mean it is perfect, simply unique.
“It is not the best clear quality, it’s a different sound. Vinyl has a sound, CDs have a sound, MP3s have a sound, streaming has a sound, your car radio has a sound.”
Perhaps this distinct sound draws a listener to feel closer to the music, or closer even to the artist that produces it.
Tim Baker, chairman of Record Store Day Canada, believes the vinyl comeback stems in part from the yearning of fans to feel closer to the artists.
Record Store Day, held every April since 2007, celebrates independent music businesses, and brings music lovers all over the world out to purchase vinyl.
“With the younger demographic that has been purchasing vinyl, I think they do it because they do want to feel a little bit closer to the band,” stated Baker.
Purchasing a favourite band’s record adds to the fans toll of memorabilia, allowing them to boast that they are true super fans of their favourite artist. According to ‘Music Watch,’ a service that analyzes trends and statistics to do with music, close to 50 per cent of record buyers are under the age of 25, meaning millennials really do have a major part in this resurgence of popularity.
While a consumer of this youthful generation may have discovered a parent’s collection, or simply yearned to branch out of digital download, Baker credits this demographic for much of the vinyl boom of the past decade. While records are exciting and new for this fresh batch of consumers, Baker has noticed a startling/puzzling trend: “There are people that buy vinyl that don’t even own a record player,” explained Baker.
“If you really want to get the real value of an analog album, you really do need to invest in a proper stereo system, and that unfortunately is not something that has gone hand in hand with the resurgence of vinyl.”
According to a 2016 study reported by the BBC, 41 per cent of vinyl buyers have turntables that go unused, while seven per cent don’t own one at all.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about vinyl, and to be perfectly honest, I think we have all kind of been reluctant to mention what they are, simply because we’re enjoying the fact that they have been doing so well, and we want it to continue.”
John Thompson, owner of The Record Centre, an Ottawa store specializing in records and vintage audio equipment, agrees with Baker that young people are key to vinyl’s resurrection.
“I think the biggest thing that happened to vinyl is that the younger generation rediscovered it,” stated Thompson.
This new demographic, in addition to older collectors, has given new life to many independent record stores, including The Record Centre.
“When I look in my store on any given day, there’s young boys, girls, men. That staple crowd that we’ve always had of the sort of older guy collectors still exists, but mixed in with that is a whole younger generation that rediscovered it,” explained Thompson.
As the market for vinyl continues to soar, vinyl manufacturers are struggling to keep up with demand.
Gerry McGhee, the president of Isotope Music and executive vice-president of Precision Record Pressing, is looking to remedy the lack of vinyl as interest in it grows.
Seven years ago, McGhee and his company noticed that vinyl was starting to make a comeback. The only problem back then was that no one was selling their machines, or were unwilling to begin pressing. Eventually, McGhee partnered with Czech vinyl giant GZ Media to create a pressing plant in Burlington, Ontario, slated to open in 2017.
A vinyl fan himself, McGhee stated, “It is the purest way to listen to music; it’s the way it was always intended to be. The Beatles didn’t make CDs, The Beatles made records.”
For one Ottawa-based music professional, the vinyl comeback has less to do with marketing and demographics, and more to do with a person’s relationship to an object.
Kwende Kefentse, also known as DJ Memetic, is the head of Memeplex, a record label based in Ottawa.
Kefentse believes people have a strong tie with objects, and that bond is part of the foundation of who we are. The relationship between people and records is one that he credits as having a major role in the comeback.
“The relationship with objects is one of the fundamental things about being a human being,” explained Kefentse. “Records are physical objects, and they are part of that relationship that we all have with objects, and that’s part of why I think records are not going to go anywhere.”
“I think there will always be value in having a physical representation of a piece of whatever the material thing that you’re trying to enjoy is, be it a film, or a piece of music, or a piece of art.”