The Future of Vinyl

With the recent Record Store Day, I’ve been thinking more about this subject, and it reminded me of a brief piece from a couple years ago. I was interviewed by fellow music journalist Martin Halo. He compiled notes based on my ramblings, and put together the piece below using my words. As such, blame me — not him — for the slightly disjointed nature of my remarks.

This is an idea I pitched to a general interest magazine, and they didn’t really go for it. I guess it was too esoteric for them, as it solely pertains to music. It is rooted in the ideas of vinyl. Vinyl hasn’t completely died; it is a niche. And I have some faith in–and affinity for–niches myself: I’m really into 60s garage rock. I led a band–The Echoes of Tyme–for about five years, and all we did was obscure garage/punk/psychedelic stuff from 1965-1968. We plied our trade here–of all places–in my adopted hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. Here, the most popular music is bluegrass! But there are people here who will blow you away with really great stuff that is off the radar, so that approach in fact helped us; people were surprisingly open to what we were doing. There’s room for anything, if it’s good. That’s my belief.

What’s Available
There is a new label called The Committee to Keep Music Evil; it’s run by Rob Campanella, one of the guys in the band Brian Jonestown Massacre. Their label is reissuing all of the BJM stuff on vinyl. And there’s Sundazed Records, one of the collector labels. They’re doing reissues of The Pretty Things‘ classic S.F. Sorrow, which some people claim gave Pete Townsend the idea for Tommy. Then the other one is an avant-garde album by the United States of America. Between reissues and some new stuff–I picked up The Polyphonic Spree‘s amazing 2007 release The Fragile Army as a beautiful 2LP set–the fact is that there is still a market for vinyl. Just think about the people that go to record swaps, or go through bins, or garage sales. I’m one of those people and there is still an interest in the medium. I just bought original vinyl copies of The Stooges’ Fun House and the second New York Dolls album, and they were both pretty reasonably-priced.

The Audio Quality Argument
I was reading a semi-scientific piece recently that said the people who think vinyl is “warmer” are actually hearing the errors in the recording. The thing is, even if you discount the idea that vinyl is warmer–and I don’t know whether I believe that–even if you are one of these people that say digital is cleaner and more pristine or more faithful, well, what about MP3s? Their sound quality is definitely beneath that of vinyl. And that’s true by whatever standards you want to use. It obviously isn’t about audio quality for the people who choose MP3. People listen to stuff on their iPod or Zune, and it sounds okay. But the format chops off certain frequencies. So I don’t buy the technology argument that digital is superior. Besides, I ruined my hearing years ago!

The Tactile/Visual Aesthetic
But is vinyl making a “comeback”? Well, yes and no. I interviewed Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) a couple months ago and he was talking about the whole iPod culture and the download thing. He sees that there is a growing market who are rediscovering the album as an art form. And for those people, downloading a track is not what it is about. If you look at different artists, you can look and see that the ones who are suffering the most commercially are the ones whose stuff gets downloaded piece-by-piece. People who are putting out unified albums–whether they are thematically linked or not–are doing well. Porcupine Tree does release limited-edition vinyl versions of their albums, but even as far as their CDs, they put a lot of effort into packaging. They often use digipaks instead of jewel cases. They care what the package looks like, feels like, and how it opens up; that to them is as important as the music. It is not an afterthought: the packaging–the tangible artifact is part of the whole experience. So I think the people who will appreciate that–the idea of an album as a whole “art form” rather than a collection of 12 or 15 songs–I think they still see the value in vinyl.

There’s Room in the Marketplace
I think there is a part of the population that really appreciates vinyl for what it is as a medium, so I don’t think it will completely die. Some people are saying print magazines will die because of the internet but in both cases I think there is room in the marketplace for both. They can and will exist side by side. The days of the artists who defied boundaries and sold millions of records–people like The Beatles, The Who, or Pink Floyd–those days are pretty much gone. Everything is about narrowcasting and market analysis these days, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We live in an era where you can be successful and make a decent living by moving a few thousand copies of your album. The same thinking applies to the medium of vinyl records. Because of the wonder of market segmentation, I think vinyl can and will stick around.

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