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The Return of Vinyl: How an old favorite is back to stake its claim in the streaming era

As streaming takes over as the most preferred method of music consumption, the vinyl resurgence has taken the market by surprise in the last decade. Here's why.
(Source : Getty Images)
(Source : Getty Images)

The way we consume music has changed rapidly over the last few decades. From vinyl to cassettes to 8-tracks to CDs to the mp3 and ultimately unlimited streaming services, every new technological update has methodically wiped out its predecessor and revolutionized the very way in which we perceive music.

Now, in the instant karma age of music streaming, it's easier than ever to plug-in and surf through a seemingly endless sea of musical content. The streaming giant Spotify went public earlier this month and is now valued at $30 billion - making it one of the biggest companies in the world - ushering in an age in which the possibilities for the reach of digital music seems boundless. In the last 10 years, cassettes and CDs have, like floppy-disks and dinosaurs, gone extinct. But unlike all its fellow brothers, one format seems to have made a thumping comeback.

The vinyl, a simple piece of plastic which went from the most ubiquitous form of music in the 20th century to a stack of dust-covered relics in your grandfather's attic, has re-emerged as a popular format for music. One might easily dismiss the return of LPs as just an effect of nostalgia peddling. All you have to do is just look around to find the sudden resurgence of all things 90s these days. Netflix's 'Stranger Things', Steven Speilberg's 'Ready Player One', the sudden resurgence of 90s alt-rock and shoegaze (Foo Fighters, The Breeders, Smashing Pumpkins, Ride, Slowdive... the list is endless) - these are just a few instances that demonstrate the sudden wave of nostalgia-romancing that's been making the rounds across all media.

But reports suggest that there's more to the vinyl resurgence than just that. A look at the chart below shows that vinyl sales have gone from a mere 300,000 per year in 1993 to 14.3 million in 2017. That's nearly a fifty-fold increase in sales over the last 15 years. When the initial spike in record sales surfaced sometime around 2007 (coincidentally the same year that saw the world's first Record Store Day), it was mostly dismissed as a passing fad.

But now, over a decade later, it's pretty clear that vinyls are here to stay and are only going stronger by the day. Something like that can't just be chalked down to a few people trying to relive the glory of the yesteryears or a few thousand hipsters and audiophiles trying to deify outdated things and repackaging them as contemporary culture. So what is it about this simple little seven-to-twelve inch plastic disc that's so fascinating? 

The most obvious answer (apart from the nostalgia) seems to be audio quality. There have been enthusiasts for years who preferred vinyl over 8-tracks, cassettes and even digital technologies. When music is converted from original, analog sound waves to its corresponding digital version, there is a certain amount of data loss. 

Music engineers tend to hyper-compress songs into radio-friendly digital formats reducing the depth and vitality of the songs relative to vinyl. The better mid-range sound especially flatters guitar music and lyrical singing, but a lot of the finer, more intricate aspects of the sound are lost. But not everybody has such a finely trained ear for hi-fi audio, so there must be a universal answer to the resurgence of this almost lost format.

Today, for a reasonable monthly subscription amount, you can get access to thousands of artists and albums through streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play Music, etc. You can even personalize your own library, make and share playlists and of course, be privy to your own personalized recommendation list that constantly feeds you more music that is attuned to your listening history. All that is great. But there's something even technology cannot provide that LP's and record players manage to deliver.

It's the actual, physical feeling of owning something tangible. Something you can touch, feel and hold in your hands. A loose analogy can be made with books and e-books. Some bibliophiles might carry a Kindle around in their backpack, but that doesn't stop them from seeking out limited edition comic books, graphic novels or even just physical copies to add to the old bookshelf. Of course, the print industry doesn't seem to share the recent success that the vinyl industry has had, but that's a different story.

So vinyls might be playing a very important role of adding sentimental value to something you own. Just like other collectibles - be it stamps, comic books, butterflies or whatever it is that provides immeasurable joy to a collector. 

An album is like a book in more ways than one. For starters, vinyls come with distinct artwork on the cover as well as the sleeves. Gone are the days when vinyls just came in black. You can now find vinyls in a multitude of colors and patterns - even some transparent ones and some that look like they're made out of swirls of smoke. Sometimes vinyls include booklets, liner notes, pictures and other trinkets that make possessing a vinyl a rich and personal experience. The Grammy Awards even have a 'Best Recording Package' which awards the most aesthetically appealing album art every year. With limited edition releases, there is also the opportunity to own your own special copy that only a few hundred or thousand people across the world have. 

In recent years the act of creating expressive or unique vinyl art has become a fairly common practice for musicians. It's a way to stand out from the sea of artists releasing music every other day via digital formats. Additionally, musicians are more and more frequently bringing vinyl to sell on tour with them. According to NY Post, in 2015, artists collected more money from vinyl sales than from all of the advertising on free streaming services. Fans can listen to the music digitally, but also have the option of buying LPs to support the artist and have something tangible from their favorite artists.

The practice of listening to albums on the whole as opposed to singles is also something that seems to be re-emerging with the vinyl surge as well. In the pre-internet era, it wasn't uncommon for fans to listen to an entire album on tape or record over and over again, making oneself familiar with all the small idiosyncrasies and progressions through the album.

This is something that is lost today thanks to streaming services and digital formats. An artist could put months or even years of effort on an album, and it's released, consumed, reviewed, glorified or dismissed as the case may be, within a matter of minutes. With vinyl, there is an opportunity for fans to feel a deeper, more personal connection to the artist.

There is also a rapidly growing sub-culture being formed around vinyls. Collecting vinyls, like any other hobby, requires a fair amount of dedication and work. From maintaining records to finding the right parts and extensions to your record player to get the optimum sound, vinyl enthusiasts are often updating their cartridges, finding the right phono pre-amp or the right speakers, always looking to find that elusive perfect analog experience. But the beauty of vinyls in the modern day is that it's not exclusive to just such enthusiasts.

With companies like Audiotechnica and Rega offering a wide range of record players, accommodating for everyone from the entry-level enthusiast to the seasoned vinyl buff, the world of vinyls is just as accessible to any average listener as a sworn audiophile. Whether it's a novice listener or a seasoned one, the actual physical process of huddling around a record player and paying undivided attention to music for up to an hour is something that is distinctive of vinyl records only.

A big push to the vinyl revival seems to come from the annual celebratory event, Record Store Day, which falls on the third Saturday of April every year to "celebrate the culture of the independently owned record store". The day brings together fans, artists, and thousands of independent record stores across the world.

Brand ambassadors of Record Store Day have seen some big names from the music industry, the likes of which includes Jack White, Queens of the Stone Age frontman Joshua Homme, Dave Grohl, Iggy Pop, Ozzy Osbourne and St. Vincent among others. Ever since the event's inception in 2007, there has been a steady corresponding rise in record sales that almost always peaks in April. The event sees a host of special appearances by artists and producers, performances, meet and greets with fans, holding of art exhibits, and of course, the issuing of special, limited edition vinyl releases along with other innovative promotional products to mark the occasion. This year, Record Store Day falls on April 21 and Run the Jewels have been named brand ambassadors for 2018. 

Just like every year, the ninth edition of Record Store Day has a plethora of exciting releases lined up. You can check out the full list of releases on the official website, or if you prefer a curated highlighted reel, check out our pick of the best releases here

So there's no doubt that audio streaming has taken over the modern music world. And if things continue along the same trend in the years to come, streaming services will undoubtedly see even bigger and more impressive numbers as they take more of the market share. But the very fact that vinyl as a physical format refuses to perish from history, is something that's definitely noteworthy. It still remains the single most venerable format as far as music appreciation and hi-fi quality is concerned. So until the age arrives where we can walk into our own VR record library where virtual records and actual LPs are nearly indistinguishable, it's safe to say that vinyl is back, and definitely here to stay.