Rocker's resident music producer Will Kennedy answers questions which plague the mind of 'mature hipsters' everywhere. In this, his first column he finds out what up with the vinyl resurgence
Where Mature Hipsters have questions, our resident producer Will Kennedy is here with answers, about audio, and about the young people and their mysterious ways.
Got a question that has been plaguing you, but you find yourself too embarrassed to ask your grade school niece for the answer? Email Will a suggested question for this column at [email protected]
Q.: What’s with all of the vinyl record stores popping up all over the place? Didn’t vinyl disappear with plaid flannel and goatees?
A.: As it turns out, vinyl sales have been one of the few bright spots in the generally dire world of recorded music sales over the past few years. Increasing by 14% to $2.8 million in total sales between 2009 and 2010 according to Nielsen Soundscan (the electronic system used by the music industry for tracking sales data). That is the highest mark for the format since 1991, the first year Soundscan information was available.
Granted, that still accounts for a very small piece of the 326.2 million albums sold last year. So what’s the big deal? Well, there seem to be a few things going on. But let’s start with some historical context.
For those of us who grew up in the era of CD’s, MP3’s and iPods were magical. For the first time we didn’t have to buy an entire album to get the couple of songs we really wanted from an artist. Instead of a wall full of plastic cases, our entire music collection could fit on a tiny handheld device. And wonder of wonders, IT DIDN’T SKIP WHEN YOU WALKED! These were all amazing advances for music consumers, and they changed the game of recorded music sales.
It’s hard to believe that all happened just 10 years ago. That’s right folks, the first iPod was introduced in 2001. Which means essentially two generations of teenagers have now grown up in a world where digital music players are de rigueur. A world without the record stores we knew and loved…or the plastic discs we loved to hate.
Which leads us to the first reason vinyl is back on the musical map: It turns out people want a tangible connection to the music – and artists – they love. If during this era of music-as-digital-content you’ve wondered whether people missed holding the cool new record from their favorite band in their hands, it turns out the answer is yes.
“The majority of our customers range from 15 year old kids to 40 somethings,” Says Neil Schield, owner of Origami Vinyl, a vinyl-only record store/label in the hip Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, “most of whom are first time buyers; enthusiasts that are discovering the format for the first time; or are rediscovering it from their childhood. For the younger customers, they really enjoy the ability to have an interactive and social experience with vinyl. The size of the art, the liner notes, the flipping of the record, and the sound quality are all extremely fun, and the opposite of the impulsive random qualities that they’ve grown up with in the age of the ipod / itunes. Older customers are rediscovering the audio quality, and the enjoyment of listening to an album from start to finish again. They like the fact that most LPs come with a free MP3 download of the album which gives them the best of both worlds.”
Which takes us to our second reason for vinyl resurgence: Vinyl is still one of the best sounding mass-produced forms of recorded music. A well-maintained turntable and vinyl collection will produce higher fidelity than any of the current popular digital formats. That’s right folks, all those cranky codgers who refused to give up their turntables in the face of the digital onslaught were right! Mostly…
Well-produced CD’s sound very good by most people’s standards. Certainly better than the downright awful cassette tapes that came before. Better than MP3 files as well. They trump vinyl in the all-important categories of convenience and durability. So why, you may ask, aren’t we seeing a big uptick in CD sales? One big reason: CDs – for better or worse – are seen as a method of digital delivery. Buy it, rip it, toss it. And if you’re going to spend the real estate to own a physical collection of music, don’t you want it to be cool? Big artwork, liner notes, needles, and spinning discs are cool. Spinning silver discs with lasers just aren’t anymore. You’re just as likely to find a powerpoint presentation on a CD these days as you are an album.
Which is something the people who make the music feel as well. “I’m drawn to putting out vinyl in addition CDs/digital because I personally love records.” says Arrica Rose, an independent recording artist based in Los Angeles, “When I was young my first exposure to music that I can remember was through my parents’ record collection. In my teenage years I was drawn back to vinyl through my affinity for punk-rock and indie labels from which you could mail-order obscure records. And – of course -the sound! To me there’s nothing quite like it. We recorded a good portion of our new album to analog, so it makes sense to us to try and make it available on vinyl.”
This adds up to the creation of a small, but growing, vinyl culture that loves the ritual that surrounds the format. The purchase, the artwork, the artistic connection, the sound quality, and the need to sit and make time to listen to the music.
While it’s highly unlikely we’re ever going to see vinyl becoming the dominant format for music sales ever again, the future for the format continues to look bright. So if it’s been a while, you should check out your local record store!
Will Kennedy is a record producer, engineer, and mixer living in Los Angeles. His credits include O.A.R., Michael Franti and Spearhead, and The 88. You can find him at http://www.willkennedyproducer.com