Why vinyl refuses to die
In December last year, vinyl sales surpassed digital sales for the first time ever. While this speaks more of the near-total collapse of digital sales in the wake of the streaming revolution, it does nonetheless seem an opportune moment to reflect on why vinyl refuses to die. What’s it all about, and why are people flocking to this anachronistic, cumbersome format?
Let’s start with the obvious clichés. Records are tactile, tangible, real. They showcase artwork better than any other format, and in doing so, connect you to a time, a place, an artist, in a way that no other format can.
But there are softer craft and hipster values at play, too. Vinyl taps into our modern reverence for things, and things well made. Producing vinyl requires expertise, care, and time – the same craft values that we see resonating across all sorts of categories and products.
We have to care for our records once we’ve bought them, too. They’re delicate, fragile, and they scratch easily. But the work involved in owning records can also be a part of their appeal. Ease of use is a fundamental tenet of most product design. We take it as a given that things should be easy to use: effortless, seamless, mindless. Is that always a good thing? Tending to records – dusting them, holding them tenderly by the edges, putting them away carefully, neatly – shows that fragility and frailty can have a charm of their own.
But there’s another idea, softer still, that helps explain why vinyl still resonates today. Vinyl creates a discrete space, a space apart from the rest of our seamless, integrated lives. Vinyl is theatre: a physical manifestation of music. It has an aura, a magnetism. We compulsively watch and are drawn to records as they spin round on platters. (This is largely why vinyl DJs are also in demand in bars. They don’t play better music; it just looks cool.)
The physical presence of a record creates a space. It separates us from our other tasks, duties, and activities. When we listen to digital music, we are most likely multi-tasking: working, reading, chatting. Vinyl takes us away from the screen, and encourages us to slow down, pay attention, listen. It’s the antithesis of the modern mantra, ‘anything, anytime, anywhere’, and there’s something very nice about that.
I think all this partly explains why people say that vinyl sounds better. It might not be the case that vinyl reproduces sound any better, but it can sound better, because the way we experience music is not just as vibrations in the air, but as a multi-sensory experience. If we’re more enamoured of the medium – the artwork, the physicality, the space it creates – then we experience it more acutely, richly, positively.
I read an excellent piece recently on why people are still buying luxury watches in the digital age. The key point here was about the different ways we can ‘read’ the time. Looking at the time on our phones, as most of us do, takes us to a world of appointments, schedules, notifications and ‘stuff to do.’ It can make us feel anxious, overwhelmed, or indeed lonely. Checking the time on an analogue watch, however, takes us back to “an imagined time when time was still our friend,” rather than our enemy, as it can often feel these days.
I feel the same way about vinyl. It’s a purer, more singular experience compared to other formats. It’s beautiful, and it connects you with other times and places. It encourages us to slow down, to do fewer things at once, and to put the seams back into our lives. Oh, and it sounds better, too.
Hadley Coull, Flamingo