Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Argument for Vinyl: Six Practical Reasons Why You Should Be Buying It

Notes: see my Neighborhood Guide to Buying Music in Seattle for more on where to get new and used records. The title image is a 50x magnification that I took of actual record grooves via light microscopy.

Anyone who has read this blog will probably not be surprised to hear that I spend a good amount of time searching through record shops, thrift stores and merch tables for new and used vinyl records. That's right, I said "vinyl records", and while that's clearly your cue to write me off as a pretentious, vintage obsessed, hipster luddite, I want you to stay with me for one more minute while I make my case. The fact is that the vinyl consumer is a small, but growing niche in the US. From 2011 to 2012 the number of vinyl records sold experienced a 17.70% increase, which beats both CD sales (with a sad 13.50% decrease), and digital album sales which only gained 14.10% according to the Nielsen SoundScan. This doesn't mean you should throw out your computer (vinyl sales were still only 3.9% of digital sales), but it does provide compelling evidence that the average record buyer has grown to incorporate more than just your neighbor's hippie kid and his Led Zeppelin obsession. There are many practical reasons for someone to buy vinyl and that is exactly what this post is about.

Vinyl sales in millions from 1993 to 2011.

1. It Looks Better
Vinyl is more attractive from an aesthetic point of view because the album art is scaled to the 12.375”/31.43 cm LP format, as opposed to the 4.75”/12.1 cm size of compact discs. We have a cultural obsession with attaining greater and greater heights of picture definition and size on our TVs; why shouldn't the same logic be applied to our music? If you don't believe that LPs look better, then try picking up an early Beach Boys record and not falling in love with the vibrant colors. I own lots of digital music, but the truth is that the user-friendly iTunes format succeeds in sterilizing my favorite albums, whose liner notes, and yes, even creases, are part of the listening experience.

A few of my favorite local and national/international records. Thanks to Nikki for helping me take this image!

2. It Doesn't Cost THAT Much More
In fact, a record like I mentioned above will probably only cost you between $1 and $5 (yes, cheaper than iTunes or Amazon MP3s) at shops like Jive Time Records, Everyday Music, or the Melrose Vinyl Mall, and while new titles do come with a premium, it usually isn't more than a few dollars greater than the corresponding CD price here in Seattle ($12-18 on average at Sonic Boom). Even the record player itself is available for under $150. 

3. You Can Still Take It With You
So you’re thinking, “Assuming I do buy the disc and the player, what am I supposed to do, only listen to music at home?” You’re right, that used to be an issue, but nowadays almost every release comes with a personal download code so you can get the MP3 files free of charge.

4. Vinyl Is More Engaging
Differences in media format change how the listener internalized the album. For example, playing a record involves changing the side, which forces the listener to be more engaged. In addition, because it's slightly harder to listen to a single song on a record than on a CD (tapes are similar in this respect), you are more likely to listen to the record as a distinct entity (as it was intended). You may or may not care about these things, in fact they may be inconvenient in many cases depending on what you're listening to and when, but nonetheless, these are good reasons why you should own vinyl copies of your favorite records.

5. Just About Everything Is Available On Vinyl These Days!
For many years, vinyl was such a specialty item that it was impractical to purchase it. Releases were expensive and not routinely available for many small-run and independent titles. This is no longer the case; small-town residents can now purchase material online and those of us in sunny Seattle rarely need to go further than Capitol Hill, Ballard, or Fremont to find whatever we want. The internet-fueled flattening of the music industry has made it more and more cost effective for small businesses to cater to the growing vinyl niche. 

6. It Sounds Better
You may have heard that records produce a better sound than CDs…this is both correct and incorrect. Vinyl is analog, meaning that it is produced from the actual sound waves the make up the original recording. In contrast, CDs work by converting that sound into a binary sequence of 1s and 0s (i.e. digital) by taking snapshots of the original material (44,100 times per second is the standard) with the degree of accuracy that is specified by the amount of data in each sample, called the bit number (16 bits is the standard). Many people contend that modern recording technology has advanced to the point where it isn't theoretically possible for the human ear to hear the difference between records and CDs; however, both early CDs and electronic files (which sacrifice still more information in the interest of space) are clearly inferior to analog recordings. Some people claim that they can't tell the difference, but I frankly think that's bull. (More on how CDs work here).

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