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Posted Jan 2nd, 2015 (3:27 pm) by Matt Felten
Mr. Face EP
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2014 has seen an astounding resurrection of the vinyl record as a common mode of music purchasing and listening. Some say it’s just a hipster fad, but perhaps there is a deeper cause to this widespread re-adoption of an old technology.

In an historic moment in 21st century music history, Jack White’s Lazaretto LP broke a 20 year record for vinyl sales, with over 40,000 sales in the first week in just the U.S. Despite a decline in music sales overall in 2014, vinyl sales have skyrocketed across the board. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, vinyl LP sales were up a whopping 49% compared to 2013, with over eight million vinyl sales in total.

This is more than just a small throwback fad. The record is re-emerging as a legitimate and highly coveted medium of music, but no one is entirely sure how exactly this outdated and objectively inferior piece of music technology has made it’s way back into the mainstream marketplace.

I’d say one reason may be the packaging. Presentation is such an important component in selling a product within a market with seemingly endless options for commodities, to the point that when it’s done well enough it can make almost anything seem appealing to the consumer eye. Taking advantage of this consumer susceptibility, many artists have been wrapping up their records in attention-grabbing packages with additional material or interactive components. This strategy has given new glamour to a medium that never held much widespread appeal to the music listening generations that did not grow up using it. For example, Jack White’s Lazaretto Ultra LP package includes 2 vinyl-only hidden tracks beneath the center label, one of which only plays at 78 RPM, and the other only at 45 RPM, and a hologram etched into the vinyl. These features undoubtedly contributed to the records immense success. Ty Segall’s Mr. Face EP featured two vinyls that doubled as 3D glasses to look at the 3D artwork that came with the record. It’s certainly very likely that this type of packaging strategy has contributed to the vinyl craze significantly; but I doubt it tells the whole story.

Perhaps the sound itself plays a part. We all have that audiophiliac friend that is always ranting about how much better vinyls sound than cd or digital (talking to you, John). Although sound quality is subjective to an extent, it is a possibility that enough time has passed since the introduction of the digital music format that people are bored of the “clean” sound of digital music, and are gravitating back to the warm and natural feel of the vinyl. After all, vinyl is the only consumer music format that is completely lossless audio, and it sounds much more like how we hear music organically from an instrument. On the other hand, vinyl often has surface noise, crackling, popping, and whining caused by the manufacturing process and the scraping of the needle. This is arguably detrimental to the sound quality, but that extra noise is part of the vintage experience, which people have begun to seek so avidly. Although I do enjoy a vinyl or two once in a while and can absolutely appreciate the appeal, it often just doesn’t cut it in the low frequencies, making the format much less enjoyable for electro, EDM, house, or any of my other staple genres which often rely on a that chest-rattling bass.

Personally, I think the foundation of this phenomenon is all much more fundamentally rooted in our human nature than any reason listed above. At it’s core, I think the vinyl revival is simply a combination of two things: our instinctual longing for both a physical connection with material objects, and a sentimental connection with the past. People want something to hold, to feel, to see, and to own. Vinyl delivers this far more than digital music ever could. And why do people spend insane amounts of money on vintage cars? They’re a material portal to a past world. They hold history, character, and mystique. It would seem logical that as technology advances, the older and less effective technology would fade away and eventually disappear completely. But, typical of humans, we rarely base our behaviors upon logic. Miraculously, our collective attachment to certain physical and sentimental relics of the past has given the vinyl new life, carving out a significant chunk of the music market in the process.

Because this resurgence is so recent, it’s hard to predict if vinyl will withstand the exponentially increasing changes in technology and society. Regardless, this trend tells an interesting story about who we are as consumers, and as human beings.

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