The Rise of Vinyl.

Record player

“Yet the people who do still buy physical media are audiophiles who are able to appreciate vinyl,” said a friend from a community I belong to.

Yes and no, was my answer. It wasn’t in those words, or short, though. Vinyl has been picking up steam for about 10 years now. Maybe more, I don’t know. What caused this? Well, I have a complicated and unscientific theory, so strap on.

When the Gramophone was invented (the first record player), contemporary composer Igor Stravinsky had this to say*:”In Johann Sebastian Bach’s day it was necessary for him to walk ten miles to a neighbouring town to hear Buxtehude play his works. Today anyone, living no matter where, has only to turn a knob or put on a record to hear what he likes. Indeed, it is in just this incredible facility, this lack of necessity for any effort, that the evil of this so-called progress lies. For in music, more than in any other branch of art, understanding is given only to those who make an active effort. Passive receptivity is not enough.”

Those words might sound a bit like snobbery, but that’s just because Igor was a snob. Still, he was a genius and I love his music, so we can forgive him, can we? Plus, he had a point. Just ignore the rest and focus on “this lack of necessity for an effort” is where “the evil of this so called progress lies”. We humans are complicated, we want everything now, and if we get it we get bored, even depressed. Have you ever heard those stories from famous musicians or actors, of how at the peak of their career they were dealing with depression? It essentially boils down to the fact that something wonderful happens to humans when we achieve something difficult. We get rewarded with happiness. If we reach a point where effort is no longer necessary, we don’t get a reward. So I ask you, what’s the reward with streaming services where everything is at your finger tips? Where everything can be found and nothing must be chased? It’s like the Lion at the Zoo. He doesn’t need to hunt anymore, but this doesn’t necessarily make him happy.

I know lots of us enjoy listening to music on our smartphone, on out favourite streaming service. Good music, like all good art and entertainment, can do wonders with our moods. It can transport us to other times, rile our emotions in a good way and much more. Plus there is that chase down a rabbit hole with a streaming service, where one keeps finding more and more interesting music. The problem, like many things in the internet, is that there’s too much information too fast for a human to process. So eventually our brain glazes over everything, we get bored or overwhelmed, and the excitement is not there anymore.

Vinyl on the other hand is a beautiful tactile object, it’s scarce and thus expensive. It’s large and has beautiful artwork. And playing a record is a ritual. It slows you down, it makes you pay attention, thus making you appreciate the music even more. And you can enhance the experience by spending money on quality parts to enhance the sound, clean the record and the needle, and a bunch of other accessories. All these are things to chase, things that get us excited.

On the other hand, when it comes to streaming Apps, have you seen the album art on them? It’s a stamp. The search experience is ok, because you find what you’re looking for, but is it exciting? Compare this to visiting multiple record shops throughout the city in search of some difficult vinyl you cannot find. It’s an adventure, you discover areas of the city you maybe have never visited. You might go searching on thrift stores too, or garage sales, or flea markets. It’s the hunt that’s exciting. It’s the old “the journey is the destination” concept. And all this is a thing, it has a name, it’s called delayed gratification.

Going back to my friend’s comment, there’s many a site on the internet explaining why vinyl is superior in terms of audio quality, but I’ve read through those theories multiple times, and they make little sense. It’s like a Sci-Fi novel, where the writer explains things in a convincing way to make the reader believe they’re true. But if you really pay attention, it doesn’t make sense. The honest truth is that vinyl sounds in a specific way, which probably triggers some sort of nostalgic emotion on the listeners. And I’m sure that with a valvular Amp it sounds amazing, but that’s far from a thing a regular consumer can afford. Even still, digital audio can reach levels of accuracy and quality that are way beyond what vinyl can capture. The accuracy of digital audio can’t be beaten by analogue systems. It’s too inconsistent.

Pono player with headphones

So to wrap this theory up, vinyl is very popular not because it sounds so well, but rather because it’s a beautiful object, a collectors item. And in the case of used records, it has a history. But the most important thing is that it’s not readily available. We might not have to walk ten miles to listen to it, but you must put effort in finding it and caring for it. But most important of all, you must be able to afford it!

*Igor Stravinsky: An Autobiography