Halleluiah! The 12-inch vinyl album that once revolutionized listening to recorded music and was instrumental in driving the massive growth of the record industry from the 1960s into the ‘80s, and was all but relegated to being an archaic artifact by the digital revolution, has made a huge comeback. And in the process has also all but saved the independent retail record store that was also in danger of nearly disappearing as a result of online music sales and thievery.
Vinyl albums are now the largest growth area of the recorded music business. Sales increased some 250% since 2002, while overall music sales at the same time declined by 50%. At the middle of the last decade the format entered a steep growth curve. Last year alone vinyl LP sales enjoyed a 32% increase while compact discs suffered a 14.5% decline and overall recorded music sales fell 8.4%.
It may not be enough to restore recorded music to the central place it used to occupy in popular culture and entertainment. But the predicted death of the music album as a physical product a result of iTunes, digital music files, the iPod, iPhone and other portable players, cell phones and computer pads has at least been staved off for the time being.
Being born in 1954, I was all but weaned on the 45 RPM seven-inch single and then the 12-inch long-player. Yes, I do enjoy such online music listening services as Spotify – especially the portability and access to millions of songs it enables and, which I’ll discuss in a later column, the ease with which one can compile your own playlists – but the vinyl album was central to my life and the career path I half-chose/half-fortuitously fell into of music journalism that flourished into the broad writing and editing work I do today as well as my parallel pursuits in a variety of positions and endeavors in the music business.
I recall my mother wondering why I spent nearly all my spare funds on record albums during the summer of 1971 in between my high school graduation and starting college. I was later able to tell her that it was research for my profession. Yes, an album collection was a pain to lug around due to the size and weight of the discs if one moved residences with any frequency. But those albums were treasured possessions and in a way a part of my very soul.
One reason why vinyl has returned is the fact that audiophiles and many consumers prefer the richer, deeper and broader sound quality of vinyl over the compact disc and digital music files. (Interesting personal fact: back when I was the staff writer for the major label company PolyGram Records, I wrote the very first press release announcing the introduction of the compact disc – which had been developed by PolyGram’s parent company Philips in partnership with Sony – to the American market. Little did I know at the time....) I wasn’t exactly a first adopter of CDs, clinging to my 12-inchers for a bit before finally conceding, but in time I did come to appreciate the convenience of the format.
But I never liked how the artwork that was part of the vinyl album experience shrunk in size and impact. And as my vision began to decline not long after I hit the age of 40, I soon after had to get a magnifying glass to read some of the credits, which I’d always done as a music buff but also needed to do as a music journalist and PR writer.
And too often the design of CD booklets and back cover tray-card inserts is so poorly done the small-type is unreadable. (Plus who among us of a certain age and cultural background didn’t use album covers and especially double album gatefold packages to clean the seeds out of our marijuana and roll joints?)
It’s still unclear what if any effect the vinyl revival will have on musical creativity. The 12-inch album revolutionized how artists recorded and issued their music. It won’t have an impact anywhere near as great. But it does prove how good things from our analog past can come back around and be appreciated and valued again.
And I am gratified that new generations will now enjoy the thrill that was a major pleasure in my life: buying an album, taking it home, removing the shrink wrap, taking out the disc, putting it onto the turntable, listening all the way through side one, enjoying the brief pause as you flipped over the record, and then playing side two. It was a lovely way to consume music, especially enjoying the artwork and printed details as the music played, and I am grateful to know it won’t just survive but continue to thrive.