Vinyl May Be Final Nail in CD's Coffin
Courtesy Eliot Van Buskirk -
Posted October 31, 2007)
As counterintuitive as it may seem in this age of iPods and digital downloads, vinyl --
the favorite physical format of indie music collectors and audiophiles - is poised to
re-enter the mainstream, or at least become a major tributary.
Talk to almost anyone in the music business' vital indie and DJ scenes and you'll
encounter a uniformly optimistic picture of the vinyl market.
"I'm hearing from labels and distributors that vinyl is way up," said Ian Connelly, client
relations manager of independent distributor alliance IODA, in an e-mail interview. "And
not just the boutique, limited-edition colored vinyl that Jesu/Isis-style fans are hot for
Pressing plants are ramping up production, but where is the demand coming from? Why do so
many people still love vinyl, even though its bulky, analog nature is anathema to
everything music is supposed to be these days? Records, the vinyl evangelists will tell
you, provide more of a connection between fans and artists. And many of today's music fans
buy 180-gram vinyl LPs for home listening and MP3s for their portable devices.
"For many of us, and certainly for many of our artists, the vinyl is the true version of
the release," said Matador's Patrick Amory. "The size and presence of the artwork, the
division into sides, the better sound quality, above all the involvement and work the
listener has to put in, all make it the format of choice for people who really care about
Because these music fans also listen using portable players and computers, Matador and
other labels include coupons in record packaging that can be used to download MP3 versions
of the songs. Amory called the coupon program "hugely popular."
Portability is no longer any reason to stick with CDs, and neither is audio quality.
Although vinyl purists are ripe for parody, they're right about one thing: Records can
sound better than CDs.
Although CDs have a wider dynamic range, mastering houses are often encouraged to compress
the audio on CDs to make it as loud as possible: It's the so-called loudness war. Since
the audio on vinyl can't be compressed to such extremes, records generally offer a more
Another reason for vinyl's sonic superiority is that no matter how high a sampling rate
is, it can never contain all of the data present in an analog groove, Nyquist's theorem to
"The digital world will never get there," said Chris Ashworth, owner of United Record
Pressing, the country's largest record pressing plant.
Golden-eared audiophiles have long testified to vinyl's warmer, richer sound. And now
demand for vinyl is on the rise. Pressing plants that were already at capacity are staying
there, while others are cranking out more records than they did last year in order to keep
pace with demand.
Don MacInnis, owner of Record Technology in Camarillo, California, predicts production
will be up 25 percent over last year by the end of 2007. And he's not talking about small
runs of dance music for DJs, but the whole gamut of music: "new albums, reissues, majors
and indies ... jazz, blues, classical, pop and a lot of (classic) rock."
Turntables are hot again as well. Insound, an online music retailer that recently began
selling USB turntables alongside vinyl, can't keep them in stock, according to the
company's director, Patrick McNamara.
And on Oct. 17, Amazon.com launched a vinyl-only section stocked with a growing collection
of titles and several models of record players.
Big labels still aren't buying the vinyl comeback, but it wouldn't be the first time the
industry failed to identify a new trend in the music biz.
"Our numbers, at least, don't really point to a resurgence," said Jonathan Lamy, the
Recording Industry Association of America's director of communications. Likewise, Nielsen
SoundScan, which registered a slight increase in vinyl sales last year, nonetheless showed
a 43 percent decrease between 2000 and 2006.
But when it comes to vinyl, these organizations don't really know what they're talking
about. The RIAA's numbers are misleading because its member labels are only now beginning
to react to the growing demand for vinyl. As for SoundScan, its numbers don't include many
of the small indie and dance shops where records are sold. More importantly, neither
organization tracks used records sold at stores or on eBay -- arguably the central
clearinghouse for vinyl worldwide.
Vinyl's popularity has been underreported before.
"The Consumer Electronics Association said that only 100,000 turntables were sold in 2004.
Numark alone sold more than that to pro DJs that year," said Chris Roman, product manager
And the vinyl-MP3 tag team might just hasten the long-predicted death of the CD.
San Francisco indie band The Society of Rockets, for example, plans to release its next
album strictly on vinyl and as MP3 files.
"Having just gone through the process of mastering our new album for digital and for
vinyl, I can say it is completely amazing how different they really sound," said lead
singer and guitarist Joshua Babcock in an e-mail interview. "The way the vinyl is so much
better and warmer and more interesting to listen to is a wonder."
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