why we love the vinyl revival

During the shiny reign of CDs or at the dawn of digital downloads, there was a constant refrain of: “Who listens to records anymore?” But with vinyl sales marking the only bright spot in today’s struggling music market, it’s not just your grandparents...

by Emily Manning and Adam Fletcher
14 October 2014, 10:15am

Fourth Floor

Urban Outfitters Chief Administrative Officer Calvin Hollinger made waves with his recent announcement that the lifestyle giant is is the number one vinyl retailer in the world. Although this proud proclamation has since been disproved by the Nancy Drews over at Billboard, who awarded top vinyl hustling accolades to Amazon, there's no denying that Urban's trend manufacturing is part of vinyl's new-found success. 

According to Forbes, the last decade has seen a decrease in music sales across all mediums, even digital sales. Last year was the first time since iTunes's launch in 2001 that total sales experienced a downturn from years past. CD sales are on a perilous track similar to cassette tapes before them, heading straight for extinction from music stores' shelves. The sole, unlikely bright spot? Vinyl. Last year, Billboard reported that 6.1 million LPs were purchased in the United States in 2013, the largest number since 1991.

And this upswing isn't going unnoticed. Barnes and Noble, Target, even Whole Foods have all announced initiatives to introduce vinyl offerings on their shelves. But with enormous mass market chains competing to get their slice of the action, does vinyl's newfound trendiness mean bad news for independent record shops' business? Actually, not really. Mike Davis, owner of Academy Records Annex, one of New York's favourite independent record retailers and used buyers, told us: "Academy has always had passionate and knowledgeable music lovers as our core customer base. I suspect UO is targeting a somewhat different demographic. We were well established long before the current vinyl fad and expect to be doing our thing long after it subsides."

As a former General Manager for Matador Records, founder of Cornell University's Hip Hop Collection and Punk History archives, and an author of over 18 books including Enjoy the Experience (the largest collection of American private-press vinyl ever collected and presented), Johan Kugelberg knows a lot about records. He also sees Urban's output as ultimately positive: "The more the merrier. If record labels can churn out more vinyl through the support of Urban Outfitters, that's fantastic."

So why have these retailers struck gold with vinyl in the first place? The idealist in me would like to hope it's not just a legion of 15-year-olds hanging Pink Floyd album art on their bedroom walls and using the actual record as a coaster. If you truly love music, there are lots of advantages to dusting off those records.

For one, vinyl's sound quality is much, much better than the new Lil Wayne leak with "DJ KHALED, WE THE BEST" proclaimed at every interval on the glitchy illegal download. With a little research and solid hunting, you can track down great speakers and tables for even better prices. Listening to A Tribe Called Quest's booming basslines through laptop speakers or through iPhone earbuds just can't compare.

Also, it's often cheaper to either slyly snag the long forgotten records from your parents' basement, dig through donated records at thrift stores for ones that aren't in miserable condition, or check out what used LP's local record shops have. Often times, you'll be able to track down iconic albums that absolutely everyone owned for next to nothing. Instead of dropping the $24.98 Urban Outfitters is asking for Fleetwood Mac's Rumours (the sixth best selling album of all time) I nabbed a gently used for a slightly more modest $2 at a charity shop. Record shopping is also a great way of discovering new music. The weird shit you ran across in a bargain bin might end up as your new favourite jam.

Records also serve as something of a history book for your favorite bands and artists. As total, unabashed Smiths nerds, one of the best birthday presents I ever gave my brother was an original 12" single of the band's 1986 single Ask, which came with a B-side version neither of us even knew existed. You start to get a much better understanding of a band's unique visual identity and what they were producing in the moment when it's not neatly compiled into digitally remastered compilations sold exclusively on iTunes.

For Kugelberg, records combat the endless scroll syndrome our digitally-focused culture encourages: "I like records more than sound files because I don't want my music experience to be a cheapened commodity. I think listening to mP3s on your earbuds connected to your phone is fast food consumption, on the run, in the subway. It cheapens one of the most vital art experiences there is. The endless choice makes people throw away their sound experience because they are so constantly distracted by their myriad of choices. The record is a perfect product in a way, as it showcases artwork as beautifully as a coffee table book or an art print. And as each LP side is 20-odd minutes, it is a perfect stretch of time for musical contemplation. It isn't a playlist that goes on forever, or for that matter, a bite-sized snippet of pop coming at you in an elevator or supermarket or club."

For Davis, there's no single reason why people listen to and purchase vinyl, "It means different things to different people. Hopefully the one thing they have in common is that they derive real joy from it."


Text Emily Manning
Photography Fourth Floor

The Smiths
matador records
Urban Outfitters
private press
Emily Manning