Vinyl records are, objectively speaking, inferior.
Stack them up against streaming services or CDs and all the glaring problems emerge. Seldom will you find a vinyl record with no pops or clicks, even if it’s brand new. Even with regular upkeep and good equipment, vinyl records are prone to skipping and damage. The sound gets worse with each listen.
You can’t listen to vinyl while you drive, nor can you listen to it at the gym. Records are so large and unwieldy that you have to store them in a crate and they won’t even fit on many bookshelves.
Good turntables cost upwards of $150, and that’s without accounting for the receiver or the speakers. You might try a cheap Victrola or Crosley suitcase player, only to find that it will only work with a penny taped to the needle. Then you will supposedly scratch your records into dust within a few dozen plays. And those bad boys cost $30 each, so you end up not saving any money at all!
God help you if you try to find even a slightly obscure vinyl record. You’ll end up waiting three weeks to get a suspiciously low quality “Very Good Plus” condition record for $50 + $30 shipping from some nameless dude off Discogs living on the other side of the world.
Or maybe you’ll try to get it at your local record shop, digging through endless crates of Styx and Donna Summer LPs that sound like frying bacon when you try to play them.
Yet despite all this, I love vinyl as a format, truly and sincerely. I’m among the hordes of people who bought up 43 million-plus records in 2022.
In this post, I’m going to explain why vinyl is still a thing in the age of Spotify.
1. Despite being technically worse, the sound of vinyl has charm.
If you’ve ever been cornered by a vinyl nerd at a party or listened to your boomer uncle rant about how AC/DC was the peak of music and it’s been downhill since, you’ve probably heard that vinyl is “warmer” or “feels more real.” Having experienced the pleasure of listening to well-maintained vinyl myself, I can tell you these sentiments ring true. But to understand why, you need to understand how music is stored in physical form.
How musical information is stored on vinyl records, CDs, and MP3s
Records work because a needle works its way through physical grooves etched into vinyl. As the record spins, the grooves move the needle, which causes a stylus to vibrate, which a cartridge in the record player turns into an electrical signal which is sent to the speakers. If you had a very strong magnifying glass and very keen eyes, you might actually be able to see the data stored in physical form on the record, uncompressed and unaltered.
CDs are purely digital, which means the music stored as a series of 0s and 1s on a CD in the form of “pits” and “lands.” The pits and lands are read by a laser as the CD spins, with nothing actually making contact with the surface of the CD as it plays. Like with a vinyl record, this information is converted into an electrical signal which is sent to the speaker. If you had a very strong microscope, you would be able to see the pits and lands.
Then you have digital media, such as MP3. CDs are “lossless”, meaning that every single aspect of the original recorded music is stored with no compression or alteration. MP3s and other similar formats, on the other hand, do use compression. In the early days of the iPod, this meant you could have “1,000 songs in your pocket” with a noticeable reduction in the quality of music. These days, with a strong internet connection, you can easily stream music at a quality of 256 kbps which is virtually indistinguishable from CD quality, at least for day-to-day listening. (Mastering music is another story.)
How different media change our perception of music
In the world of modern music streaming, the files that you listen to are generally going to be excellent. Gone are the days of Napster, BitTorrent, and Megaupload where you would wait a long time and maybe get a computer virus just to get your hands on some D-tier 128 kbps MP3s that weren’t even properly labeled. Just listen to it on Spotify, or even YouTube in glorious 1080p!
But the stink of early digital media has not disappeared from public consciousness and people over 25 remember an age of muddy drums and underwater vocals. So you might think “OK, the true music nerds who want the best audio will go for either lossless files or CDs.”
But again, it begs the question: why is vinyl still in the conversation? And to me, there are two reasons, both of which stem immediately from the flaws of vinyl records.
How vinyl fights in the loudness war
The loudness war is a trend in which music audio levels have steadily increased over the years. This is because producers have heavily compressed audio files to basically be constantly loud because it increases short-term interest in songs. This is very common on CDs and other digital music files.
When sounds go over a certain level, they get “clipped” and certain sounds from the original recording session never make it onto the CD. It can make music exhausting to listen to and can crowd out the punchiness of drums and other sounds that are supposed to be louder than others.
Vinyl records don’t have the dynamic range of CDs. This makes it hard, but not necessarily impossible, to participate in the loudness war. Clipped audio just doesn’t play nice with vinyl presses, and this physical limitation forces audio technicians to dial back the noise and let the music breathe.
In other words, vinyl can force audio technicians to make better decisions when mastering music. This is not because vinyl is superior, but rather because it literally cannot do what the loudness warriors want it to.
Listening to vinyl is an aesthetic experience
Surface noise makes records sound better. I’m dead serious.
Unlike CDs, physical contact is required for vinyl records to play. Every scratch on your records, every little infinitely small speck of dust will show up in audio as a pop or a crack, or the occasional tiny skip. In a purely technical sense, this means that the vinyl record is an inferior medium, poorer at conveying the exact nature of the data stored on it than a CD.
And yet, a little subtle surface noise can make music sound “alive” and “real” where CDs sound “clean” and “sterile.” It creates this subtle backdrop upon which music is layered, which makes the listener feel like they are physically present where the music is being played.
This is nothing more than a quirk of human senses and conscious experience that just happens to line up perfectly with the technical deficiencies of the medium. And yet it’s beautiful all the same. There’s a reason why hip-hop and electronic musicians – even to this day – sample vinyl records to give their own music texture.
2. Listening to a vinyl record requires a mindful approach to finding and listening to music.
Raw efficiency is a hugely important value in many industries. Planes need to arrive and depart on time, highways should remain unclogged, internet speeds should be fast, and Domino’s should deliver in 30 minutes or less.
But when it comes to subjective human experiences, raw efficiency is not the only value. Meal kits cost about as much as ordering readymade food, but people buy them anyway because they want to make something with their hands. Vinyl records are popular, in part, because of this principle.
Spotify can inundate you with an endless tap of music if you want it. You don’t ever have to search for music before YouTube recommends you more. Technically speaking, if the goal is just to listen to music, then you never should put a minute of effort in. And yet…
Finding vinyl records takes effort
People identify with their favorite music and bands on a deep level. The act of hunting for music you will like cannot be solved by AI because it is the act that is important, not the result.
Vinyl takes this to the extreme. If you want a record, you have to pay either a lot of time or a lot of money. You can spend your time digging through crates and manually inspecting records for scratches. You can spend your money buying brand new records for $30 each on Amazon or Discogs, then wait a week to receive them.
No matter which path you choose, you must ask “what do I want to listen to” or “would I listen to this.” And most folks, unless they’re made of money, are only going to pick the records that they’re going to listen to nonstop, because there’s no “skip” button here.
Playing vinyl records requires intentionality
When you put a vinyl record on, you have to ask yourself a few questions.
Am I willing to listen to this thing the whole way through without skips?
Will I be hanging around in this room for at least 22 minutes while this side of the record plays?
Do I want to pull this thing out of its paper sleeve, gently place it into a record player, and position the needle perfectly so that it will start at the beginning?
Every part of the process takes effort. You just don’t get this when you push play on your phone. Listening to vinyl records requires a commitment to the ritual.
Just like a ritual prayer or a superstitious baseball player trying to improve their luck, the vinyl nerd is preparing themselves mentally to listen. If you go to all that effort, odds are you’re going to pay close attention. And it’s through that act of effort and intention, that the listener truly focuses on the music, hearing things they wouldn’t have heard if they just “put it on in the background.”
3. Record covers double as artwork.
If you watch enough music YouTubers, it won’t take long to find someone with vinyl record sleeves behind them as set pieces. That’s because the giant 12-inch sleeves just look stunning in-person and on camera in a way that you don’t see with CDs and especially not with digital downloads. In short, they’re wonderful art pieces in addition to being strictly functional ways to listen to music.
This is where the clunky size of vinyl records really pays off. One of the downsides of streaming, despite how great it is for music discovery, is that music comes to us without context. Album art provides some of that context in a simple, easy-to-digest form. With vinyl records, the art is so large you can’t ignore it.
I have CDs from my younger years, but most of my listening has been through digital means. That means that the vast majority of album art I have seen in my lifetime has been on a tiny screen, be it an iPod or a phone. The rest has been printed for the cases of CDs, just shy of 5 inches square.
Let me tell you – when you buy vinyl records for music you’ve heard a million times, the first thing you notice upon unboxing is just how much detail you missed on the album art. Every color, every line, every trivial little inclusion really pops when you have big art in your hands. Maybe that’s part of why about half of vinyl record buyers don’t even own record players.
Every record you buy doubles as a poster. You can’t say that about Spotify.
4. Vinyl records serve our desire to once again have tangible experiences.
“Buttons are bougie now” – this is the headline of an article I read on The Atlantic recently and it really resonated with me as someone who spends so much time online. I’ve taken to printing my drafts to proofread them before posting them, only to shred the paper and use it in the garden. When possible, I’m starting to visit people in-person rather than over FaceTime.
Maybe I burned out on screen time because of my career. Perhaps I came to appreciate physical experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. But I know for sure that I’m not alone here.
We live in a world of fidget spinners and pop-its. You can buy stainless steel fidget toys for $69.99 on Amazon. All this time touching phantom objects on screens and having experiences that leave no physical trace of having ever happened…it’s starting to add up.
People are literally willing to pay extra to touch physical objects now. That’s how badly we crave this.
5. The act of collection is special in and of itself. Few things are more collectible than vinyl records.
Between 33 and 40% of Americans collects one thing or another according to Psychology Today. The urge to surround ourselves with things we love or think we might need is ancient. Archeologists have found that over 100,000 years ago, our distant grandfathers and grandmothers in the Kalahari region of southern Africa gathered crystals for purposes still unknown to this day. Maybe they’d be super into Funko Pop if they were alive now.
There are a million reasons why a person might feel the drive to collect things. It could be their deep-seated interest in the objects they are collecting. Others may be seeking status or prestige. Still others may be staving off their fear. The motives that drive collector behavior have puzzled psychologists for years and probably will continue to do so for a long time.
But one thing that’s undeniable is that if you’ve got the collector bug, then you’ve got it. Stamps. Coins. Baseball cards. Comics. Dolls and toys. Damn near anything you could care about, you could collect.
And ranking very high among the common collectible items, no matter which source you use, are vinyl records. They’re widely available, relatively inexpensive to acquire compared to other common collectibles, and they’re flat. That means you can buy 1,000 records or more before you line the bookshelves of even one wall of one small room in one house. You can’t say that about antique furniture.
If you look at them from a literal or technical standpoint, vinyl records shouldn’t be popular in 2023. We should have moved on by now, and yet we continue to see our reflections in these black music discs.
When you’re building your business, worried sick about how you’re going to stack up to competitors, consider the case of vinyl records. They are neither technically superior, nor are they cheap. But yet they’re successful because they have character and quirks, and people like that.
The limitations of vinyl – its size, the fidelity of its audio, the fussiness of getting it to play – are part of the experience. That experience becomes a ritual, and people feel fully committed to the music when they go through a multi-step process to get it to play.
Day-to-day human relationships are like this too – complicated and requiring effort to maintain, but really satisfying nonetheless. Just something to think about when you run a small business. If you can’t be as efficient as a vast music streaming library, you can be as charming as vinyl.
Speaking of which, I have some crates to dig through right now…