If you grew up before the nineteen-nineties you probably have an experience similar to Marcia Millar’s. “I was the kid who grew up with the little portable turntable,” Marcia says. “My brothers and I would play the “Disco Duck” 45 over and over again and dance to it together.”
Marcia and her husband Jay, both in their mid-thirties, can remember when the vinyl record was king. But its days were numbered. CDs were smaller, held more music, and were supposed to be all around better in every way. But while the phonograph record ruled for almost 90 years, the reign of the compact disc has been much shorter.
Jay Millar recalls the day that, at least for him, the CD died. “Everything really just changed when the iPod came out,” Jay says. “I was living in a tiny New York apartment. I had worked for record companies for years and I had walls and walls of CDs, and I remember just kind of looking at them and thinking to myself do I want these CDs? Well, I want the artwork. I want the liner notes. The light bulb went off; these are all things that things that I like better with vinyl.”
Jay’s vinyl epiphany led him to Nashville and his current job as director of marketing for United Record Pressing, one of a handful of record manufacturers still in operation in the U.S. And his CDs, they were traded for a wall of vinyl LPs that entirely fills one end of the Millar’s living room.
“I started collecting vinyl again before I even had a working turntable,” Jay says. “I just knew that’s where I had to go.”
New vinyl LP sales increased to almost four million last year, that’s the highest since 1991. It’s still a niche market comprising a little over one percent of all album sales. But it’s been a lifesaver for many retailers, with two-thirds of all LP sales coming out the racks of traditional record stores.
At first glance it might seem this revival is being driven by nostalgia, but some of the most devoted fans are from a generation of vinyl virgins. Doyle Davis is co-owner of Grimey’s New and Pre-Loved Music, a popular Nashville record store. In the twelve years that the store has been open, 2011 was the first year that vinyl sales surpassed CDs in both new and used categories.
While there are no current studies on the ages of vinyl consumers, Davis believes younger buyers are primarily driving the boom. “These kids love music and they’re discovering a format that is bringing them value,” Davis says. “They’re young enough that their parents didn’t even have record players. They grew up in homes with CDs. This is a new experience for a lot of them. They’re not just digging dad’s old turntable out of the basement and finding some of mom’s old LPs, they’re having this experience at a friend’s house.”
At 25, Lance Conzett is a member of that “CD Generation,” and for him, familiarity has bred contempt. “The CD is such a disposable thing,” Conzett says. “I’ve opened CD cases in my modest CD collection as it stands now, and they’re empty and I have no idea where that CD went and I will never find it again. But a record is so much more tangible and it takes up more space, the art’s bigger – it’s part music and part art piece.”
Record companies are tricking out the LP, offering glow-in-the-dark vinyl, reverse grooves that play from the inside out, album covers that fold into origami sculptures and many more expression of the LP as art. They are also inserting access codes so buyers can download music, videos, interviews and other special content – making the vinyl packaging a physical key that unlocks a world of options.
However, Conzett’s love of vinyl, and disdain for CDs doesn’t mean that he rejects digital music. It’s just one part of the complete package. “When I’m listening to digital music I’m not necessarily looking for the full picture.” Conzett says. “When I’m listening to records I’m listening to the entire album. When I’m listening digitally I might be listening to a playlist, or singles, or it might just be just be background music.”
The Groove of the Future?
It’s that difference – the often solitary experience of iPods and ear buds versus the total experiential nature of records – that may provide vinyl with lasting appeal. For a true believer like Jay Millar the future of music is already set on two parallel paths.
“At one end you have digital, the peak of convenience,” Millar says. “At the other end you have the peak of the experience which is vinyl, and realistically most people, practically everyone, will go to digital, but those people who want something tangible – they’re not going to hold on to CD, they’re going back to vinyl.”
While Millar’s prediction may be premature, for more and more music lovers there is definitely something going on in those grooves.