Part 3: People Under 30, Listening to Vinyl in the Material World
“Record stores keep human social contact alive. They bring people together.
Without independent record stores the community breaks down,
With everyone sitting in front of their computers.”
~ Ziggy Marley
In 2017, as a Federal Member for Grayndler, current Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, age 60, used a parliamentary speech to promote Record Store Day. “You can download or stream the latest song by your favorite artist without leaving your lounge chair. But you don’t get the experience of seeking it out in a record store, thereby opening yourself to a world of music you might never have heard. You do not hear that song (you downloaded) on a full album with a collection of tracks chosen by the performer to be heard in a particular order. You don’t get to feel the record in your hands, read the liner notes, admire the pictures and artwork.”
Now, it seems that the dream independent record store owners had in 2007, reflected in Albanese’s words, is coming true, because it’s not just used LPs from the 60s and 70s that are selling briskly. And it’s not just old hippies in faded jeans haunting the aisles of record stores looking for a friendly ghost or two. Almost all major artists, and many independent ones too, are releasing their new work in extravagant and elegant vinyl packages.
Taylor Swift’s Midnights, which was released with four different covers all harkening back to the 1970s in one respect or another, moved 945,000 copies in 2022—almost enough to go platinum on those sales alone! Fun fact: in 2022, one of every 25 vinyl albums sold in the U.S. were by Swift. Swift also had a large part in making Record Store Day 2023 one for the record books. While most RSD releases have pressing limited to about 20,000 copies, Swift’s Folklore: The Long Pond Sessions, clocked in at 115,000 copies worldwide.
Further, Luminate reported that, although the total number of albums sold in all formats in 2022 dropped by 8.2 percent, sales of albums on vinyl increased by 4.2 percent, with sales upwards of 43.5 million units. There is a very high probability that in 2023 at least 50 percent of all album sales will be on it, which has become a billion-dollar business in the United States alone.
Without fail, the young people I spoke with while working on this piece cited the tactile element of records as one of their biggest appeals. And the tactile experience afforded by LPs begins with the physical contact between a sapphire-tipped lathe and a lacquer-coated disc of aluminum. In a multistep process, that lacquer disc is transformed into a beautiful metal master disc, as slick and shiny as the Silver Surfer’s cosmic board, engraved with a microscopic canyon. This canyon, or groove, runs from the outermost edge to the playout groove along the edge of the label, in a long, continuous spiral where music has been captured in a series of peaks and valleys that reproduce, in a physical form, the exact sound wave created by the original performance.
Once you bring the record home and place it on your turntable, this sound wave is magically read, braille-like, by a stylus cut from diamond. The subsequent vibrations are amplified and—voila—blissfulness ensues. Many people claim to hear a kind of sonic warmth in LPs that is lacking in CDs. Perhaps such warmth comes from the friction that is created when the stylus scrapes lovingly against the etchings in the groove. With a CD, the object itself is whisked out of sight into an enclosed drawer. A button is pushed, likely on a remote control, and somewhere in that dark box, hidden from the listener, a laser hits a cold frictionless piece of plastic.
It seems that for younger people, part of enjoying this phenomenon of playing an LP is escaping the impersonal, intangible aspect of all things digital. My son Peter recently bought two LPs by a Swedish artist called Bladee. I asked him about why he was willing to spend the extra money and take the time preparing to be online at exactly the moment the records “dropped” to the public. He explained, “I live in a world where almost all of my music, my homework, my reading, and movies and T.V. are consumed through a screen, so owning a physical copy of something I love is special.” The 500 copies of these two LPs sold out within minutes.
And, of course, in the last two years, COVID-19 was piled atop this generation’s digital isolation, further distancing people from their friends and families and the joys of public gatherings. So maybe, as Cross related in his comments about the advent of Record Store Day, being with like-minded people where music is playing is no longer just a way of connecting with fellow nerds. Maybe it has become one way of partly healing wounded spirits and learning to re-engage with other people face to face.
Especially for young people who grew up in an era where they could sit hidden away in their rooms acquiring digital music files and storing them in tiny metal boxes, LPs and the beautiful artwork that accompanies them can be a doorway back into the pleasures of a three-dimensional world. Can anyone argue that owning an original copy of The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers with the real zipper is not light years more fun than any of the digital alternatives?
On the same day that I spoke with Keith Brown at Music Millennium, I also hit up a few younger customers to try to get their perspectives about why they are sometimes willing to pay double the price of a CD in order to own a piece of music they like in an LP format. Travis, who is in his mid-twenties, was shopping with his girlfriend and thumbing through a thick stack of LPs by King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard. He told me he’d recently purchased a new Audio Technica turntable and said he has enjoyed finding a new hobby. “I think it’s a lot of fun to go out and hunt for these albums! You can get different colored discs and find rare live albums that are not on CDs.” He has discovered a collectability aspect of LPs that certainly doesn’t exist with digital audio files, and really not even with CDs. Ewan Currie of the band The Sheepdogs says, “I think people like having a collection. You know, a library you can have on display.”
Keith Brown initially responded to my question about vinyl’s resurgence with a sarcastic grin, saying, “Oh, well, I got back into it for the expense and the inconvenience!” But later he confided that he does feel the older format has some distinct aesthetic advantages. “I do think vinyl is more fun to collect. You don’t hear people saying, ‘I have every Tracy Chapman CD.’ I think vinyl has got a personality. It’s got heart and soul. I think CDs are kinda cold and clinical. You used to be able to watch a label spin around, and I got so many paper cuts from slitting open records with my finger.” As David Lee Roth once said, “If you want it, you got to bleed for it, baby.”
This collectability is multifaceted and incorporates features such as overall quality, the differences between printings, the variety of labels, and the different-colored vinyl that Travis mentioned. Another young shopper, Jaden Henderson, compared owning LPs to owning books. “You want to have them on your shelf, because they’re something you love.” And interestingly enough, like the book lover who buys books but doesn’t always get around to reading them, Luminate also reported that in 2022 as much as 50 percent of those people buying vinyl LPs do not even own a turntable!
I also met a young guy named Blake at Millennium. He is in his early thirties, does not have a Spotify account, and was shopping with his Mom, who herself has spent a lot of time at Music Millennium. He has refined his LP collecting mostly to searching for what he considers high-quality copies of vintage vinyl because of “quality control issues” with new pressings. Despite the resurgence of 180-gram, virgin vinyl, Blake still feels that many new pressings are flawed in numerous ways. “A lot of times they are warped, or the center hole is not punched accurately.” He also was concerned with the packaging of the vintage LPs he was seeking out. “Are you familiar with Stoughton jackets?” he asked me. I confessed that I was not. “Well, it’s thicker than a regular LP jacket.”
Stoughton Printing is a Los Angeles-based company that has created top-of-the-line jackets, labels, and inserts for LPs since 1964. Stoughton not only excels in the creation of sturdy products but in the reproduction of cover art as well. Randall Roberts, writing for the Los Angeles Times in 2014, spoke with Patrick McCarthy, project manager for Light in The Attic Records, a reissue label that uses Stoughton jackets for much of its packaging. “It’s like when you get into an Audi or a BMW. You shut the door and it has that sound,” McCarthy told Roberts. “It’s this almost imperceptible quality, but you know it when you have it in your hands.”
Blake was adamant that the most important part of the LP equation for him is tangibility. “I grew up in the CD era, I was born in 1990, and a lot of people were into iTunes, but you can’t say ‘oh, look at this cool album cover on my phone.’ You gotta pick it up and show it to people.”
That story repeated with just about all the young people I met. A couple at Tomorrow Records on Hawthorne exclaimed that listening to Led Zeppelin II on vinyl was better because they could feel the music in their chests as it pumped out of “real speakers” at a high volume as opposed to listening on earbuds. Agnes, whom I ran into at Mississippi Records on Albina Street, was picking up some hip hop albums—MF Doom’s Mm Food and Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest. She told me she appreciated that LPs forced her to put her phone down. And she had recently purchased a new stereo system that she was quite proud of having on display in her house.
All these reactions to the question of what attracts young people to vinyl seem to lead to the conclusion that many of the traits that make older people nostalgic for vinyl are, coincidentally, the same ones that have drawn a new generation of music listeners into the fold. And perhaps that is the ultimate commentary on the resurgence of the 12-inch vinyl record compared to all the forms of music reproduction that have come along in the last 40 years.