Vinyl Is Absolutely Not a ‘Fashion Statement’ (Except When It Totally Is)
Roughly a quarter of a century after it was stabbed in the back and left for dead by CDs, vinyl is seemingly everywhere -- and so is the discourse surrounding its unlikely revival.
Depending on who you listen to, vinyl sales are either spiking like crazy with no end in sight, or merely enjoying a minor reversal in a steep downward trend that's lasted for decades. The boom is being driven by indie record stores, or it's at risk of being co-opted by trendy retailers (unless it actually isn't). Vinyl sounds better than MP3! Or does it?
The ongoing debate surrounding the format reignited earlier this week, when rock's most grizzled hi-def sound enthusiast, Neil Young, warned against the rising tide of vinyl-in-name-only releases that are sourced using CD masters. As he put it, "All the new products that come out on vinyl are actually CDs on vinyl, which is really nothing but a fashion statement."
Young's quote, widely taken out of context though it was, loosely echoed sentiments expressed by industry execs in a Rolling Stone article about where vinyl stands in 2014 -- basically, that it is and will remain a niche product that's fiscally irrelevant, and one whose sales are expected to start dropping again in the not-too-distant future.
While vinyl might be an afterthought for the majority of major label artists, that isn't always the case for acts and labels at the indie level. As with a lot of subjects pertaining to the modern music industry, it's exceedingly difficult to paint with a broad brush; this is a business struggling to remold itself into an effective on-demand delivery mechanism for an infinite array of niche audiences, and one artist's throwaway "fashion statement" is the difference between breaking even and turning a profit for another. Diffuser reached out to a number of labels, artists, and industry figures for their own takes on the vinyl debate, and came away with a more detailed -- if still not exactly clearer -- picture.
"At this point, vinyl releases serve more as fan collectables than a truly viable music consumption format," insists Jim Olsen, co-founder of the Americana-focused Signature Sounds Recordings. "In the era of music portability, vinyl offers a comfortable throwback to simpler times. Fans of indie artists have embraced purchasing LPs as an alternative to buying clothing, posters, et cetera."
Olsen's point is expanded upon by former Rykodisc president George Howard, who went on to co-found TuneCore and serves as a consultant for a long list of industry clients. "Vinyl is truly what Jyri Engestrom calls a 'social object.' That is, something that sort of acts as a physical centerpiece of conversation," he points out. "When music went from tangible goods -- vinyl, CD, et cetera -- to information -- i.e. digital -- it lost not only sound quality, but this capacity to be a social object. Many of us who were avid music fans in the era of vinyl and CDs 'explained' our identity to ourselves and others via our -- typically strategically-located -- record collection and/or the records we would hang on our walls. These become external manifestations of our internal values."
Regardless of the emotional or psychological impetus behind the consumer call for vinyl, it's a need that -- for some artists -- can make fiscal sense to fill. Matthew Ryan, who offered a limited signed vinyl run of his 2014 'Boxers' LP to mailing list members before opening up sales to the public, tells Diffuser that although he had to give it a lot of thought before he signed off on it, "we did vinyl because people were demanding it."
As Ryan sees it, that demand is partly tied into the need for "social objects" described by Howard. "I believe we're seeing the early days of a retreat from the quickness of our culture and experience," he argues. "I was hesitant to do it. My guitar player and best friend, Brian Bequette, and my manager, Susan Weber, convinced me it was time to do it -- and they were right. My listeners seem to be loving the experience they're having with it."
"I love vinyl," adds producer and recording artist Joe Henry, who pondered -- and ultimately decided against -- making his latest effort, 'Invisible Hour,' available in the format. "Alas, it was too expensive to do even a limited run. I hold out hopes for an issue of it in time, but the process remains a bit out of reach for anyone not expecting to sell at least 5,000 copies, as I have seen the projections."
But Henry's fondness for vinyl, like Young's, has its limitations. Echoing Young's complaint regarding vinyl sourced from CD masters, Henry points out, "If one creates a vinyl version of a record to remain in the analogue domain -- i.e., the record was recorded to tape and there is a desire to stay within that sphere -- that is one thing. But when records are recorded digitally, and then pressed to vinyl, what is it you are really memorializing, beyond the romance of an idea? It's like taking an analog photo copy of a digital image. Sure, it will still sound different, depending on how the mastering engineer treated the process -- how hard they are hitting the vinyl when cutting the mother, et cetera -- but no one should pretend that what you are hearing is a purely analog experience."
"I would only say that if you're going to do it, do it well," agrees Ryan. "Make it as immersive an experience as your budget will allow."
Of course, financial concerns are less (ahem) pressing for major label artists, many of whom are the ones guilty of fobbing off those "fashion statements" Young derided. As Howard sees it, that's just a manifestation of the kind of shoddy bandwagoning you can point to in any trend-sensitive business.
These acts represent what Howard calls "the majority/late majority in the diffusion of innovation bell curve" -- in other words, "they follow behind the innovators if and only if they see value, money or otherwise." Whether the vinyl resurgence is real, imagined, a trend, or a fad, it offers capital to trade on, and a number of artists and labels are "simply sensing an economic or marketing value from vinyl, and as any good business person would, filling it."
The underlying point, again, is that vinyl means different things to different artists -- and to different listeners. Musing whether, say, Taylor Swift stands to add much of anything to her bottom line by releasing '1989' on the format, Howard points out, "There is profit margin in vinyl -- certainly more so than a stream -- but in the spectrum of profit for Taylor Swift, it's de minimis. This is more about super-serving her fans and sticking with the trend, and -- potentially -- providing some of her hardcore fans with social objects that these fans can talk about, or share, or hang on their walls."
It would probably be possible to argue that a like or a share or a re-tweet is the modern equivalent of a social object, and the need for a tangible totem like physical media to explain or cement one's ties to a piece of art is a fading, generational thing. While we gesticulate wildly about vinyl's meaning and future prospects, those are questions that will stubbornly refuse to remain unanswered until today's young record buyers are old enough to lament whatever they've lost along the way. In the meantime, the format may be a numerical niche, but it's still a powerful tool in some artist's arsenals, and a means of connecting on a deeper level than infinite streams can provide.
"I don't know where it's headed, or if it will continue to grow," admits Ryan. "But I find it exciting. As in any movement, there are those that are simply announcing some sense of identity with it, and that's all right. Music has always been a big part of that -- the fashion and the trends. But the thought that people are putting an album on and a needle is making contact and producing sound, and the speakers are doing their work and filling rooms with the warm and unlimited breath of songs, there's a physicality to it. And that's beautiful. It's cause for optimism, as far as I'm concerned."