Yesterday & Today: The LP Comes Back (Again)

Forbes takes a look at an unexpected phenomenon in the music biz. While gadflies have perpetually declared vinyl LP's to be on the verge of a come-back, last year actually did see a significant increase of LP sales, with many indie music stores receiving a significant amount of income from yesterday's sound system.

Much has been made of the decline of recorded music, and indeed, much has declined. According to Nielsen SoundScan, total album sales dipped from 373.9 million to 326.2 million last year, a drop of 12.7%. The 2010 sum is less than half the 2004 total of 666.7 million. But vinyl sales rose a healthy 14% — the third straight year of gains for the format — and this year’s 2.8 million total was the highest in the post-1991 SoundScan era.

“Vinyl will always be there,” says David Shebiro, owner of Rebel Rebel Records in Manhattan’s West Village. “It’s the way artists intend music to be.”

Shebiro has sold both LPs and CDs since opening the store in 1988. In the early days, LPs made up 90% of his sales. By 1998, the ratio had flipped, with CDs accounting for 90%. Today, he reckons, 60% of his sales are of the vinyl variety. He believes the main reason behind vinyl’s comeback is a desire to re-conjure the magic of buying music lost in the era of immediate gratification offered by Apple and Amazon.

“There used to be this anticipation when you bought a record,” he says. “You’d take it back with you on the subway and rip open the packaging, and you couldn’t wait to get home and play it. That magic of anticipation has gone with downloading, and that’s what people want to regain.”

I had actually noticed an increase in vinyl-only releases starting last year. I guess there's some kind of purist impulse at work, but I think there's an economic angle, too, one that Forbes didn't look too closely at. Where, five years ago every band and its dog was putting out a CD (even Psota put out an album), now you're much more likely to see an indie band with a 45, or an EP as their first release. Simply put, it's cheaper to record three really good songs, rather than try to fill up an album with material. In the Little Depression music scene, the "less is more" arises as much out of limited budgets, as out of aesthetics.

Incredibly, there are a lot of bands that put out cassettes. One of the music blogs I follow is Terminal Escape, which is dedicated entirely to tapes, and which never runs out of material to post on. Now, these are mostly DIY-style punk bands, so there's no doubt some crabby Luddite anti-corporatism at work, but still, it's been surprising to hear some of the best new music of the year on a cassette-only release.

The proponents of LP's are still pushing the "vinyl sounds better" line, about which I am agnostic. I'll agree that a lot of early CD reissues were poorly done, but the only album I regretted disposing of in favor of a disc was Blonde On Blonde, which really did sound better on vinyl. Even if LPs do sound better, you need some damn good equipment to bring out the best from the format. Forbes helpfully includes a list of the best current record players, which range up to $150,000. Not exactly the People's Choice. Not so with CD's where near-audiophile sound quality is available at a budget price. Music snobs are advised to give it a rest.

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