Are Vinyl Records Here to Stay?

Kanye West (2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, pictured above) is one of the large number of artists that continue to distribute music through vinyl records despite the era of online digital media stores such as iTunes. Photograph by Trung Ho.

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[A]t the end of last month, HMV closed its 50,000-square-foot, three-storey flagship store in Vancouver. It was another blow to the physical music industry’s ego, a gargantuan and all-too-familiar reminder that the way we consume music is changing drastically and irreversibly.

Nearly no one was surprised.

At this point, even the most die-hard nostalgics –myself included –can admit, if grudgingly, that file-sharing and digital buying platforms like iTunes will eventually render physical copies of music obsolete. If record stores one day become a thing of the past, no one will be able to say they didn’t see it coming (or them going).

Yet, artists continue to produce their music using dated technologies. Not only do most bands still put out physical CDs, but within the last few years, more popular groups have reached back even further and released albums on vinyl records.

A debate broke out about this exact topic in the Folio office.

Some members dismissed the release of vinyls by new bands as a largely ineffective attempt to appeal to buyer’s nostalgia in order to bolster sales. To some extent, this is probably true.

But regardless, I am glad it’s happening.

Because the continued release of vinyls ensures more than just the preservation of an old technology. It also ensures that an entire way of listening to music is maintained.

We don’t listen to digital files in the same way we would a vinyl record. Listeners are becoming increasingly impatient, and new technologies indulge our restlessness. We can skip over the tracks we don’t feel like hearing. We can change a song 30 seconds in. We can shuffle our iPods.

All of this alters the way an artist’s work is experienced. When we break up an album and experience it in fragments, we risk losing sight of the work as a whole.

This is more relevant to some albums than others, with concept albums being most affected by this change. (Which is a major reason Pink Floyd, for example, has fought so persistently to keep Dark Side of the Moon off of iTunes).

When we play a vinyl record though we are more apt to actively listen. Perhaps it is a question of the attached nostalgia, but somehow, listening to a record tends to feel like more of an experience. We’re also probably more likely to listen with friends, a far more social experience than plugging into an iPod.

Whether in a group or alone, we have no choice but to take in the album from start to finish, as a continuous piece of art, the way the musicians intended.

It is a more complete way to listen, more involved. And, one may even argue, more respectful to those who created the music in the first place.

Of course this is not to say it is the best, or even a “better” way to enjoy music. There is no such thing (or at least I am certainly not qualified to determine it). But the concept is worth considering as an examination of how the ways we consume music is changing.

It’s also worth considering as young people are actually buying these records. Even though downloading tracks digitally is incredibly simple –and sometimes free –young people are still heading to record stores to purchase vinyls.

While HMV and Sunrise continue to close locations, independent record stores such as Sonic Boom and Rotate This are expanding.

In some ways, the process of buying a vinyl record is an experience in itself. Far from the simple task of hitting a button to download a song, buying a record requires us to venture out into the city.

Consumers can spend time browsing, getting lost in collections both old and new. It can be an explorative experience, and a fun one too.

So who cares if new band’s vinyls are a little “hip”? So what if they sometimes drip with intense (and potentially pretentious) amounts of nostalgia? They provide for a unique kind of discovery and listening experience.

If new bands want to release vinyl versions of their work, I say the more power to them.

mjones@ryersonfolio.com