Why This?

Vinyl

The power of music we can actually touch.

1978: THE FIRST TEST-TUBE BABY” was born, a stamp cost 15¢, and in America 341.3 million vinyl records were sold. That was the greatest number ever sold, before or since. With the rise of the cassette tape, followed by the CD, and the ensuing digital music revolution to come, record-pressing plants began to close, and continued to do so at a steady pace over the past 43 years.

In 2021, the collective capacity for record pressing worldwide sits at 160 million units. However, this year, demand for vinyl record units is estimated to be 320 million — approximately twice what is possible to produce, and a number close to that 1978 apex in sales during the vinyl era. This vinyl renaissance has been a slow burn. Record sales have been increasing steadily since 2017, but in 2020 they shot up nearly 30% from the year prior, and the number of sales rose 108% in the first six months of 2021.

Musician, producer, and Grammy-winner Andrew Wyatt confirms the new paradigm. “I’m producing the new Liam Gallagher record and we have to submit tracks a full six months before the release date. It used to be that I could work up to two weeks before a release on Spotify. This vinyl backlog is new and it’s very real.”

But for some of us, records never really went away. Cue teenage me, mid-to-late ’90s, New York City: trailing after whatever DJ I was dating that week, rolling his stack of milk crates on a hand truck, bungee-cord securing all the vinyl he’d been spinning that night, a symbol of guardianship to the evening’s vibe. This rolling contraption is stamped in my memory as a signifier of ultimate cool, social cachet. Forget your Range Rover or your Motorola Razr, I was with the DJ (or at least rolling his records around from time to time).

I spoke to Doyle Davis, a self-titled “vinylist” and owner of Grimey’s New and Preloved Music, one of Rolling Stone’s “10 Best Record Stores in America.” Davis espoused the reasons for his dedication to the vinyl format, including the nuances of its superiority for experiencing recorded music. What I first found most interesting is how the constrictions of the technology of the time ended up both dictating and reflecting some enduring truths when it comes to time and human attention. The duration of one side of a record — about 20 minutes — was the product of how much information could physically fit onto the pressed disk. “They wanted whole classical symphonies to play without interruption, but since that was too long, they went for movements. So it became about 20 minutes per side; 20 minutes before you would have to physically get up, take a bit of a break, flip the record. You’re refreshed. But it turns out 20 minutes is a real sweet spot for focus — guess how long TED talks are? All just about 20 minutes.”

Then there’s the single — typically clocking in at about three minutes. This time constraint was also defined by what information could be held on a 10″ vinyl single, which was a crucial format for musicians to be guaranteed radio play. There’s no real reason that artists today would need to abide by that three-minute limitation, but that time standard still prevails.

Vinyl is an act of reverence, a defiantly ritualistic time investment in a sea of ever-increasing convenience.

Davis continues, “With vinyl you get two cracks at an opening track, two cracks at sequencing — a real art in and of itself. All that falls away with the CD, with a digital album.” And with the artwork, it turned out the 12″ diameter landed as the optimal size for records, but you end up with this perfect canvas for artwork. There are no back covers on any digital album artwork, never mind a gatefold.

So why now? Why might folks be appreciating these objects in increasing numbers of late?

Davis points to the pandemic creating the massive shift toward vinyl appreciation. With the loss of opportunity for live music, vinyl has a lack of portability with an emphasis on multilayered experience — no other format boasts a smell, a feel, a visual product, and of course a sound quite like listening to records. These merits were a perfect fit for bored, isolated people stuck at home craving a richer experience.

Vinyl is an act of reverence, a defiantly ritualistic time investment in a sea of ever-increasing convenience. Record listening is perhaps a pushback, similar to its relatives in the slow food, slow fashion, and mindfulness-practicing circles, a pushback to a society kneeling at the altar of faster-cheaper-more.

For Grimey’s, the sale of records online single-handedly saved their business during 2020. That, and a little boost from Tayor Swift. Shortly after the stay-at-home orders were enacted, Swift’s publicist called up Davis and offered to cover the healthcare costs of all of Grimey’s employees for three months, as well as bridge the store’s payroll costs until their unemployment assistance kicked in. When news of the superstar’s generosity hit mainstream press, Grimey’s immediately sold out — not out of their vinyl, however, but out of their store T-shirts.

This little anecdote comes as no surprise to Chris Black, culture writer, podcast host, and wise-cracking cynic. Black finds the whole record-connoisseur culture to be a sort of fetishization of nostalgia, and one perpetuated by false insistence on an audial sensitivity that few listeners actually possess. Black’s stance is that the claim that records sound better is nonsense, and that digital media has progressed — as have high-end CDs — to the point that few ears can actually tell the difference. Think wine drinkers who claim to taste the forest floor and chicory notes in their riesling because they paid $90 for the glass, when you could have served them “Two-Buck Chuck” and they’d be none the wiser.

Black’s dismissal of the merits of record culture are understandable in a youth culture that can be overly motivated by the posturing of cool rather than legitimate taste, perhaps captured in the zinger:

How many hipsters does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Oh, you don’t know?


“It’s not an excuse for personality. Being a vinyl guy is like saying I’m an IPA guy. I don’t care.”


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Black finds the whole record-connoisseur culture to be a sort of fetishization of nostalgia, and one perpetuated by false insistence on an audial sensitivity that few listeners actually possess.

To Black, this record renaissance is driven less by a hallowed musical format than by the power of music celebrity — and in turn music industry “fuckery,” i.e. the financially-driven decision to focus on vinyl as more of a merch asset (bundled with ticket and exclusive event sales, or as a limited-edition color). This feeds (and drives) a consumer need to own every object associated with a particular throned musician. (See: Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish, or Harry Styles.)

However, when speaking to Sean Rutkowski, VP of Independent Record Pressing, a mid-sized plant based in Bordentown, New Jersey, I gleaned a slightly different perspective. Rutkowski acknowledges 2020 threw vinyl into the limelight due to the closed loop of scarcity. He sees the push as having come from the musicians and their managers themselves, rather than the labels per se (and laments the nightmarish logistics of pressing a 20K vinyl run in 9 different colorways). He thinks the tipping point came when the big-box retailers got on board (Target, Whole Foods-Amazon); and then the demand could not possibly be met by production, which has simply poured kerosene on the demand itself.

Rutkowski also differentiates slightly in the experience of listening: “Sure, records sound better — but they sound better because you’re paying attention. And attention is what drives record sales.” He points out that music now inundates us everywhere, at all times; in fact, we have become conditioned neurologically to block it out. But listening to records is an act of defiance to our oversaturated ears.

He further makes a case for music being tied to memory, and how powerfully and swiftly music can catapult us to specific moments in time. Pulling up digital tracks can theoretically access this same recall process, but the way in which people interface with digital music is so different — jumping around from song to song. Playlists have overtaken album sequences, and this matter of focus and attention in the listener has shifted.

I can attest to the analog/digital music divide. I live with two musical tyrants, ages 7 and 9, who battle over command of the living room Alexa, alternatingly barking out their disjointed hitlist — BTS to Demi Lovato to Skillet to Sia (frequently over and over, and yes, over again). This is our unwitting parental soundtrack for the last number of years.

It just so happened that my research for this piece dovetailed with a family digital detox — mainly removing recreational screens from play for a month. With all this spare time on their hands, the kids were more interested in pouring through some of the thousand or so records in their dad’s collection (yes, I married a DJ, but don’t hold that against him).

Immediately, it was easier to engage the kids in the science of the technology: RPMs are visible, the science of sound. “The grooves are actual sound waves, the player amplifies sound waves — it’s alive!” This was more exciting to them than I might have forecasted. The mythology of crate digging, the art of discovery, the anticipation and uncertainty of purchasing something before knowing what it sounds like — this process was fascinating and bewildering to them, as though I’d suggested we start force-feeding them mysterious, exotic dinners blindfolded.

We played the noise record their dad had played drums on, which my son deemed creepy. “It’s got a darker tone,” said my daughter (unprompted). She is a musician. I didn’t tell her Chris Black says she’s lying.

“It’s cool that not everyone can listen to any of this at the same time as you,” chimed in my son (scarcity!). “But what’s that smell?” “That’s the smell of decay, son,” I answered.

They got a kick out of asking their dad how much he paid for a rare Television 45 RPM (25¢), and then begged me to look up the value of the record today ($48 on eBay). And we caught a deep groove to “Cissy Strut” by The Meters, where my daughter spontaneously picked up a harmonica and started dancing and accompanying the track. She’d never done that with a digital tune. Lastly, we listened to the recorded story (with accompanying book) of “The Wizard of Oz,” and I’m fairly certain my husband wept. We were happier than we’d been in months.

Ultimately, vinyl is about attention, limits, and being present in time: all principles that are diminished, if not fully banished, by the digital age. If you’re wondering how kids handle the absence of these phenomena, I invite you to teleport to my home the night before we started our digital detox. Spoiler: Everyone is crying and I’ve invited my therapist to move into the guest room.

Listening to records isn’t a wholesale solution, but if I could bottle the vibe of that evening in our living room, with vinyl blanketing the floor … well, I wouldn’t trade it for all the cute DJs of my youth, combined.

Where to Buy Vinyl

Ivy Elrod, our “Why This” columnist, shares the best record shops across America — plus an online wild card.

  • Academy Records

    One of the oldest record shops still operating in NYC, Academy Records is located in the East Village, with a second shop, Academy Record Annex, in Brooklyn. With an amazing selection of used vinyl, this is the place to score used rare rock, electronic, jazz, and more. There’s also a large selection of rare NYC-centric music magazines from the late 1970s and ’80s, and flyers from ’80s CBGB shows.

  • End of an Ear

    This place is an intimate record shop in Austin, Texas, that has a lot of great vinyl packed in a small footprint. Kind of feels like a classic indie record store. They also sell some vintage hi-fi bits. We went there when we were in Austin and got a couple of killer reggae 45s.

  • In Your Ear Records

    A total throwback spot. With locations in both Boston and Rhode Island, this place has movie soundtracks, doo-wop, indie rock, and weirdness amongst the usual used copies.

  • Funkyousounds

    A wild card — not a physical store but one of my hubs’ favorite sellers on eBay. "They get INSANE collections, then drop these auctions that are usually one genre: just rock, or disco/house, or reggae, or funk — like the craziest rare records. So fun just to cruise the listings and drool over slabs of vinyl that heads pay TOP dollar for," he tells me.

  • Amoeba

    They have 3 stores, all in California. It’s kind of on another level — new and used LPs, and it’s massive. They remind me of Mondo Kim’s in New York City (RIP). Even the dollar bins have gems in them.

  • Grimey's

    When I interviewed Doyle Davis for this piece, he described his motivation to open Grimey's as wanting to bring a truly great record store experience to Nashville (he'd always had to travel out of town to fill that void). And by every measure he succeeds — Grimey's boasts a real community atmosphere with terrific service, and calls itself "The Other Church," which I can absolutely get behind.

  • Shangri-La

    This is the record shop my husband (who grew up in Nashville) would always hit up in Memphis when he’d go see bands as a teen; it’s been there for 30+ years. Vibes heavy with a B-52s aesthetic, a kind of kitsch punk ’50s meets ’80s thing. Find hits from the Sun Records catalog next to self-released 45s by garage bands. A place you would only find in the South — a kind of safehouse for music freaks in the Bible Belt.

  • Academy Records

    One of the oldest record shops still operating in NYC, Academy Records is located in the East Village, with a second shop, Academy Record Annex, in Brooklyn. With an amazing selection of used vinyl, this is the place to score used rare rock, electronic, jazz, and more. There’s also a large selection of rare NYC-centric music magazines from the late 1970s and ’80s, and flyers from ’80s CBGB shows.

  • Amoeba

    They have 3 stores, all in California. It’s kind of on another level — new and used LPs, and it’s massive. They remind me of Mondo Kim’s in New York City (RIP). Even the dollar bins have gems in them.

  • End of an Ear

    This place is an intimate record shop in Austin, Texas, that has a lot of great vinyl packed in a small footprint. Kind of feels like a classic indie record store. They also sell some vintage hi-fi bits. We went there when we were in Austin and got a couple of killer reggae 45s.

  • Grimey's

    When I interviewed Doyle Davis for this piece, he described his motivation to open Grimey's as wanting to bring a truly great record store experience to Nashville (he'd always had to travel out of town to fill that void). And by every measure he succeeds — Grimey's boasts a real community atmosphere with terrific service, and calls itself "The Other Church," which I can absolutely get behind.

  • In Your Ear Records

    A total throwback spot. With locations in both Boston and Rhode Island, this place has movie soundtracks, doo-wop, indie rock, and weirdness amongst the usual used copies.

  • Shangri-La

    This is the record shop my husband (who grew up in Nashville) would always hit up in Memphis when he’d go see bands as a teen; it’s been there for 30+ years. Vibes heavy with a B-52s aesthetic, a kind of kitsch punk ’50s meets ’80s thing. Find hits from the Sun Records catalog next to self-released 45s by garage bands. A place you would only find in the South — a kind of safehouse for music freaks in the Bible Belt.

  • Funkyousounds

    A wild card — not a physical store but one of my hubs’ favorite sellers on eBay. "They get INSANE collections, then drop these auctions that are usually one genre: just rock, or disco/house, or reggae, or funk — like the craziest rare records. So fun just to cruise the listings and drool over slabs of vinyl that heads pay TOP dollar for," he tells me.

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Our Contributors

Ivy Elrod Writer

Ivy Elrod is a multidisciplinary creative living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing has most recently been published in the new Playgirl Magazine. She is also an actress and a playwright, and was once the youngest Rockette at Radio City. She is now principal designer and founder of Wilder, an experiential showroom and contemporary design firm.

Gigi Rose Gray Illustrator

Gigi Rose Gray is an illustrator and fine artist born and raised in New York City, now living in Los Angeles. She received a BFA in illustration at Parsons School of Design.

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