“Spin the Black Circle” won Pearl Jam its only Grammy back in 1996, but it seems the lyrics are more relevant than ever. The words “Pull it out/ A paper sleeve/ Oh, the joy/ Only you deserve conceit” were, and are, practically prophetic when they were written a decade and a half ago. Now, it seems vinyl is poised to take back its spot as “the” format to enjoy music. It has been — and, perhaps, will continue to be — a slow-changing process, but a forward-moving one at any rate.
Considering the album on which the song appears, Vitalogy, was the first album released on vinyl to crack the Billboard 200 since the rise of the CD, Eddie Vedder and company may well be able to see the future, be it near or distant.
The album debuted as vinyl-only on the chart two weeks before its “official” release on CD and made a rather impressive showing at number 55 back in 1994.
The concept of the vinyl pre-release seemed like a bit of a trend 14 years ago, with albums by Nirvana and Sonic Youth seeing similar treatment. Even in the mid-’90s the RIAA reported an 80 percent increase in vinyl sales from 1993 to 1994.
Just last month, Insound and the RIAA reported vinyl sales were again on the rise. Vinyl sales at Insound’s site increased “from twenty percent of its overall business one year ago to more than forty percent last quarter,” as prefixmag.com states. For Capitol Records, “vinyl sales [make] up the only sales growth in the past few months” despite the fact that vinyl holds a market share of less than 1 percent. Undeterred, Capitol sees fit to take this information and convert it into a reason to launch a “vinyl campaign,” as prefix calls it, with albums like A Perfect Circle’s Mer de Noms and Coldplay’s first two outings being vinyl-ized at the outset.
The important question is, of course, why the popularity of vinyl is (and has been) increasing. No two experts can agree on the same singular reason, but it’s interesting to note that many share the same explanations.
The “warm” sound of vinyl, as opposed to the “cold” sound of a CD or mp3, is one of the most common theories regarding its revival, though this is not the only common one cited. Purists and store owners alike also agree the way vinyl looks is also pleasing to music fans. A vinyl album cover is 12 inches versus the measly five that one gets with a CD and none with an mp3, unless you count the microscopic thing next to the song information.
Steve Manley, owner of B-Side Records on State Street, has his own thoughts as to why vinyl is making a comeback, though he was sure to point out that whether or not vinyl is here to stay is “hard to know.”
Having been in the business for 25 years, Manley has seen his share or trends come and go.
“My initial reaction is that it’s a fad; certainly, it’s a trend, but whether it’s permanent, there’s no way to know,” he said. I hope so.”
“I thought [vinyl] was pretty much dead 10, 15 years ago. Much to my surprise, it’s back, which I think is a good thing. It’s what I grew up with … and I respect the format,” he continued.
Manley shares the popular reasons for vinyl appreciation and thinks it may be one reason for its recent surge in popularity.
“[Vinyl] looks great. It’s just so much more aesthetically pleasing than a CD or an mp3. It’s a little more tactile and you can interact with it a little more intimately than a compact disc.”
As to whether vinyl sounds better, Manley believes it’s “often the case, not always.”
Steve Roloff, owner of Strictly Discs on Monroe Street, agrees with Manley about the reasons behind vinyl’s popularity, including its aesthetic qualities. Just as important, he agrees the vinyl “sound” is another reason the format is alive. Roloff affirms, “If you like that vinyl sound, there’s no way to replicate it.”
However, he disagrees with the fact that the format ever died.
“It’s been here the whole time — that’s an indisputable fact. It’s just you stopped seeing it massively in certain stores. A lot of people that don’t go to independent record stores that may go to places like Barnes and Noble … weren’t seeing vinyl. Vinyl’s always been an indie source,” Roloff said.
He then offered a more in-depth argument.
“Those people that never stopped listening to vinyl that raised kids and the kids are now out of the house, they got a little bit more time and a little more disposable income [so] they’re pulling the turntables back out and starting to buy vinyl on reissues or new releases. … Then you’ve got a younger crowd that is just getting into music. Image is very important, obviously to everybody, but especially to young kids. … Plain vinyl is romantic, the whole ritual of the process of handling the vinyl, cleaning the vinyl, playing the vinyl and everything that goes with it,” he said.
Whether or not vinyl ever left music can be debated ad nauseam, but what is certain is that it is here now, and its popularity has perhaps never been greater in the CD age. Proof of this lies in the sales figures above, but it goes further (and more locally) than that.
On the national level, Best Buy is bringing back vinyl in the near future, which is unquestionably a sign of the format’s power. True, the chain is only experimenting in a few select stores across the nation, but it still adds to the strong case of vinyl’s return.
On the local level, it seems Roloff’s store is witnessing firsthand the resurgence of vinyl, as his “business in vinyl over the last two years is up 650 percent.” Given that very strong sales record, Strictly Discs is launching a new website devoted to vinyl within its home site (strictlydiscs.com) called instockvinyl.com.
Maybe this is just the new trendy thing that has come along in pop culture that will die by end of the decade. Or maybe not. Maybe vinyl never left and has just been fighting a near-constant uphill battle for attention these last few decades and has been kept alive by those who value its supremacy. In either case, people who truly appreciate music understand one thing: Vinyl’s where it’s at.
“It’s the original, true long-term art form of listening to the music,” Roloff said.