Objects That Matter: Vinyl

A 2016 survey found that 48 percent of record buyers don't actually play their purchases, suggesting that, for many, vinyl is more aesthetic collectible than functional art.
By Max Ufberg ,

You can't tell the story of the present-day vinyl record without talking about space. Not the space between the grooves—outer space. When the Voyager probes launched in 1977, screaming toward the outer boundaries of the Solar System, they carried two 12-inch gold-plated copper phonograph records. Curated by a special committee led by Carl Sagan, the so-called Golden Records featured a range of auditory blips: animal noises, songs spanning a range of genres and centuries (both Chuck Berry and Mozart make appearances), spoken greetings in 55 languages, even a recording of one human's brainwaves.

The records, as Sagan noted, were a galactic time capsule—and a greeting card for any intelligent life they might encounter. The Golden Records also exemplify the enduring tenacity of the LP format.

Plenty of technological advancements have followed the modern LP record, which debuted in 1948: audio cassettes, compact discs, MP3 files, and now streaming services. Yet vinyl sales skyrocketed by nearly 4,000 percent between 1993 and 2016. And while CDs still vastly outpace vinyl in total units sold—99.4 million to 17.2 million in 2016—CD sales have plummeted some 91 percent since their peak in 2000. Lest you think the vinyl phenomenon is contained to this side of the Atlantic, vinyl surpassed digital music in sales in England (about $3 million to $2.7 million) at one point last year.

These figures are, on the surface, bewildering. Despite the longstanding rumors, vinyl is not an inherently better-sounding format. Compared to the new audio formats, vinyl offers shaky fidelity, particularly on the low-end bass sounds. Then there’s the issue of portability: You can't bring a turntable on a run. Why are we humans so obsessed with a clunky, out-dated format?

The answer lies in those very flaws: the pop and crack of a guitar jangle; the warm, faraway tone of a croon; the very humanness of its sound. Vinyl offers a sense of sentimentality—of mortality, even—that only imperfection allows.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.

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