In 1877, Thomas Edison – who lost most of his hearing throughout life – invented the phonograph, a device capable of recording audio in microgrooves and playing them back. This device originally played back messages in pieces of tin foil that, after a couple of plays, would be destroyed, leading to the creation of the shellac resin records, where audio could be played back without the destruction of the medium. Record speeds varied greatly until major label Columbia Records standardized the 33 1/3 rpm (revolutions per minute) speed and switched the abrasive and noisy shellac by its smoother (and cooler sounding) cousin, the polyvinyl chloride. Vinyl reigned everywhere: from radio stations to your grandparents hip dance parties – until its cheap-o brother showed up. Released by Phillips in 1963, the Compact Audio Cassette system really flooded the markets with the first cassette program for car dashes in 1968. Vinyl still sold copious amounts, but it was hard to beat the affordability and convenience of the two miniature magnetic spools cased in cool colored plastic. Not to mention the ability of creating moody and melancholic teenage playlists filled with new age music for your loved ones (yes, people could make playlists before Spotify).
If you’re reading this, you’re probably old enough to remember CDs – which essentially marked the beginning of the end for analog formats when they were outsold by digital releases and streaming services. Or did it? Ever since 2009, the sales of Vinyl have been slowly coming up from a long drop in the 1990’s when CD’s flooded the markets. 2017 was the year with the highest number of Vinyl sales since 1991. Cassette sales grew 35% in 2017, averaging the best year for the format since 2012. It’s clear millennials care about analog formats, but why?
Ever since digital music services like iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and many others, music became a more detached experience. Back in the day, if you liked a song you heard on the radio (!) you had to physically walk to a record store (!!) and purchase an album (!!!) – Or at least a single – which you would then play in your home stereo system or your car. Exhausting right? So much hard work! Digital streaming brought the workload down. You can listen to any artist and any song anywhere – and that’s fantastic – but it also created an environment where music is easily disposable. There’s no reason to re-listen to that summer single from three months ago when the next big thing is at your fingertips. Another factor for digital albums is that they’re just 0s and 1s, and not a physical copy you can hold – which a lot of people feel creates a more detached experience. With that in mind, many millennials are trying to bring back the process of listening to a record: buying an album, flipping the record every 30 minutes and reading the lyrics off of the back of the record sleeve, just like their parents and grandparents did before them. Vinyl requires the user to be actively engaged in the process as opposed to just pressing the shuffle button and letting something play. This phenomenon, however, does not seem to affect how they consume streaming services and digital music. Vinyl and cassettes seem to co-exist peacefully with more modern formats for most people. They will still listen to Spotify on their way to work or when there’s a party that they can just “pass the dongle,” but will also gather some friends, sit down and listen to a vinyl record on a Sunday afternoon.
The experience of bringing people together to listen to some tunes around the record player helps to remind us the power of attraction and bringing people together. Because just like all good things in life, music is best when in good company. So next time you’re close to your neighborhood record store, don’t be afraid to stop in for some jams. Oh, and bring a friend or two.