How I (Almost) Missed the Vinyl Resurgence
My record collection officially started when I was given Madonna’s Like a Virgin LP, by my parents, as a ninth birthday gift. I had to quickly give up collecting records, when I destroyed the stylus on my parent’s turntable, shortly after. Not a great way to pay back those who so graciously gave me my introductory piece.
Fast forward (or move the tone arm inward, to keep the metaphors consistent) a few years, and I find myself, as a teenager, rediscovering that records were still being made and were the only way to get acquire certain music. Bands put songs on 7"’s that never made it to the digital realm that, at the time, was owned by compact discs. The year was 1993, and the internet was still a very small and slow place, and not in any way an appropriate music distribution platform. That same year I started buying my own records, Nirvana (at the time the most successful band in the world), released their new album, In Utero, on clear vinyl, a week earlier than the compact disc.
In Utero was released on September 13, 1993 on vinyl record and cassette tape in the United Kingdom, and on September 14 on vinyl in the United States, with the American vinyl pressing limited to 25,000 copies. Although the album was issued on compact disc in the UK on September 14, a full domestic release did not occur until September 21.
Nirvana had credibility to spare. They were loved in frat houses and hipster coffee shops in equal measure. If their release strategy didn’t garner much attention, it should have. Another band that was still huge at the time, Pearl Jam, followed a month later with their album Vs. coming out on vinyl, a week earlier than the general release. The next year, Pearl Jam would follow-up with a single, dedicated to the format, called Spin The Black Circle. In short, vinyl was not dead. At least, not in the early nineties.
The history seems to contradict a lot of what I’ve read about the resurgence of vinyl. It’s as if it came back from the grave. The thing is, vinyl never really died. Sure, major record labels tried to bury it, anyway. When compact discs became popular, the labels refused to let record stores send back unsold vinyl, which they had previously been able to do, and could still do with compact discs. That practice continues, to this day.
But in 2014, the trickiest part for record stores is keeping those LPs in stock. One of the dirty secrets of music retail is that most distributors allow record stores to return unsold CDs — but usually not vinyl.
In my view, the practice backfired on the industry, when music provided in a digital format proved to be much easier to pirate. Shoveling the dirt over records paved the way to the grand theft music that was spearheaded by the Napster revolution. Though I never took part in the music-free-for-all that started off this century, many did. It was a wake up call for the music industry that eventually led to them reluctantly giving into the internet-as-distribution model they had fought tooth-and-nail.
All the while, there was the venerable black circle. Still loved by those who wanted their music in big and beautiful packages and sound that came out of carefully manufactured grooves. At the time, records were almost completely overshadowed by the “digital revolution,” but I assure you, people were still buying them. At one point, probably around 2000, I was selling records that I owned, because I didn’t have a job and needed the money. A Weezer Pinkerton LP that I had bought a few years earlier for around $10 sold on eBay for $70+. Most of my records were sold in sets, according to record label (Matador, Drag City, Thrill Jockey, etc.). They were all bid on by a good number of people and sold well.
Don’t Call It A Comeback
I know there is data that people are now buying a lot more vinyl. That’s a good thing. Although there are many people just now getting into records, as physical media gets closer and closer to total extinction, there were also many who never left the format.
The main difference I see between now and 20 years ago is that the prices have gone up quite a bit. Records cost approximately twice what they did then. I saw a normal, run of the mill 7" for $12 in a record store the other day. That’s $6 a song. Quite a premium over digital. I found that piece in a store called Nice Price. There are plenty of articles about the limited number of vinyl manufacturers and how they are backed up with orders, so the reasoning for the higher prices has been well explained. Still, if I wasn’t paying so much for records now, I might not have known that anything ever changed or that there really was any resurgence.