Vinyl Records Sustain Cultural Significance In Digital Age

{Quick note: This was my final essay in my Composition and Rhetoric course about vinyl records, record players and why they still mean something.  I really enjoyed writing this piece and I think it poses a few fair points and even has some history for those who care about the medium.  So if you are a record collector or collect music in any capacity give this a read and possibly give validation to your pastime.}

Vinyl Records Sustain Cultural Significance In Digital Age

This essay aims to argue, through classical argumentation, that the recent resurgence of vinyl record collecting in the early 21 century is not only a cultural phenomenon, but adheres to the statement that physical collections are an everlasting part of the human condition.  “We can point to the development of a collecting sensibility, linked to possessive individualism, historically present since the Greeks, but more fully realized under contemporary capitalism. As social anthropologist James Clifford puts it, in the Western world, ‘collecting has long been the strategy for the deployment of a possessive self, culture, and authenticity’ (Clifford, 1988: 218)” (Shuker 5).

Vinyl record collections are an interesting part of Western culture and have been sought after as long as disposable income and leisure activates have been apart of social interaction.  As Shuker presents in his book “Wax Trash and Vinyl Treasures: Record Collecting as a Social Practice”, collecting is an integral part of what it means to be culturally aware.  With this essay I intend to examine the history of vinyl records, the comparison between them and the modern digital distribution and the sudden interest in a seemingly obsolete medium of music.

If we look at why vinyl records were originally created and examine the surrounding society we can start to build an understanding of the topic I aim to present.  The Vinyl Record (or Gramophone Record) made from polyvinyl chloride was the primary analog sound storage medium up until the end of the 20th century.  Its predecessor was the Phonograph Cylinder, which was mainly used up until the 1920’s.  The Phonograph Cylinder was a cylinder shaped object with engravings on the surface played through the mechanical device invented by Thomas Edison called the Phonograph.  After the Gramophone succeeded the Phonograph it wasn’t until after World War II that it became the modern incarnation of the medium we know today. “Vinyl emerged in its standard form of the 33rpm double-sided, long-playing (‘LP’) record via Columbia Records in 1948 (Patmore, 2009). It rose to prominence in the subsequent decade, dominated the trade in the 1960s and 1970s, and declined in the 1980s, apparently superseded forever by what was then advertised as a superior sound carrier – the digital com-pact disc.” (Woodward and Bartmanski 3).  In Woodward, and Bartmanski’s article “The vinyl: The analogue medium in the age of digital reproduction” they assess the cultural impact and reemergence of the vinyl record in relation to ritual and cultural aura.  Their paper dives into why records are able to survive in the digital age and reference why exactly vinyl may be preferred over solely digital means.  This progression of medium from Cylinder to substantially smaller compact disc and then eventually to the mp3 is the basic trend of all technology; movement towards smaller and more efficient.  Then why the sudden renaissance of the vinyl record and contradiction of the given technological trend?

In our age of digital distribution we often point to record collecting as a sort of nostalgic way to listen to music.  With digital files so easily accessible, one who may collect a record can be seen as ‘going against the grain’.  2012 marks the 125 anniversary original analogue disc, and simultaneously saw the largest sales in vinyl records sales since 1993 (Bartmanski and Woodward 4).  Recent years have seen record sales double from the year before.  According the Wall Street Journal “World-wide sales of LP records doubled in 2007 (from three million to six million units) after hitting an all-time low in 2006” (Winneker 4). These sales contradict the usual technological trend that more and more efficient ways of collecting are more the end-all-be-all of distribution.  A specific connection can be drawn to the idea of slowly down and enjoying a tangible product.  These sales can also suggest the idea of diminishing returns and that with everything becoming digital there starts to develop a negative connotation.  With vinyl collecting people have the opportunity to own physical copies of their favourite albums while directly supported the artists.  While the contrary can easily be argued that vinyl sales are not surpassing that of digital, the fact that the technology trend can be broken says a positive message about vinyl record collecting.

Quality of sound is often discussed amongst music collectors and most would say vinyl records have a warmer tone and better sound quality.  When referencing the fidelity of records we see that with so many variations of vinyl records ranging from speeds (measured in rpm or rotations per minute), to weight of record (140grams, 180 grams) there are a great number of factors to create the unique and warm sound of the vinyl record that can make them more preferred amongst collectors.  Digital recording is processed in a much different way than analogue and thus making the sound based on different factors.  In order to understand these comparisons we first need to define what makes the processes different.  Analogue audio is the literal conversion of what we, in our everyday, hear as a continuous sound wave.  The LP record’s groove is the imprint of those sound waves.  Digital audio takes those sound waves, samples them and converts them into numbers that are able to replicated infinitely to create an identical sound that does not deteriorate over time.  It’s taking the analogue sound waves copying them and creating intervals of sound instead of a constant one. This process of converting the original sound to digital in order to create a perfect replication is exactly what is argued to be the negative point of mp3 and compact disc recordings compared to vinyl records.

Although it may seem like this step of conversion is the sole reason why vinyl is more superior than digital, the fact is that the conversion is almost completely seamless and modern digital techniques using (digital-analogue converters), although complicated, prove to create perfect replications of analogue sound.  According to Stanford Engineering they explain the process behind digital conversion, “Since no true digital microphones exist, the analog microphone signal must be converted into a digital representation. This process is known as analog-to-digital (A/D) conversion. It is this

process and the complimentary conversion back to analog (D/A conversion) that impart many of the shortcomings to digital audio. In order to faithfully recreate the original signal, both the sampling rate and measurement (quantization) must be extremely accurate” (1).  Once this complicated process has been completed the sound produced from the conversion back to analogue is viewed as a seamless integration.

When you examine the physicality’s of a vinyl record you will notice the format in which is presented.  A standard 33rpm or 45rpm vinyl record has two sides, an A and a B.  When you look at a album being produced by a musician or artists they keep this idea in mind and construct their album or collection of sounds around this idea.  If we look at Abbey Road, released in 1969 by The Beatles.  On the last track of the first side the song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” cuts out abruptly as the track comes to a close with around 20 seconds remaining.  You would then take needle off of the LP, remove the record, flip it and begin playing it again creating an entirely different atmosphere then when playing a digital album.  Woodward and Bartmanski best describe this act in explaining, “It is also worth considering Miles Davis’s album, Kind of Blue. Anyone familiar with the album can recall a poignant effect achieved by having the album’s melancholy highlight track ‘Blue in green’ in the middle of the album, but also at the end of the first side. The artistic and commercial success of such albums suggests that this is a culturally valued way of crafting and receiving the musical performance, which aspires to be more than mere entertainment. It invites one to ritualize and celebrate the act of listening” (6).

The vinyl record’s recent renaissance does not have one clear and defining contributor but many factors related to the act of collecting as a natural part of the human condition, the comparisons between analogue versus digital sound and the processes that live in-between.  We are living in the digital age where efficiency and accessibility are seemingly valued above all else, but within that context we can see that traditional ways of listening to and enjoying analogue distributions of music are just as loud as ever.  With record sales increasing there has shown to be a similar increase in opening record stores, with the help from the international Record Store Day to help promote new vinyl records for even newer audiences.  This is not only a cultural phenomenon but a lasting medium thanks to the comparisons between it and the still present digital market.


 Works Cited

 Woodward, Ian, Bart Bartmanski “The Vinyl: The analogue medium in the age of digital reproduction.” SAGE. 31 May. 2013.


Shuker, Roy. “Wax Trash and Vinyl Records.” Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010. Print


Online Posting. “Introduction to Digital Audio.” Stanford University. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Gundersen, Edna. “Vinyl rules Record Store Day’s Black Friday Sale.” USA Today, 28 November. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Winneker, Craig.Music: Vinyl revolution: In a digital age, the LP record makes a comeback.” Wall Street Journal 12 Sept. 2008: W10. Print.





One thought on “Vinyl Records Sustain Cultural Significance In Digital Age

  1. Pingback: What Was the First Record You Owned? | New Grandmas Rock!

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