In a surprise announcement this week, Sony Music says it will fire up production of vinyl records for the first time in nearly thirty years. Increasing demand for the obsolete medium has the company dusting off old equipment both for the older generation who grew up with records, and for the millennials who never had a chance to try them out.
By 1989, the inevitable shift to CD digital technology sent vinyl into the history books along with the wax cylinder, causing Sony and all the other producers of vinyl records to mothball their factories. Changes in technology affect every aspect of society and most of the time, we never look back. Every day, the things we use get smaller, lighter and smarter. Digital music was such an improvement it is easy to see how we all jumped on board. Physical media is no longer even required. With nothing to break or lose, our entire library of music is but a click or button press away, no matter where we are. Not just our own library either, virtually any song, anywhere, in any language.
Business consulting firm Deloitte predicts vinyl records will see almost one billion dollars in sales world wide. Most of that figure will come from newly pressed records, but used ones and equipment like turn tables, cartridge needles, and other accessories are also factored into the figure. Panasonic and Sony have both marketed newly designed record players.
Sony’s Tokyo factory will be back in production by March of next year but has not yet decided what to press. The Sony child company charged with manufacturing the records put in a machine this past February to cut the analog master discs, which make the mold for the presses. They are setting up a pressing machine now. Sony’s biggest problem is that nobody has experience making the records, To remedy this they turned to former engineers, asking them to return as advisors and pass on needed the tips and tricks to younger workers.
There are a few different reasons for the comeback in vinyl. “Audiophiles,” those with high end equipment who take their music very seriously, miss the “warmth” of tone that comes from a continuous analog reproduction. Digital recordings are so much more accurate, they pick up the full spectrum of frequencies. While that sounds like a good thing, the fact that analog technology was limited to a smaller range, the result coming out of the speakers sounds very “pleasing to the ear.” Similar to the way the crispness of digital snapshots make things feel “cold and clinical” as opposed to an image produced by film.
Another reason people are buying vinyl is that they remember from their childhood the entire record experience. CD’s were a much smaller profile, and downloads have no profile at all so images are only a minor accent with today’s music. With vinyl, the covers were almost as important than the music.
Often it was the album cover that persuaded people to buy an album, not the music. Sometimes, the cover art was better than the music. Artists like Andy Warhol, Roger Dean, and Burt Goldblatt used album art to advance their careers. Double records, pull out liner notes, records had features galore to give you something to look at while you listened to the music.
Jethro Tull’s “Thick As A Brick” was entirely a unique concept album. One track, annoyingly split in the middle to record half on each side came in a cover laid out as a newspaper. Along with the lyrics are several interlocking stories, even classified ads that all build on the theme presented by the music.
Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti” featured cut out windows that showed the inner sleeve. When they released “In Through The Out Door,” the record came with a brown paper sleeve. Inside were six different variations of a sleeve that was black and white but would become color if wiped with a wet cloth. Nobody knew which one they were going to have until they opened it.
Another reason driving the renaissance in vinyl is the collect-ability factor. New or old, vinyl keeps its value as long as you maintain the condition. As long as there is a demand for the particular title, making a profit is fairly easy. Some of the classics can bring astronomical prices.
An original “Abbey Road” can bring in $650. “Synchronicity” by the Police has sold for $350, Even the B-52’s can bring a couple hundred. Some of the more in demand records like the Who’s “Tommy” or Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” can bring in $1000 or more. The thing that sets the high dollar collectibles apart from the ones sitting in a milk crate in your garage is that these disks are virtually pristine. Where the tiniest speck of dust causes horrible screams of agony from any audiophile worth his salt, the warped, scratched and abused ones aren’t worth much more than tossing in the trash. True collectors look for only the highest quality specimens.