Monday, March 29, 2010
Future of Vinyl in a Digital Age
I discovered this excellent survey, "The Future of Vinyl in a Digital Age." This survey is being conducted as research for a dissertation on the music industry. I gave my typically over-lengthy answers to the questions, so I decided to share them here on the blog.
Feel free to fill out the survey and share your thoughts as well. Enjoy!
4. Do you buy it at an online recordshop or a real recordshop or both? and explain your choice.
Minneapolis is blessed with a number of excellent vintage record stores, such as Uptown Cheapo, Hymie's Records, Roadrunner Records, and Treehouse Records. The circulation of rare and pristine albums is quite excellent, so with enough patience and dedication, you can find almost anything. There's a certain joy in searching for records, like digging through buried treasure. The discovery is as much a joy as the music itself. Also, there are many wonderful discoveries in the cheap, "dollar aisle."
5. Why do you buy vinyl instead of mp3 or cd ?
Analog music on LP remains the gold standard for recorded music. Think of analog as "high definition" music; and note that I specify "analog" because digital music is often pressed onto vinyl today, and this really makes little difference over CD. The analog sound waves are the key to the format's dominance. Dynamic range, depth of sound, the 3D space - these are what analog LP offers. A natural, lifelike reproduction of sound is possible, and this really becomes evident with more powerful turntables, phono cartridges, and stereo equipment. Finally, analog music feels more integrated; digital (cd/mp3/lossless) has a clarity that emphasizes separate instruments. It's like a car engine whose parts have been individually cleaned and polished. It's clear and precise, but lacking that sense of the whole. Does that make sense? Bottom line: analog is superior to digital. The world does not consist of zeros and ones. Life exists in the subtle spaces between the digits.
8. Do you think there's a future for vinyl in this digital age ? If yes what is your vision on this ? If no explain why not ?
You'll have to read my long answer to #9, which addresses this issue. Everything depends on the mindset of the music industry, which is to ask of them, is this a genuine LP revival, or a temporary and cheap cash-in? The analog LP is not just another market to dump the same digital files as CD and MP3. This truly is "high definition audio," and that must be respected.
Ironically, the futile arms race of "the loudness wars" is a golden opportunity for LPs. Compared to the horribly crushed, compressed low-fi haze of digital, high-definition analog has never sounded better. Simply sit someone down on the couch and play a Robert Ludwig press of Led Zeppelin II, or Jimi Hendrix's The Cry of Love. Play some classical or jazz, something with the depth and vast spaciousness that LPs are known for. Then compare this against the crushed, painful mush playing on the iPod.
Simply put, the format must be respected. Keen musicians are aware of this, and are creating albums in a purely all-analog format ("AAA"), even mastering exclusively for vinyl. The days of simply dumping a 44.1k CD master onto vinyl are coming to an end. Such cheap cash-ins sound terrible on any decent stereo system, and the market is discriminating enough to demand quality.
I don't expect the analog LP to ever be more than a niche market, a realm of the lucky few who know better. But this is how our Long Tail internet culture is evolving. TV sitcoms will always be more popular than Lenny Bruce or George Carlin or Bill Hicks. American Idol will always be more popular than Tom Waits or The White Stripes. This is a part of life. Hopefully, this Long Tail will remain profitable to sustain its niche scene for the forseeable future.
9. Do you think the real recordshop will keep existing ? If yes why ? if no why not ?
As long as there is a market for vinyl records, there will be a market for record shops. The major question is how long this current fad will continue. Sales of LPs are rising, and it's now expected for musicians to release their albums on LP (the smarter ones will continue to record in analog for LP). However, pressing plants have not built new equipment since the dawn of CD. The machinery is 25-30 years old, and that's going to become a greater concern, as repairs and maintainence become more and more expensive. Will demand for records increase to the point where new pressing equipment is built? Will a long-term committment be made by the music industry? Or will the "vinyl revival" fade? Will the analog LP finally fade when the baby boom generation dies?
Another concern is the hi-fi audio market. Manufacturers of audio gear continue to skew the wealthy upscale market, aging boomers who think nothing of spending $2,000 on turntables and carts. What does that leave the young college student, who's curious to discover LPs? The used market remains a fertile ground, and smart buyers can score excellent vintage tables for $100. On the down side, you're buying a 30-year-old turntable - the fact that these machines still perform is a miracle of engineering. But you're going to deal with aches and pains.
Today's modern turntables are horribly overpriced, and there's no excuse. Unlike digital music, analog LPs depend greatly on the proper equipment to unveil their brilliant sound. A cheap, plastic USB turntable will sound like junk. A vintage turntable, like my Sony PS-X5 (1977-79), will smash it to pieces. If you want a comparable sound from new hi-fi, you'll have to spend $700 for the Technics SL-1200 mkII, or $900 for the Rega P3-24.
Since most audio equipment is imported from abroad, the US market is vulnerable to price and currency fluctuations. Prices across the board have shot up in the past two years. This will be the major challenge to vinyl LP's long-term survival. The industry must nurture the younger generation, and respect the hi-fi audio realm. This is the challenge before the music business.