People everywhere are pulling vinyl records down from attics, and discovering albums at used record shops and thrift stores. Since 2006, vinyl record sales have risen annually, with no sign of slowing down. Technology isn’t exactly known for being cyclical, and with streaming platforms dominating, it makes you wonder why vinyl records are popular again. We can officially say, vinyl got its groove back.
Throughout the 20th century, record companies developed innovations to give listeners an efficient playback system. But when did vinyl records originate, and what events led to the vinyl comeback?
In this article, we briefly discuss the history of vinyl records and explain what’s attracting music lovers back to the timeless listening experience.
A History of Vinyl Records
Before we talk about the vinyl resurgence, it’s important to understand a little bit about the history of recorded music and vinyl records. That’s because, in some ways, vinyl as we know it today had more than one revival. Here’s a closer look at the vinyl record timeline, starting with its predecessors and ending with its underdog comeback.
The First Recorded Music
Thomas Edison invented the first music playback device in 1877, known as the phonograph, but the first long-playing record as we would recognize it was introduced by RCA Victor in 1930.
These “Program Transcription Discs” were the first commercially available records to spin at 33 1/3 rotation per minute (RPM) speed that today’s vinyl records use. Unfortunately, these early discs didn’t catch on. RCA Victor’s discs were unsuccessful due to the lack of affordable playback equipment during the Great Depression.
Despite the commercial failure, these discs were made from a vinyl compound that provided better playback than what was currently on the market. In other words, RCA Victor set the stage for new advancements that came years later.
From Shellac to Vinyl
Before vinyl became standardized, records were made from a brittle material called shellac and were played at 78 RPM—only one song or five minutes per side! During World War II, the country experienced a shellac shortage. To combat the shortage, some 78s were pressed to Vinylite instead, which was similar to the compound used for the RCA Victor Program Transcription Discs.
The switch from shellac to vinyl was a blessing in disguise. Record companies quickly noticed the superiority of vinyl’s sound quality, production cost and durability.
Columbia Records Makes a Breakthrough
The record industry faced problems beyond the shellac shortage. 78 RPM records were limited to five minutes of music on each side, and record companies couldn’t figure out how to extend playback times.
This challenge continued throughout the 1930s. Western Electric managed to extend playback to 10 minutes per side, but record companies still struggled to make significant improvements. In 1939, Columbia records began researching new ways to address the problem.
In 1948, the recording industry hit a milestone that changed recording and playback technology forever. Alongside Dr. Peter Goldmark, Columbia Records created the 12-inch micro-groove long-playing record or LP. Their new LP standardized the 33 1/3 playback speed and gave listeners 21 minutes of music on both sides. Say hello to the modern full-length album!
The War of Speeds
“The War of Speeds” was an era of fierce competition between RCA Victor and Columbia Records. Both record companies fought to standardize new playback speeds and dominate the market.
Just a year after the release of the 12-inch LP, RCA Victor introduced the 7-inch record in response to Columbia Records’ new design. These smaller discs play at 45 RPM and require a circular adapter in the center. RCA Victor also popularized the EP (extended play) record to teens who enjoyed hit singles and wanted a few more songs than a traditional single offered.
The rivalry between Columbia Records and RCA Victor made a positive effect on the industry. Ultimately, both speeds became industry standards by meeting the preferences of different listeners, which is why almost every record player on the market toggles seamlessly between 33 1/3 and 45 RPM at the push of a button.
The Golden Era of Vinyl
Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, the record industry boomed. In 1978, sales for vinyl LPs and EPs peaked at $2.5 billion and accounted for 59.5% of total revenue from recorded music. Although the public was skeptical about stereo sound previously, reliable home audio equipment became more accessible, and vinyl records were spinning in homes across the country.
During this profitable era in music history, listening to records became a classic pastime. As stereo sound grew in popularity, people began adding high-fidelity turntables and speaker systems to their homes.
With home audio on the rise, record clubs grew in popularity as well. Record clubs were mail-order services that delivered “club edition” records to homes. At the time, music labels used record clubs to target new audiences and boost sales.
The Vinyl Decline
Vinyl records were the leading music playback format in the music industry until new advancements in playback technology became more popular among consumers. In 1979, the Sony Walkman marked the beginning of a steady decline in vinyl record sales. Cassette tapes and the Walkman were portable, but vinyl records definitely were not. However, vinyl still had a stronghold for audiophiles, as cassette tapes couldn’t offer anywhere near the same sonic fidelity as vinyl.
Unfortunately, the Sony Walkman wasn’t the only threat to vinyl records. In 1983, a final blow came during the dawn of the digital age—the CD. In addition to portability, CDs were preferred for their convenience, storage capacity and accurate sound. Unlike vinyl, CDs had no flutter and wow, no risk of warping and weren’t affected by dusty grooves. Throughout the 1990s, vinyl record sales began to plummet.
Digital music platforms like Napster, Limewire and iTunes followed. In 2005, less than a million vinyl records were sold. Despite its low fidelity, the MP3 format became more popular, and portable media players like the iPod became essential everyday devices.
So how do vinyl records stack up in a world where streaming platforms are king? Plot twist—vinyl is back in business.
The Vinyl Comeback: 2006
In 2006, after record lows, vinyl record sales started to rise again. By the end of 2020, vinyl record sales reached 27.5 million units, which was 30 percent higher than the previous year. As CD sales fall, vinyl sales are booming. But what draws us to vinyl, and why should you consider adding vinyl records to your rotation in 2022?
Why We Keep Coming Back to Vinyl
For some, vinyl never went out of style. But most current-day consumers of vinyl records are new supporters of the format or are returning to it after decades spent buying CDs and MP3s. A few of those reasons include the urge to build a collection, the calming ritual of listening on vinyl, the community element of record stores and more.
The Listening Ritual
Listening to digital music is convenient, but it can’t replicate the joy of dropping a needle on a record. Listening to vinyl records requires more of your attention than pressing play on your Spotify AI-created playlist, but music lovers are rewarded with an intimate listening experience.
The listening ritual starts with browsing through record shops. When you browse a record crate, the music isn’t stuck behind a screen or floating in a digital cloud—it’s in your hands. Instead of swiping through a playlist, you gain a deeper connection while admiring the printed artwork, gatefold covers, album inserts and liner notes.
When it’s time to listen, you take the record from the sleeve, place it on the platter, drop the needle and press play. Sometimes, you may even clean the record after flipping sides. You have a role in bringing music to life, and it takes more than opening an app or pressing play. Instead, you’re physically connected to the music
Building a Collection
The passion for collecting music has reignited the vinyl comeback. Veteran record collectors are adding new releases to their shelves, and younger generations are starting collections from scratch. But why are people spending time and money hunting for records?
Unlike streaming music, records can be owned, and some music lovers treat their collections like a lifelong investment. There’s an overwhelming selection of vinyl releases on the market, and some gain value over time, depending on a variety of factors. Sites like Discogs give collectors access to a huge marketplace, as well as detailed sales information about specific releases.
Shopping for records and building a collection is a fun hobby that brings you closer to the music you love. Many of us have a sentimental attachment to our favorite albums. By building a collection, you’re able to express yourself and take ownership of the music that defines your style. For some record collectors, it’s more than a hobby—it’s a journey.
The Unmistakable Sound of Vinyl
You can’t deny the warmth of vinyl records. Music lovers are falling in love with the rich sound of vinyl—a unique quality that digital formats lack.
Despite the clean sound of digital music, computer programs compress the audio to save storage space. Consequently, compressed audio formats, like MP3 files, limit the dynamic range and frequency response of your music. Instead, vinyl records are uncompressed and completely lossless, so you’ll hear an uncompromised reproduction of the original recording, especially if the original recording was also done on analog equipment.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about those supposed shortcomings in vinyl that CDs sought to solve. Yes, CDs and digital files aren’t subject to flutter and wow, clicks and pops or other technical faults in vinyl, but those elements give a nostalgic feel to music. Modern musicians even pay big money for plugins, pedals and other gear and effects to capture the sound of vinyl. Just like in the music itself, sometimes the imperfections are what make it special.
Joining the Vinyl Community
By listening to vinyl, you’re joining a diverse community of like-minded people who care about the legacy of music. Whether you buy one EP or 100 LPs, you’re supporting record stores, artists and the music industry.
The vinyl community is full of people who are passionate about music. They’re the people you see browsing record bins and waiting in line with an armful of LPs. They’re also the people standing behind counters of independent record stores—the havens that support the vinyl community and the music community as a whole.
Shopping for records at a record store is the best way to find new releases and rare gems. In addition to their broad selection, they support local artists and host a variety of live events. But there’s one event that brings independent record stores together each year—Record Store Day.
Record Store Day’s impact on the vinyl comeback can’t be overstated. The twice-annual pseudo-holiday brings fans, musicians and shop owners together to celebrate music and the culture of record collecting. The first Record Store Day took place in 2008, and it’s grown into a worldwide event that over 1,000 independent record stores celebrate every year.
Record Store Day generates skyrocketing sales for vinyl records of all genres. According to Billboard, MRC Data tracked 1.3 million records sold during the first Record Store Day drop in 2021. A drop is a collection of special releases that are made available to purchase on Record Store Day, a bit of a departure from their original annual event, made to spread out the RSD love year-round.
Better Turntable Designs
Today, there are seemingly more turntables to choose from than ever before. The vinyl resurgence is inspiring manufacturers to re-envision traditional turntable design to meet the demands of a new generation of record collectors.
Turntable manufacturers are using innovative materials to maximize sound quality and performance. For example, House of Marley Stir It Up Turntables feature bamboo plinths to minimize vibration during playback and create a modern look. Paired with a low-resonance aluminum tonearm, you’ll hear your music without unwanted noise.
New turntable designs are making external preamps and home receivers obsolete, which makes record collecting affordable and accessible for everyone. You don’t need a full hi-fi setup to enjoy listening to vinyl records—just pair your Bluetooth speakers. Bluetooth speakers give record collectors a seamless listening experience without the messy cables or pricey setup.
With so many different ways to enjoy vinyl records, who wouldn’t start a collection?
Start Your Vinyl Record Collection
Vinyl records are the classic way to enjoy music. Despite the decline in record sales during the 1990s, record companies and innovators have perfected the format—and they still sound great today. Whether you’re cruising dollar bins or are on the hunt for that limited edition pressing of your favorite album, vinyl can fit into everyone’s lives. If you’re ready to join the vinyl revival and start enjoying records, check out House of Marley Stir It Up Turntables.