PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Sometimes music fans just like to have their choices validated.
In a span of five days spent selling old Peter Lemongello and Ray Conniff records acquired as part of large auction lots and surfing a reggae-record site for '70s soul albums and '60s French girl-group compilations, I started to ask myself why I do this. We've reached a point where "owning" music is wholly unnecessary.
So why would anyone choose to not only purchase music, but pay a premium for it? Why would vinyl buyers increase that medium's sales by 31% last year to 6 million albums and 250% since 1993 as the rest of music saw sales plummet 50% post-Napster? As Gizmodo writer Mario Aguilar wrote earlier this month, vinyl listeners enjoy the medium more and are willing to buy into the experience.
The people who actually care about the experience of ownership are increasingly turning back to vinyl because it gives you a physical experience that's more fulfilling than a simple CD purchase. There are a few reasons this might be the case, but it all boils down to experience: a warm and fuzzy happy feeling you get from buying and playing LPs that you just can't get from any other source.
There have been a few attempts to justify why this is happening. Die-hard vinyl collectors and fans argue that it's about sound quality, but CDs produce quality 7.5 times more full than terrible, compressed, "lossy" digital formats buyers are accustomed to. In many cases, modern records are transferring digital recordings to analog format and stifling the true analog sound buyers are seeking. Neil Young's PonoMusic, meanwhile, has taken in roughly $5 million through its Kickstarter campaign in an attempt to bring high-definition digital music files to the masses. So that takes quality out of the equation.
Convenience? There's just about nothing less convenient than a vinyl LP. They're bulky, they're fragile, there's the ever-present sound of subtle scratch on any record not kept in absolutely pristine condition. Oh, and you can't just download one to your smartphone or play it on any app-enabled device. However, just about every new album comes with either a CD copy, a little insert with a code for a digital download or, in the case of Amazon's (AMZN) AutoRip, includes a digital copy automatically added to a cloud-based account or player.
Ultimately, it comes down to aesthetics and preference as the tiebreakers, and there's nothing wrong with either.
I made the argument for vinyl aesthetics last year by equating it to a trip through the racks of Boston's Newbury Comics during its CD heyday, but even that misses the mark a bit. I wasn't raised on CDs: I was raised on my mom's Carole King, Jim Croce, Temptations, Donna Summer and Crosby, Stills and Nash LPs. I was raised on my dad's Chicago, War and Joe Cocker records. I was raised by a grandfather who pressed records at a plant in Newark and taught me how to put the needle of my portable suitcase record player down on Chipmunks and illustrated Puff The Magic Dragon vinyl and flip the album when a side ended. I was raised big jacket artwork, sheets of lyrics and album info and a little adapter placed on the turntable to play mom's boxes of 45s "borrowed" from a long-gone high school boyfriend.
For me and others like me, it's chasing that experience and applying it to the music we love today -- of giving Sharon Jones a space in the crate next to Etta James. For others, it's about grasping that "real" tactile experience they'd missed out on a generation before, or hearing the "warmth" of scratch and tone that a lifetime of digital music lacked. It's another way of listening to Daft Punk or The Sounds.
It's about choosing to spend a Saturday afternoon in the racks of Everyday Music, Jackpot Records, Crossroads Music or 2nd Avenue Records here in Portland thumbing through the crates, putting on oversized headphones to get a sample and leaving with a fresh stack of albums in a square paper bag. It's about going into the coffee shop next door with the turntable on the counter that plays a Digable Planets record you haven't heard in nearly 20 years. It's about going through your own crates of records, seeing some of the stuff you got from your parents or grandparents and wondering what you can hand down to your own kids -- that's not an iTunes or Amazon password.
But all of that is sensory, tactile. If we're looking at it from a strictly business perspective, vinyl is the only way a music lover should "own" new music anymore. Spotify, Pandora (P), Beats, Rdio and other streaming services have undone digital music's ownership economy by cramming a whole lot of value into either a monthly fee or a free, ad-driven platform. Considering MP3s and other compressed soundfiles are of roughly the same quality as streaming audio -- if not less so -- the value proposition of digital singles and albums is almost completely eroded.
Even the fact that those media are more portable don't hold up in the modern vinyl marketplace. If vinyl is being sold with free CD or digital equivalents anyway, then it is allowing the same sort of portability while offering the listener a version with both enhanced sound quality and the aesthetic comforts of LPs. The price of ownership, while significant, gives the owner more choices of format and medium for his or her money.
It's a value proposition that PonoMusic would be wise to consider, but it's also packaging that recognizes and rewards the intangibles of vinyl's physical music experience. If you're still into owning music, it's the best deal on the table.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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