Vinyl’s back, but why?

Wednesday, March 7, 2018 - 3:14pm

Encore Records is an Ann Arbor staple

Encore Records is an Ann Arbor staple Buy this photo
Courtesy of Dominic Polsinelli

You’re a teenager and it’s your first day back at school after a wonderful summer vacation. The air is still warm and your excitement about the coming year dominates any malevolent feelings you may have toward the early mornings and the monotonous schedule of lower education. In the fire drill line, you notice Vinny from math class last year.

But this isn’t the same Vinny.

He looks different, handsomer. Maybe it’s the summer tan — who knows. Either way, Vinny is the new talk of the town, and you give your best 007 impression to sneakily slide up a few spots in line to ask him about his summer.

In elementary school, everyone wanted Vinny; however, once the middle school years hit, Cam was the prize and poor Vinny’s stock took a tumble. But with this new Vinny — this rugged, mysterious Vinny who wears flannels and has a five o’clock shadow — people begin to lose interest in clean-cut Cam and his hard-parted undercut and American Eagle graphic tees. Vinny is back on top. He has a warm, honest persona that fake Cam simply can’t pull off, and he’s just offbeat enough to be cool.  

Vinny’s return to glory can be equated to the phoenix-like rise of another v-word (how convenient): vinyl. Since 2009, the vintage music format has experienced a 260 percent growth in sales. The scene inside any Urban Outfitters store has enough evidence of the phenomenon: walls lined with both modern and classic vinyl, from Led Zeppelin to Kendrick Lamar, with record players on sale to match. But what’s behind the spontaneous resurgence of vinyl in recent years? The answer to this question is a little more complex than the acne cream and good ol’ maturation of Vinny’s case.

To provide some insight, The Michigan Daily enlisted co-owner of Ann Arbor’s Encore Records, Jim Dwyer. According to Dwyer, the driving force behind vinyl’s rebirth is sound quality. When CDs were introduced, they were marketed as a cleaner-sounding alternative to vinyl that wasn’t prone to the warping or scratching which plagued records. As audiophiles began to have their way with the digital format, however, they noticed this marketed “clean” sound was cold and compressed in reality. Dwyer explained the vinyl sound is simply more palatable. 

“When you have a room with microphones and a band, the air is vibrating and it goes into the microphone. When the process is reversed, you put a needle on the record and the vibrations the microphone picked up are now coming out of your speaker,” he said. 

Conversely, with a CD, a recording is digitized into a string of zeros and ones that is etched into a disc as a series of bumps and non-bumps. A CD player shoots laser light at the disc to reveal these etchings and play their respective sounds. This electronic process results in a smooth and samely sound that lacks the warmth and authenticity of a mechanically engineered and played record, and people have begun to notice.

Dwyer also pointed toward the cyclical nature of culture, i.e., “everything old is new again,” to explain vinyl’s comeback. We all know this generational trend; vintage has an appeal — just ask any hipster. Today, it’s simply cool to have and play a record. What’s more, records aren’t “old” for millennials; vinyl is a novelty to young adults, as they grew up in a digital age dominated by CDs, iTunes and streaming services.

Additionally, vinyl provides a listening experience that has been lacking in the digital age. To start, a listener can actually see and interact with the cover art, an aspect of albums that has become virtually obsolete due to thumbnail images of album covers and technology’s size limitations. Playing records also ensures the listener experiences the tracks of an album in their intended sequence, as opposed to blasphemously shuffling or adding singles to a playlist.

As it pertains to Ann Arbor, Dwyer mentioned vinyl’s resurgence has not been as dramatic because records never really died out in the first place. A hip college town, Ann Arbor has always hosted students and non-students eager to experience the listening culture of yesteryear. With that said, there was a brief period in the ’90s when Encore experienced dwindling demand for records and converted much of its inventory to CDs. The digital disease ran rampant, and even the mightiest of record stores stumbled. But thanks to vinyl’s renewed appeal, Encore is thriving once again.

“Customers come in from outside the area and say, ‘Oh boy, there’s nothing like this where we live,’ and they’re always shocked when I tell them that Ann Arbor actually has four record stores. So, we’re lucky," Dwyer said. 

 Conveniently paired with vinyl’s revival is the influx of records into the vinyl vortex due to the inevitable aging of Baby Boomers, the original record collectors. Dwyer ended our conversation on this point, analogizing the vinyl experience to casual fishing, during which one catches a fish, basks in the triumph and returns the fish to the water to be caught by another triumphant person in the future. Like fishermen, he explained, vinyl collectors never really own their records; they borrow them, experience them and return them to the listening community, either at the end of the week or at the end of their lives.

“I’ve begun to realize that, at the end of the day, nobody gets to keep their records. You’re the caretaker of those records, and then when your turn to let it go comes, somebody else becomes the caretaker of that record,” he said. 

Fundamentally, it is this personalized, rich, cherishable experience that has brought listeners back to vinyl after far too many years of digitized, purified, impersonal sound — just like your revamped attraction to Vinny from math class.