The Renaissance of Vinyl Records in the Digital Age

This is, undeniably the second Golden Age for music collectors.  The industry has finally acknowledged the massive resurgence of the vinyl format as a cultural response to the first decade of non-physical digital media.  A growing percentage of the listening public are re-claiming the participatory listening experience of the vinyl era.  And the undeniable consumer demand is most visible with the format’s own holiday – National Record Store Day.

There has been a tremendous shift over the last 10 years in the availability and selection of vinyl.  Where once buyers had to dig through innumerable copies of Firestone Christmas, Barry Manilow LPs, and Sing Along With Mitch to find a hopeful grail, local new-and-used record shops are once again staples of every major city.   Of course, the independent record store never really disappeared, but vinyl’s new-found popularity has drastically affected the stock you’ll find at your local store.

The compromise is of the “hip” exclusivity of the format.  Once-rare and prized LPs are now flooding the shelves of every local record shop.  The Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacemen 3, The Stone Roses, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream… nearly every critical album of the 90s is being repressed by the thousands, and many for the first time on vinyl.  The market is approaching a level of absurdity as even the least-likely candidates for what was once an audiophile market are now being issued as “limited edition” colored-vinyl exclusives.  The soundtrack to the Nickelodeon series, The Adventures of Pete and Pete is scheduled for an upcoming release as is the soundtrack to the movie, Clueless (available in special yellow-plaid vinyl.)

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The market was further impacted by the emergence of Discogs.com.  Launched in the year 2000, Discogs raised the bar and revolutionized web-based record sales. The site’s users have cataloged 5.7 million pressings of over 800,000 community-contributed albums.  This crowd-sourced system has made Discogs the ideal place to buy and sell music and democratized record values to a single global standard.

This marks a potentially-dangerous turn for the format, where abundance of supply may result in a supersaturation of the market, and the flood of “nostalgia-vinyl” may cripple the perceived value of these novelty LPs.  Where dedicated collectors previously drove city-to-city crate-digging for scarce acetates and private press LPs from special collections, the market was rapidly-transformed by web-based services offering global-accessibility to even the most elusive recordings.  Now labels are repressing anything and everything that might tug at the nostalgic heartstrings of a budding collector, further changing the market landscape.

In the last decade, countless buyers shelled out an average of $95 to claim a hallowed copy of Aphex Twin’s classic, Selected Ambient Works Volume II.  They likely paid an extra $20 to import it to the States.  The scarcity of the record made it a grail for many lovers of electronic music.  Fortunately for hopeful fans around the world (though not for the original buyers) WARP Records widely reissued the album and copies are available in malls across America for just $29.99.  The lesson of this example and of thousands of others like it is that rarity-inspired purchases are a losing game, more so now than ever before.

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 Portishead’s Dummy from 1994 – reissued in 2014 on colored vinyl.

But in this new buyer’s market, collectors should celebrate it as a wonderful time for music lovers everywhere.  Listeners can have all the classic albums from their youth, or deluxe editions of classics from decades past – available right in their neighborhood and at an unbeatable price.  But whatever you do, buy first and foremost for the love of the music – a return-on-investment that will not be shaken by the ebb and flow of a fickle consumer market.  Free your holy grails from their sleeves and spin them.  Your music is waiting to be played and enjoyed.  And today, you can have it all.

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