Why we’re listening to vinyl records again

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We’re in the middle of a vinyl resurgence, one that captures our affection for the analog in the midst of music streaming technology. In photo: Vinyl records come in different sizes, such as the usual 33 RPM which holds a whole album of songs, and the 45 RPM or 7-inch, which can hold singles. Photo by KRISTELLE RAMOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Asking why people still listen to music on vinyl records today is somewhat similar to asking why people still go to concerts. Both are mediums of music. Both are expensive. Both are analog formats, technically. And most of all, both still thrive, alongside their digital descendants — the CD, the mp3, and Spotify.

The relationship between the formats seems to be communal. 2016 was a good year for both the vinyl record and on-demand music streaming. Nielsen’s U.S. Year-End Music Report for 2016 confirms a 76 percent increase in audio streams compared to 2015. The streaming apps did better than digital sales, which decreased last year. Vinyl reached an all-time high (since 1991) of 13 million units, and grew to 11 percent of total physical album sales. The analog format’s sales have been increasing every year for 11 years. It looks like the vinyl resurgence that started in 2007 is still ongoing.

“Vinyl resurgence in the Philippines is so high now that almost all ages from all walks of life are now into this,” says Joel Devicais, the proprietor of the thrift store Vinyl Dump in Cubao Expo. “Some of those old copies of vinyl are now [being] reproduced by some pressing plants outside of the Philippines, and even new artists from the Philippines now have their vinyl recordings too.”

vinyl resurgence1.jpg “Crate digging,” which entails looking through records in a crate, is one of the experiences vinyl enthusiasts treasure the most. Photo by KRISTELLE RAMOS

Among the old albums being reproduced due to high demand include records that have established themselves in the canon of rock music, such as The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Legend,” and Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.” These are records bought by people of all ages. Devicais even had a nine-year-old walk into his store and buy three Beatles records. “[There were] also two sisters, at age 11 and 10, looking for Elvis Presley records, and they bought all of my Elvis collections,” he says.

Many see collecting vinyl as just a fad or a novelty in this age, due to the format being more expensive and inaccessible compared to mp3s and streaming. But there is an entire generation who grew up buying and listening to vinyl as the only way to own a piece of music. A lot of these people still rely on the analog format.

“I have met vinyl heads who have been doing it for the longest time and never stopped collecting even when the CD came out,” says Diego Mapa of vinyl disc jockey duo, The Diegos. “They just went on collecting until today. For these guys, vinyl never really disappeared.”

vinyl resurgence2.jpg The generation that grew up on vinyl records maintain their collections by constantly looking for music from the past in the form of old pressings. “All those never re-released or crazy one-off pressings of bands and artists that time has forgotten,” says Diego Castillo of The Diegos. “You'd think that in this age of the interwebs, everything is accounted for and can be heard online. This of course isn't even remotely true.” Photo by KRISTELLE RAMOS

Back then, it was hard to get ahold of pressings from the U.S., U.K., Germany, and Japan, where the world’s record plants operate. Filipino music fans usually had to buy their records from other countries or have them shipped by friends or relatives abroad. Until around the early ‘90s, major labels such as Vicor Music Corporation and WEA Records took care of local releases on vinyl, which were abound at the time. But at the dawn of the digital age of music, pressing plants in the country shut down as a trickle-down effect of the global industry’s decision that vinyl wasn’t really worth investing in anymore.

In 2014, Pitchfork released an article about the “tough realities” behind vinyl’s comeback, stating that, as demand for vinyl grows, supply struggles to meet it. Pressing plants in the U.S., which numbers to just about a dozen, are stumped with an enormous amount of requests and orders. The pressing machines are of old technology, which means that they don’t par well with today’s digital media-churning machinery in terms of speed.

Production delays are worse in the Philippines, obviously, because we rely on these factories from other countries, as well as international distributors for new records. While it’s easy these days to acquire an Adele or Drake record on vinyl, OPM records are now “scarce and expensive,” as put by Derick Villarino from independent record label Offshore Music.

If you think about it, digital allowed for the resurrection of the analog. CDs and mp3s gave way to the appreciation of vinyl as a rare item, and now, it becomes a novelty once more.

Despite vinyl’s shortcomings, there are many local artists that turn to the format as an option for their album releases. The bands UDD and Sandwich released their albums, “Capacities” and “Five on the Floor” (which came in limited edition red wax) respectively, on vinyl. Pedicab’s “Remuda Triangle” was available exclusively on vinyl and through download codes. Diego Mapa, who is also the band’s frontman, says it’s “one of our dreams to release a vinyl record.”

“Now that we are an independent band, it was easier to do this project because we could do anything we want,” he says. “As music fans, we enjoy all worlds, both digital and [vinyl, et cetera]. We also think that they compliment each other — those who are listening to the album on Spotify, if they like it, they will buy the record. Those who bought the record, although there's a download card in it, if they're lazy to download the card, they can just go on Spotify. The vinyl is selling better. It's not easy to earn on streaming or downloads alone.”

Any upcoming independent band considers having their music on vinyl an opportunity. It means giving their fans more options to experience their music, as well as bringing back the effort and quality in making music.

vinyl resurgence3.jpg The vinyl resurgence is an all-ages trend. Younger people, alongside older people, spend hours looking through records to look for pressings, old and new, foreign and local. Photo by KRISTELLE RAMOS

Vinyl heads would argue that music in the heyday of the wax format sounded more crisp and pristine because artists would record music through analog equipment and release it through an analog format. “Putting an artist's music on vinyl means you are risking a lot of time, effort, and resources,” says Villarino of Offshore Music. One of the record label's partners, Pat Sarabia, adds, “It's also a novelty that carries a ‘wow factor’ within itself and wherever it goes.”

When the Fresh Filter Vol. 1 compilation was released in a launch party at luxury store Satchmi, it was the first time for most of the indie artists featured to have their music pressed on vinyl. The record also attracted and brought together the bands’ fans, who were mostly young people. The milestone strengthened Satchmi’s market of vinyl-buying millennials.

Some “young adults buy records they never listen to.” It’s become an aesthetic choice, and the reason for “why the future of vinyl may rest on its ability to find selling points beyond its basic function as a music format.” People are suddenly remembering and missing the experience behind listening to a record, and not only the music it contains. There is a consensus among vinyl enthusiasts that analog is not really better than digital in terms of sound quality, “it's just different,” argues Sarabia of Offshore Music. “The big difference is the experience of playing vinyl. It has a process.”

“I have met vinyl heads who have been doing it for the longest time and never stopped collecting even when the CD came out,” says Diego Mapa of The Diegos. “They just went on collecting until today. For these guys, vinyl never really disappeared.”

“I'm not really sure if vinyl is better than its digital descendants ... There are a myriad of factors at work for this to really hold true,” says Diego Castillo, the other half of The Diegos. “One, if the press that you have isn't a U.S. or Japan one and was mastered here in the Philippines. If this is the case, the tendency at times is it sounds a bit thin than its foreign-pressed counterparts. Second, you need a little bit more high-end [listening] gear to fully get the glory that is vinyl. Thirdly, mastering, production, and manufacturing variables can drastically tilt the scale either way. It is after all garbage in, garbage out.”

“Digital music is obviously more compressed than analog,” continues Castillo. “On vinyl, the record itself has a groove which is carved into it that basically mirrors the original music's waveform. Supposedly meaning that no information is lost.”

This explains the warmth of the vinyl listening experience. Jay Amante of The Grey Market record shop adds, “The record in itself is magical, it is physical, you can smell and feel it. The ritualistic nature of pulling out a record from its sleeve and putting it on top of a turntable, then hearing the needle touch the surface of the record is calming. A state of zen envelopes your being and you are able to feel clearly. It's really something.”

vinyl resurgence4.jpg Kagatan is a quarterly vinyl swap meet where collectors bring their records out into the streets for people to buy or simply look through. There are also live performances by vinyl DJs. Photo by KRISTELLE RAMOS

Part of the whole experience is the role of the record store as a congregation for creative minds, all looking for good music, digging through crates, and talking about their favorite artists. During the latest Kagatan, a vinyl swap meet event series, collectors all brought their records out into the street, and vinyl DJs brought their own collections too, which they played for the crowd.

Inside Vinyl Dump that day, members of a metal band talked about their respective collections, as Rush’s album “Fly by Night” played in the background. One of them walked out bringing the record in his bag, excited to play the rest of the songs when he gets home.

Why was there a vinyl resurgence? The polarity of the two formats — vinyl and streaming — is interesting in that they lie on extreme ends of the spectrum, spanning LaserDiscs, CDs, cassette tapes, mp3s, and everything in between. Yet vinyl and streaming are the most consumed formats, reflecting our digital desire to immortalize music, as well as our analog pining for the beauty of ephemerality.

vinyl resurgence7.jpg Vinyl heads take joy in the physical interaction between buyer and record, buyer and other buyers, and buyer and seller. Sometimes, regular “sukis” ask for discounts on certain pressings, if the record is not in mint condition. Photo by KRISTELLE RAMOS

If you think about it, digital allowed for the resurrection of the analog. CDs and mp3s gave way to the appreciation of vinyl as a rare item, and now, it becomes a novelty once more. The democratization of the listening experience that digital provided is strengthened by an additional resurgent format, giving listeners the power of choice when it comes to experiencing music.

After streaming, what’s next? What could possibly come after that, other than a full circling of the ancestor format? The listening experience might just be a cycle that spins endlessly on the tip of a needle.