In 1994, the compact disc industry was flourishing. Vinyl was already a distant memory, and the cassette, too, was being removed from music sales grace year after year. Technologically, this all made sense and everything was in perfect order. CDs were more convenient, after all. Digital. No tape. Maneuvering from track to track was finally done with ease, and the discs could be loaded into 300-disc binders or stacked into CD towers that doubled as lava lamps. Everyone bought CDs and so all artists released their music on CDs. This was the way the world worked.
But then, Pearl Jam, perhaps the biggest band in the world in 1994, decided to release their third album, Vitalogy, on vinyl. There was no good financial reason for doing so, and at that time there was no vinyl hip factor involved in their decision. But it didn’t have to make sense, because they were the biggest band in the world and they could afford to do whatever they wanted. So they released Vitalogy on vinyl, and like everything else they did, it proved very successful.
That success probably doesn’t have anything to do with the vinyl resurgence we’ve experienced these past few years, but the story of Vitalogy itself is actually a pretty good allusion for why it’s happened.
In 1978, according to an inflation adjusted RIAA chart, vinyl sales accounted for $9 billion of the country’s $15 billion music sales revenue. ’78 would be vinyl’s peak, though. Sales decreased every single year thereafter until 1993. The cassette overtook the LP in 1983 and held onto its reign until 1991, when the shiny new compact disc took the helm. Two years later, the LP was at its lowest revenue total ever ($17.2 million), and the CD was at its highest: a staggering $10 billion. You would have been hard-pressed to find a vinyl believer in those dark days.
But if you were one of those vinyl believers, you may have found a little hope on November 22, 1994, when Pearl Jam released Vitalogy on vinyl of all things. For two weeks, the album was only available in LP form. It sold 34,000 copies in the first week alone, which helped it debut at No. 55 on the Billboard 200 album chart and made it the first record to chart on the Billboard 200 due solely to vinyl sales since the CD had become the dominant format. It was so successful that the 34,000 copy total would stand as the most vinyl sales in a week until Jack White released Lazaretto in 2014. When the CD version followed two weeks later, Vitalogy sold another 877,000 copies, shooting it to the top of the Billboard 200 and making it the second fastest selling record ever (second only to Pearl Jam’ previous record, Vs.).
Vitalogy may have been responsible for the modest spike in vinyl sales in 1994 ($28.5 million), and perhaps it awoke some future precedent for the LP, but it did not alone incite the vinyl resurgence of the oughts. Vinyl sales would flounder through the rest of the ’90s and into the new millennium. Even in 2005 vinyl sales only matched their paltry 1993 numbers, earning just $17.2 million. After that, though, sales rose steadily and rapidly, and last year, vinyl accounted for $416 million in sales, holding its own in a deflated $7 billion industry where no format accrued more than $1.5 billion. (The CD is still king, and album downloads, single downloads, and paid subscriptions are all hovering around $1 billion in revenue.)
These stats raise a couple big questions. First: what happened to the music industry? According to the inflation adjusted numbers, it’s making less than half of what it was in the ’70s. People haven’t stopped listening music, of course and in fact the opposite is true. More people are listening to music today than ever before. The way we consume music, though, has changed drastically. Subscription services offer unprecedented access to music libraries at a fraction of the cost (think about the price of building a CD library of 30 million songs…), and digital downloads offer a more convenient method of music consumption than does any physical copy of the same music. But the biggest culprit for the sales drop-off is pirating. In 2009, a report estimated that only 37% of the music acquired by US consumers was paid for, and instances of music (and anything else that can be digitized) piracy has continued to increased since then.
Ok, so if everyone today is either streaming music or downloading it, free or for purchase, why are so many people buying these cumbersome LPs? They’re inconvenient. Outdated. Even antiquated by technological standards. So what’s the allure?
Pearl Jam’s startling decision to release Vitalogy on vinyl may have arisen from the album’s namesake, an early 20th century medical book of the same name. Eddie Vedder found the book at a garage sale and was enamored by both the cover art and the essence of its title. “Vitalogy” is the study of life, and, in the minds of Vedder and Co., perhaps the richer, more tactile experience of vinyl was a better embodiment of life than its digital evolutions.
But what is it that we think about when we consider the study of life? In our minds, is life analog or digital? We live in a world that has integrated one into the other, of course, but as we shift further into the digital era, perhaps there will be a natural reaction to hold onto something analog. Could vinyl’s resurgence be an indication of that reach for something tangible? Sure, it’s eas to use the word “hipster” to discuss a vinyl collection, but more is going on than that. Vinyl doesn’t make sense financially—LPs are expensive. And there are lossless digital formats with such similar sound quality to vinyl that even audiophiles can’t tell the difference. It has to be something else, and whatever it is seems to extend to many aspects of our lives.
Take our work environments, for example. Laptop-laden desks and headphones. Plug-and-play access points to the Internet where everyone is connected and no one is. Perhaps we listen to music while we work, but we don’t actually listen to music. I don’t know how many office-bound friends I’ve talked to recently that have noticed a decrease in human connection. Many can do their jobs as effectively from a remote location as they can in the office. And they miss collaboration, both in the office and remotely. Palpable human connection. Something you can feel and touch with your hands. A non-virtual handshake. Presence.
Life may be growing more digitized, compressed into compact replicas of the non-virtual here and now. But the richness of analog is irreplicable, and I think that people, consciously or not, are naturally drawn to this distinction of real. The scratch of the needle. The route it runs along etched grooves. The depth of each tone. The crackle of a still-spinning record that’s ended, like chestnuts on an open fire. The people, gathered around, listening together.
Image: Andrew Patra