LPs are notoriously fragile, but Kiwis are buying them in greater numbers. By Paul Little.
Since about 2010, vinyl records, once confined to the bargain bins of music history, have spun back into market prominence. The growth has not just continued but accelerated in the face of digital downloads and streaming. Meanwhile, the once-ubiquitous CDs are increasingly being repurposed as novelty coasters. A large part of the growth has been driven by a fervently held view that vinyl makes music sound better. It's the claim that launched a thousand Record Store Days and Rolling Stones rereleases.
When this argument over sound quality started, buyers had a choice for most releases between vinyl and CDs, which roughly equated to a contest between analogue and digital recordings. It has become much more complicated since then. For example, a lot of reissues of classic LPs were originally analogue recordings that at one stage were converted to digital before being remastered back on to vinyl. It's a purist's nightmare.
If by "sounds better" you mean "consistently reproduces with the greatest accuracy the noises the musicians made with their instrument and voices", the claim doesn't hold up. Vinyl cannot hold as much musical information as CDs, especially at the highest and lowest frequencies.
"For vinyl mastering, you need to sum [combine] certain frequencies in mono and have anything below 20Hz taken out, otherwise the needle could just jump out of the record groove," says producer Greg Haver (Manic Street Preachers, the Chills). "This is something younger producers haven't had to worry about until the recent resurgence of vinyl." And consistency is hampered by the fact that there are other variables at work. "Every recorded sound is by definition a distortion," says Dave Dobbyn. "It comes down to what your taste in distortion is. Listen to Love Me Do  on radio or vinyl. It is so damned distorted, it's unbelievable, but in a beautiful, musical way."
Which highlights that enjoyment of music is about a lot more than just how it sounds. And there are a lot more problems with LPs than just their perceived lack of audio quality.
"I am conscious of how wonderful vinyl is, but what a pain in the arse to maintain," says Dobbyn. "I don't go out of my way to buy vinyl, as I can't be bothered with the upkeep."
The material is notoriously fragile, prone to scratches and averse to dust. It needs to be kept in plastic bags, inside cardboard covers, away from heat and dirty fingers. When people smoked at parties, LPs were a magnet for cigarette ash and beer spills. These factors damaged the LP in ways that were only too audible.
You might think that, given vinyl's resurgence in an age of superior technology, those in the business would be looking to develop a hardier, super-resistant version. Not really.
"It seems like a good idea. It really does," says Slow Boat Records co-manager Jeremy Taylor, with a "what are you gonna do?" note in his voice.
"It would be a good thing," says Ben Wallace of Auckland production house Holiday Records, equally blithely. "People have tried and failed to make other compounds and the stuff just scratches."
When consumers took to cassettes in the 70s and CDs in the 80s, one of the main drivers was their portability. Before then, the only music you could take places was whatever came out of a transistor radio.
With the cassette came the car stereo and the Walkman portable player, which meant for the first time you could take your music with you wherever you went.
Duration was another factor in the CD's favour. With more than 20-25 minutes on a side of vinyl, audio quality deteriorated rapidly. CDs are comfortable at 60 minutes and streaming is limitless. Restricted duration is still a problem for LPs today, especially in classical music where 60 minutes is an ideal length and the problem of padding seldom arises. An hour of music on vinyl will require two LPs, whereas with CDs, there is no cost difference between 40 and 60 minutes. But the diehards can make a virtue out of even this.
"Vinyl albums are the perfect length for digestion," says audioculture.co.nz content director and former Listener arts editor Chris Bourke. "As the CD era took over, new albums crept closer and closer to 75 minutes. Now, the concept of an 'album' – a united piece of work – has completely evaporated. Streaming encourages musical snacking at a bottomless pick'n'mix."
Taylor rates CDs as more practical than vinyl in some cases: "With box sets, for instance, where vinyl is too cumbersome, CDs come into their own, with their extended playing time and skippability. And, of course, streaming provides instant gratification and allows you to try before you buy new things you might hear or read about. I have never used Spotify, but Apple Music is good for me, and reasonably priced."
A respected and venerable music figure once lamented the invention of the internet to this writer because it meant he no longer had a monopoly on obscure musical discoveries. Anyone with internet access could find obscure warblings of the kind for which he used to scour second-hand stores and mail-order catalogues.
And the post-vinyl age has brought more music to more people's attention than ever.
"What a wonderful tool the streaming platforms are," says Bourke. "For historians, critics, musicians, or people who just want to dial up some dance music on a Friday night or something annoying at the beach, it's all there for a small subscription." He concludes with a cautionary note, however: "Almost as if it … has no value."
Ben Wallace is a fan of streaming for the way it can lead a listener to vinyl: "With an algorithm, a 17-year-old listening to Tame Impala might get recommended the Rolling Stones, and then see a thumbnail of the cover artwork and want it in real size."
Another quirk of vinyl and its revival could be summed up in the question: how much money do the Rolling Stones really need? Every time a new format is introduced, fans upgrade. Today's ageing Stones fan might have bought Sticky Fingers on vinyl on its first release, then paid for the cassette, the CD and the remastered LP. Why should Mick and Keith and the rest continue to get paid for work they did in a few weeks half a century ago? Surely, this is world-class double dipping?
Except that the Stones, Eagles and Fleetwood Mac are exceptions. For most professional musicians, the industry is nowhere near that lucrative.
"I'm not going to complain because my records keep getting rereleased," says Haver. "A lot of the Manic Street Preachers albums get multiple releases and anniversary versions, so I've started to see older records I've done come out on vinyl and royalties come through."
The sell-it-again-Sam ethos is as old as the switch from 78s to Long Players. As German musician Thaddeus Herrmann put it on factmag.com, "It's hard to shake the feeling that the [major] labels are trying to sell their archive a third time by targeting middle-aged buyers who can remember buying vinyl, naturally switched over to the CD, sold or threw away their old vinyl and aren't completely [satisfied] with streaming."
Cumbersome, temperamental, sonically dubious and environmentally hard on scarce resources (see box, "In the groove"), what's left to like about vinyl? And why has it become the preferred medium with consumers, with sales in the US surpassing those of CDs last year for the first time in 30 years?
The first thing most enthusiasts – and even critics, grudgingly – will nominate is a nebulous quality called "warmth".
Bourke says: "I think vinyl sounds warmer, I like the imperfection of the crackle." Some producers even add such distortion to their pristine recordings – like the takeaway bar that puts sauce on your chips without you asking.
Bourke also voices a common complaint about other formats. "There's a sharpness to digital music that makes it tiring and unpleasant to listen to at length. This is MP3s or streaming: the binary nature of digital doesn't have a human, natural element – which vinyl recordings have, due to the flawed nature of how the music gets from the grooves, through the stylus, through the amplifier to the speakers … But the imperfection of vinyl was why engineers were so keen to champion the CD when it arrived."
Haver believes the replacement of the LP, first by the CD and then by streaming, has encouraged bad habits.
"When CDs came in, people made overly long albums with some average songs on – ones you would often reject at an early stage because they didn't pass muster. Anything that focuses an artist on being self-critical is positive. Vinyl does that. You can't have more than 22 minutes on a side because the quality drops with every extra minute."
Retail chains have cut through the conundrum by ceasing to sell LPs or CDs.
The Warehouse dropped the latter from its inventory last year, leaving JB Hi-Fi the only chain still stocking physical recordings. "I was in a couple of weeks ago," says Damian Vaughan, former chief executive of Recorded Music New Zealand, "and the vinyl portion of their offering was way bigger than CDs."
Physical sales are almost exclusively being driven by some 30 specialist independent music retailers around the country.
And, aficionados will tell you, that is the way it should be. From the fiction of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity to the almost religious status afforded to Jack White's Third Man Records store in Nashville, the independent outlet is seen as the natural home of music lovers. It helps explain why customers are referred to as "vinyl collectors" rather than, well, "customers". Wellington's 37-year-old Slow Boat Records is a sacred space for this congregation.
Like more traditional sacred spaces, it creates its own community. "A physical music store is where you are likely to meet other people who share your interests," Taylor notes. "One of the functions a store like Slow Boat now serves," he says, "is helping steer people to a choice. All of music is sitting on a buffet table and no one knows what's good and it doesn't make sense." Which is where the helpful, friendly staff come in.
But surely a demographic raised on online point-and-click shopping by algorithm doesn't need other humans, let alone bricks and mortar, to help them choose?
"There is a ritualistic, almost fetishistic quality to the whole thing," says Taylor. "Flipping through bins was one of the things that people seemed to miss when we had to shut the doors during lockdown. I started posting videos of flipping through our records on Facebook, and people online would rush to get the record they had seen. Within minutes, there would be 10 people wanting that Slayer record."
There's no denying that vinyl is about much more than sound. LPs' very size, while making storage and transport difficult, brings other advantages.
Having something to hold that looks good and is an artwork in its own right is definitely part of the vinyl resurgence. There was no way a 10 x 10cm CD booklet could ever match the visual and tactile impact of the 30 x 30cm LP equivalent. Cover – and insert – art has been responsible for some of the best designs of the LP era, attracting the international talents of artists from Andy Warhol to Keith Haring and Damien Hirst. Locally, Joe Wylie, Dick Frizzell and Jenny Doležel are just some of the respected artists who have produced great cover designs.
Then there are LPs' intriguingly titled epistemic features, or, as most of us grew up knowing them, the lyric sheets. Thanks to the LPs' size, these will feature the words in a type that is big enough to be read. There will also be ample room to namecheck everyone involved.
Click through to the credits link on a steaming service such as Spotify and the results are spotty at best. Sometimes, there is full information; equally often, the data is missing or incomplete. Of course, this can usually be found online, somewhere, but it requires all that clicking.
Dobbyn talks about some more of the tactile and visual pleasures that an LP gives before you hear a note: "There was the trophy stage when you opened it up, looked at the artwork and then all you wanted to do was listen to it."
And this is something that was shared in a way that just doesn't happen with streaming. In those good old days, when the latest album by your current fave came out, you rushed to the home of the first of your friends to acquire a copy, and everyone listened to it together. You didn't just email your mate a link that quite possibly they would not even get around to playing.
In part, you were sharing the miracle of just how that sound happens. "Records, in particular, are a bit magical," says Taylor, marvelling at "the idea you drop a needle on to a piece of plastic with stuff cut into it and it produces not just a sound but a good sound."
Bourke describes the beauty of the ritual: "Taking a record out by its edges. Regretting that flatmate who played it 30 years ago and has left peanut-butter finger marks in the outer grooves. Cleaning the dust and static electricity off. Placing the stylus down and it finds its groove. It's about respect for the music, like settling into a concert. A voyage to another world for 22 minutes before you have to get up, turn it over, and settle back in."
To return to our original question: does vinyl sound better? The answer is a definite "occasionally" – if a lot of other factors are in place – but not often or reliably enough for most people to notice. It also loses points for convenience, durability and portability. Is it more fun, however? Probably.
"'I started collecting vinyl in the 70s when I was about 14, and since then, I have accumulated several thousand albums," says singer-songwriter Martin Phillipps, describing his relationship with records. "I have sold about a third of those and I seldom buy new vinyl. I switched to CDs in the late 80s because I was touring a lot and they were easier to transport. Vinyl was often warped in transit or wore out quickly because pressing qualities were being compromised. Then I had to shift house a few times in a row and I vowed never to have to shift my vinyl collection again.
"But the bottom line is that I have experienced the life-changing joy and exhilaration of hearing new songs (or old favourites) on scratchy old cassettes, on transistor radios, on crappy car stereos and even from my cheap, battery-powered portable turntable.
“I can hear the difference between a beautiful mastering and pressing compared with a cheaper one, but I will never be on that endless quest to find the highest fidelity. To me, within reason, it is about the content of the music and its intention.”