The CD is dead – God rest its soul; long live the vinyl record.
It’s an outcome that few would have predicted as CD’s became widely available through the 1980’s, but it appears that if current trends continue, vinyl could indeed outlive CD. Let’s take a look at some of the numbers:
Last year, digital streaming was up 54% while total album sales – be it digital or physical – were down 11% on 2013 figures. Either way you look at it, all the figures point toward a market where consumers view music as something they access, rather than a product they own. Sounds sad, doesn’t it?
It isn’t all bad news for lovers of physical products, though, as vinyl sales grew by 52% in 2014. So although vinyl still only accounts for 6% of all physical album sales, it would appear that for a small but dedicated and passionate audience, vinyl is fast becoming the only physical format worth owning – and here’s why:
1. Vinyl is the ultimate tangible listening format
As the age of digital streaming renders the CD obsolete, a growing number of listeners are left yearning for a physical product. Despite the convenience of digital and all its added advantages from easy access to greater portability, it would seem that people still feel the need to own something. As Alice Cooper recently put it ‘Kids these days are tired of buying air’.
The rock legend also goes on to make a further claim, stating ‘kids are rebelling against the technology thing’, and there’s some merit to this, but I’m not convinced.
Now, I love vinyl, but I also fully embrace the convenience of digital. But when it comes to owning a physical copy of the album, CD’s just can’t compare to vinyl. Everything from the artwork to the added character of occasional surface noise makes vinyl the ultimate tangible music experience. I even love having to turn the record over!
2. They come with a download anyway
As touched on above, nobody is arguing against the convenience of digital – you can’t take vinyl with you on the daily commute. But when the overwhelming majority of new vinyl records come with a digital copy included, why would you even contemplate buying a CD?
3. Most CD’s get ripped and left on the shelf
Cast your mind back to the last CD you purchased. Think about what you did, and how many times you’ve actually played the original disc. The chances are, you ripped that bad boy to iTunes and haven’t used it since. Let’s face it, most CD’s are simply collecting dust.
4. The mastering is better (sometimes)
Some readers will be aware of the infamous loudness war; a phenomenon that has seen music industry executives push the boundaries of volume to extremes through a process known as brickwall limiting. In basic terms, this technique allows mastering engineers to raise the perceived volume level of a track without pushing beyond the limits of digital audio at 0dB. On the one hand limiting can be used to enhance a track; on the other hand it can also severely compromise the sound quality when taken to extremes.
Unfortunately, limiters are pushed to extremes all too often, with some of the most famous examples including the Red Hot Chili Peppers Californication, and Metallica’s Death Magnetic.
Sometimes – but not always – the vinyl is mastered separately, with greater dynamic range, and subsequently, the vinyl sounds better. The very fact that a vinyl copy of the same album could have greater dynamic range is actually pretty ironic, considering CD’s superior dynamic range specs (96dB for CD vs 60dB for vinyl), but it happens – quite a lot.
Be careful though, as some releases use the same mastering for vinyl and CD – resulting in no benefit to buying a vinyl copy, other than perhaps aesthetics. Let’s take the Red Hot Chili Peppers Californication as an example again. There are two vinyl copies of this out on the market: 1 has been purposefully remastered for vinyl and has audibly better dynamic range, the second is a cheaper, earlier release, which is the same brickwalled CD master pressed to vinyl. A blatant rip-off tactic if you ask me.
The dr.loudnesswar dynamic range database goes someway toward giving users a guideline of which release has the best dynamic range, but the best way is to listen and determine for yourself. There is no doubt, however, that the trend toward greater dynamic range on some vinyl releases is only feeding the concept of vinyl being the only physical copy worth owning.
5. Vinyl demands listening attention
Last but not least; there’s just something about vinyl that demands respect. The whole way in which the format works encourages you to enjoy an album from start to finish – just how the artist intended. Vinyl isn’t a perfect format, and anyone that suggests otherwise is seriously deluding themselves. What it does offer, though, is a romance around music that’s pretty difficult to beat. I’ve used this quote before, and I’ll use it again: ‘There’s no romance in singing about an iPod’ – Jack White