Opinion: vinyl offers a much different kind of connectivity compared to the virtual qualities of the digital age
The surge of interest in vinyl records has been difficult to miss in recent times. 2017 saw the highest number of vinyl sales in over a decade, with 14.32 million records sold in the US. While this figure is still a fraction of overall industry sales, it is a remarkable increase from the roughly 900,000 record sales of 2006.
It is ironic that the re-emergence of the quintessential analogue format has occurred in parallel with the availability of high-resolution digital downloads and streaming. There are resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz available in downloads and 24-bit/96kHz in streaming on services like Tidal, all significantly higher quality than the 16-bit/44.1kHz of the CD format. The irony I refer to is in the fact that listeners are choosing what could be considered a redundant medium (in terms of longevity, expense and convenience) over the ease and affordability of digital at a time when the quality of digital music has never been better.
For RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Liam Geraghty looks at the enduring appeal of vinyl
For vinyl aficionados, It is a categorical fact that the unique sound of vinyl is the primary draw to the medium. However, what gives vinyl its own sound will not be discussed here. Rather, I believe there is another aspect to its allure worth examining.
To determine what it is, we must first look at its digital alternatives - CDs, downloads and streaming. What makes streaming stand out from the rest is an issue of ownership - or rather, the lack thereof - and not a matter of quality. As a medium, it exists somewhere between radio and your own digital music collection. From this perspective, streaming represents a threat more than any other medium to the tradition of the album as an artistic artefact. Where once a music collection was a literal collection of LPs or CDs, this phenomenon is now being supplanted by collections of playlists drawn from the music of various artists, whether customised personally or suggested by an algorithm.
From RTÉ Archives, Charlie Bird reports for RTÉ News on the opening of the Virgin Megastore ("the biggest record store in Ireland") in December 1986
Digital downloads represent the midway point between streaming and CDs. The medium is essentially the same as streaming and music consumed in the form of a sound file on a device, though the obvious difference is ownership. However, the sense of ownership offered by a download could perhaps be regarded as somewhat redundant nowadays, given the fact that the near totality of all music ever released is available to stream at virtually all times due to ubiquitous internet access. Furthermore, the option to store thousands of songs offline on multiple devices offered by streaming services is surely lessening the appeal of purchasing downloads for many users.
CD audio quality is superior to typical streaming quality, but with the availably of hi-res streaming, what advantage do CDs really have to offer? The answer is tactility. A CD is a physical, 3-D object complete with a case, booklet and artwork and this is precisely what is missing from music that is streamed or downloaded behind a flat screen.
From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Alan Corr's audio essay on vinyl to mark Record Store Day
If tactility is the key factor here, then what is the added charm of vinyl over its tougher, smaller and more convenient alternative? I would argue that there is a hierarchy of tactility that exists among the mediums. The most ephemeral, insubstantial category of streamed music is at the lower end, followed by digital downloads, which represent a kind of virtual music collection, CDs and vinyl at the top.
So why should records be afforded a higher place than CDs? Are they in some way more physical? Or is there somehow an added fourth dimension to their existence? The obvious response would be to question the validity of categorising one object over another in terms of its physicalness. However, it is not the physical quality of the record or the CD itself that I refer to, but rather the state of existence of the music on the given medium.
Vinyl represents an antithesis to a vision where almost every facet of our existence relies upon digital technology
Analogue information is stored in the physical realm, while digital information is stored as binary code. When you look at the surface of a record, you are seeing the actual shape of the sound waves cut into the material. This is why records are so delicate - a scratch on the surface is a scratch in the music itself.
On the other hand, CDs store music as binary code via a series of microscopic "pits" in the disc. Although the data is stored by physical means, the pits are not a direct representation of the sound waves. They merely translate into strings of 1s and 0s, which in turn translate into music.
But what of vinyl’s additional fourth dimension? By this, I refer to the quality of time. Vinyl represents the corporeal, analogue technology of the past, a different kind of connectivity to what is offered by the increasingly virtual qualities of the digital age we are moving further and further into.
From this perspective, it is possible to view the vinyl revival as indicative of a reaction to some extent to the ever-accelerating shift we are making as a civilisation towards a future that is undeniably virtual. In a sense, vinyl represents an antithesis to this vision where almost every facet of our existence eventually relies upon digital technology.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ