Rage Against MP3s: a Putative LP Renaissance

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 9/14/2008 12:11:00 PM
[After a long hiatus, I bring you...a weekend feature.] One of the ironic things about technological advancements in the realm of audio is that the quality of reproduced sound is going backward, not forward. The biggest culprit, of course, is the now-ubiquitous MP3 "lossy" format. The rise of portable digital players such as the iPod has made file formats which toss out musical information to save on disk space quite common. The victim in this process has been audio quality. Although I am not a dyed-in-wool "audiophile" by any means, I cannot listen to MP3s aside from naturally noisy environments such as on planes, trains, and automobiles where the benefits of portability are evident. If you ask me to sit down and listen to MP3s in a domestic environment, I will say it simply isn't possible. Compared to a regular CD, MP3 files are of comparably low quality.

Real audio enthusiasts are, of course, not quite pleased with CD sound. As many of them will tell you, the frequency range of CDs is constrained to 20Hz to 20kHz; the rest of the information is discarded. MP3s which toss away already limited musical information are even worse. Yes, there are higher resolution digital format such as SACD, but these have not gained much purchase in a time when MP3 files are deemed good enough by John Q. Public.

In a short span of time, both the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal have come up with articles discussing a potential rebound in vinyl record sales. What is interesting to me from a political economy point of view is that foisting all these crappy compressed digital formats has not only given us poor audio quality but has also diminished record sales in recent times due to susceptibility to online piracy and whatnot. The most important point to me is this: CDs are not usually considered at all as collectibles with their teeny weeny cover art. Even in this day and age, records not CDs or any sort of digital media is prized by collectors. Fortunately, there are still those who keep the analogue flame alive. Apparently, not all consumer technologies are created equal. First, we have the FT:

Certainly, nostalgia plays a part. Many of the people now buying classic rock and pop reissues grew up during the 1960s and 1970s and are attracted to the idea of buying deluxe editions of the LPs they played in their youth. In the past few months three of the big four music companies – Universal Music, Sony BMG and Warner Music – have started re-releasing rock LPs from their back catalogues by artists such as Cream, Bob Dylan and The Doors, often remastered to bring out the best in the music and pressed on higher-quality vinyl. EMI is also re-releasing old LPs sporadically and several specialist labels have sprung up – among them, Classic Records in the US and Speakers Corner Records in Germany – licensing pop, jazz and classical music from the majors’ back catalogues and re-releasing it on audiophile-quality LPs.

Universal’s re-releases are coming out of Universal Music Japan, which has so far pressed 300,000 LPs across 100 titles – mostly rock but also including some classical and jazz. Minoru Harada, in charge of the project, says the records are aimed “especially at those baby-boomers who have started to retire, who have the time and money to spend on personal satisfaction and for whom vinyl connects with their earliest days of discovering music.”

But if it were only old fuddy-duddies still buying LPs, records would soon be heading the same way as the phonograph cylinder. In fact, younger music fans are helping keep the format alive. After CDs came along, dance music DJs did their bit, staying loyal to the 12in single and influencing fans to buy them. More recently, it has suddenly become fashionable among pop artists to release singles on 7in vinyl as well as in digital formats, often in limited editions that are seen as collectors’ items. The joke is, many of these singles are bought by youngsters who do not even own a turntable, but increasingly the records come with a coupon entitling the owner to a download of the same music.

So people are buying vinyl for different reasons. But one that refuses to go away is that many people believe analogue simply sounds better. This belief has grown only stronger as lifestyle changes and advances in technology have, paradoxically, led to a decline in sound quality – a retreat from hi-fi to lo-fi.

Think of it. Only a decade ago, people would sit in their living rooms listening to records or CDs played through expensive hi-fi components and speakers. Today, music has been squeezed out of the living room by visual media – the flat-screen television, satellite TV, home cinema and the games console – and is more often reproduced through iPod earphones or a pair of tinny speakers attached to a PC. According to GfK, a market research company, sales of hi-fi separates fell by more than 60 per cent, from £255m to £98m, in the five years to 2006, though the decline flattened out last year.

To vinyl purists, the rot set in with the introduction of the CD. Sound is naturally analogue, the argument goes, and vinyl preserves its natural character by recording it in an analogue format. But to turn it into a CD or other digital format, the sound has to be digitised. This means taking a series of snapshots of the analogue sound – in the case of the CD, at the rate of 44.1kHz, or 44,100 times per second. These snapshots are also taken with a predetermined degree of precision – in the case of the CD, at 16 bits.

The WSJ also chimes in on how the tide may be turning after LP sales hit a low point in 2006:

The 12-inch vinyl LP record -- in decline for the past two decades, clung to only by DJs, audiophile nerds and collectors -- is making a stand amid the digital revolution. World-wide sales of LP records doubled in 2007 (from three million to six million units) after hitting an all-time low in 2006, according to IFPI, the international recording industry trade association. Global sales of CDs dropped 12% in the same period, after having fallen 10% the previous year. Turntable sales in the U.S. increased more than 80% from 2006 to 2007 and continue to rise this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. "Last year and this year have been our busiest ever," says Kris Jones of London's Sounds of the Universe record shop, which sells more music on vinyl than on CD. "It's really crazy."

Record companies are looking for innovative ways to make people pay for music -- often music they already have in another format -- rather than get it free or at a reduced price over the Internet.

"There's a reaction against the commoditization of music" that downloading represents, says Mike Allen, a music industry consultant and former vice president of international marketing for record company EMI Group. "With vinyl there's something that has innate value -- a physical object."

Sound quality also plays a role. Vinyl fanatics have always maintained that LPs sound warmer and richer than digital formats. Some acts, like Beck, Tom Petty and Fleet Foxes, are playing to fans of both the old and new technology by including free CDs or MP3 downloads with vinyl versions of their albums.