The resurgence of vinyl: how a vintage medium made its way back into popular culture

For 26-year-old Joshua Davis, there’s nothing better than spending the day browsing through stacks of vinyl records. About once a month, he makes his way to garage sales in Ottawa, tracking down new and exciting albums to add to his collection of over 50 records. Last year, he checked another title off his list when he found the late David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust at the Great Glebe Garage Sale for five dollars.

“Ever since Bowie died, I just wanted a vinyl copy of [that record],” he said. “I always have a short list in the back of my head of things that I really want.”

However, the hunt is only half of the fun for Davis. The real enjoyment comes when he gets home, fires up his turntable, and presses the needle into the grooves of his new purchase.

“For me, [vinyl] is more vulnerable,” he said. “[Through the] sound, you can really hear that these are people. You can hear imperfections, you can hear the recording [equipment] they use, you can hear someone in the background coughing or lighting a cigarette. It makes the experience more personal, and these people become mortal.”

Davis is not alone in his love for records. The medium, previously considered dead after hitting an all-time low in 2006, has seen a tremendous bounce-back in sales in the last several years.

In a recent report by Nielsen Music, 2016 marked the highest peak in record sales to date, with an over 29 per cent increase during 2015.

But, for seasoned audiophiles, the medium never left. There has always been a feverish niche market for vinyl goods and sound equipment as older aficionados chased the velvety sound of hisses and pops on the turntable.

Yet what makes this resurgence truly unique is how its strength lies in the enthusiasm of younger generations.

According to a  2017 research study by MusicWatch, around half of vinyl consumers were under the age of 25.

The digital age meets vinyl

How is it that our age of digital and short attention spans has created such a dramatic increase in tactile counterculture?

Surprisingly, the growth of online music platforms such as Spotify have been somewhat synonymous with the spike in recent record sales.

Digital music is certainly cheaper than analog, with prices ranging anywhere from a buck for used vinyl, to $60 for new albums.

So, what is driving more and more people to scope out records?

David Sax, author of The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, said he believes younger people turn towards more vintage forms of entertainment to rebel against the current digital popularity.

“Because of the great convenience digital music offers, [people didn’t] need physical music anymore, so it became a luxury,” he said. “People don’t need to listen to vinyl, but they realized they wanted to.”

While Millennials are used to pulling up their favourite songs with the tap of a screen, vinyl has a distinct feature that digital forms of music simply can’t offer—its tangibility. Being able to actually manipulate the record in your hands is one of the medium’s highest marketing points.

Paul Théberge, a Canada Research Chair and Carleton professor of music and technology, said the physical engagement of playing records creates a sentimental connection with the music.

“There’s a ritual of actually taking the record, placing it on the turntable, and having to place the stylus on it,” he said. “There’s something to be said about [how] the turntable itself requires you . . . to initiate the process.”

Mason Rozon, a young vinyl enthusiast who already has over 100 records in his collection, also said he enjoys the physical connection that comes with vinyl.

For him, taking the record out of the package, cleaning it, and looking at the artwork while he listens to the music are all part of his routine.

“It’s one of the biggest [reasons] of why I like records,” he said. “It’s a whole experience that you just can’t get with digital.”

To Sarah Willscraft, analog collector and second-year Carleton journalism and humanities student, vinyl represents a classic music experience in the face of Internet and streaming services which lack real-world experience.

“If [the music] is on my computer, I can’t hold it, I can’t look at the artwork, I can’t read the lyrics on the inside,” she said. “An album to me is supposed to be a piece of art, and everything that goes into it.”

Vinyl hubs in Ottawa

Vinyl record stores all over Canada represent a safe-space for fellow music enthusiasts like Rozon and Willscraft to congregate.

According to Sax, the record store is a space for people to share different ideas, areas of expertise, and passions as they flip through crates of titles.

“[The record store] has always been a social space to learn about music and different cultures of music,” he said. “People actively seek out these record stores because of the human interaction.”

It was this thinking which inspired John Thompson, owner of the Record Centre in Hintonburg, to found his own store focused on fostering an appreciation for music.

After spending a lifetime with an affinity for music and audiophile culture, Thompson used his love of vintage audio to try and make a safe place for people exploring and learning about records.

“Back in the day, there were a lot of great stores where people genuinely loved music and wanted to help you,” he said. “When I opened the store with my partner Jeff, we had this mandate to be nice to people. It’s a spot to come hang out and talk about music, to listen to music.”

Back in 2007, when vinyl barely had a heartbeat in the face of the technological revolution, a group of people in the U.S. noticed this vein of colour throughout   independent stores and wanted to harken back to days of togetherness and musical comradery.

Store owners and employees gathered together to create a day offering special releases, discounts, and celebrating the vibrancy of local record shops.

And so, on April 21, 2008, the first Record Store Day was born. It was so explosively popular, the event soon evolved into a full-blown organization and spread across the globe to nearly every continent. Canada alone has its own chapter.

Vinyl across the country

Ryan Kerr, director of marketing and sales for Record Store Day Canada, said this day is about celebrating the return of vinyl and the independent stores that have been pushing it along the whole time.

Last spring when the annual event rolled around once more, Sonic Boom Records in downtown Toronto reported numbers as high as 3,000-5,000 people all waiting anxiously outside the store to get their hands on the latest vinyl goods.

“It gives the opportunity for people to talk,” Kerr said. “Not online, not through text, but talking to each other. It’s a community, and a special day where people line up to get what they’re looking for. It’s coast to coast, all over the world, and it’s almost become a religious holiday for people. The first Saturday in April, that’s when you go to get what you’re looking for.”

And this day isn’t just about selling vintage records or titles. As Kerr said, it’s about appreciating vinyl regardless of whether you’re listening to an old copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or a freshly-cut version of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo.

“It’s [great] that these newer artists are putting out new albums, because it’s only going to engage younger audiences further down the line,” he said. “Parents come in looking for albums for their kids, and they buy Taylor Swift. Amazing! Get the Taylor Swift album, you’re going to love it, and when you’re ready, come back for Neil Young’s Gold Rush.

Local artists support vinyl culture

Electronic music is also thriving from this recent uptick in vinyl interest. While DJ equipment has evolved to use MP3 files, the previously lost art of scratching and mixing beats with physical records is pushing its way back into the hip-hop scene.

Luke Sanderson, a 24-year-old local Ottawa DJ, said using vinyl records is much harder than using digital equipment. Now, DJs who use older techniques are revered for their ability to drop a beat with old funk records on the turntable.

“You have to match the beat [of the two records] manually, whereas modern software does that for you,” Sanderson said.

“You have to listen to the records beforehand and write down the beats per minute so you can do this. It’s more engaging. When I DJ nowadays, I only use vinyl—it’s just much more fun that way.”

As Sanderson reminisced about his collection of over 200 records, he reflected on what vinyl and the turntable mean to him.

“It feels great when you can say, ‘Look at my new record I got!’ and you pull it out of the case, put it on the needle, all those extra steps,” he said. “With all your friends around listening, it just feels . . . great.”

It’s not just the music listeners and record stores that are being affected by this new turn to analog.

Smaller, local bands are also thriving as more and more independent record labels are being showcased in stores.

Ottawa blues band MonkeyJunk started getting an itch to release their albums on vinyl when fans kept asking whether the group had any analog in their merchandise arsenal.

So, for their fourth album, released in 2015, the band partnered with The Record Centre to produce analog versions.

“It’s meaningful to us [that people are listening on vinyl] because it means that people are actively listening to our music,” Matt Sobb, the band’s drummer, explained.

According to Sobb, buying a band’s vinyl rather than their CD or other merchandise, is usually seen as a big compliment.

“People buy a CD at the show because they want to support our band and make sure we have gas money. But if people are spending $20-25 on a record, it means they want our music—it’s a big piece of real estate to buy if you aren’t going to play it,” he said. “People buying vinyl records of ours is reassuring because they are actually sitting down at home, putting [our music] on the record player, and listening. It’s great to know we are appreciated.”

Graphic by Manoj Thayalan