If you asked most people what they thought of vinyl 10 years ago, you'd almost certainly get an answer on how outdated it was as a technology — maybe tinged by a bit of nostalgia, but by and large an attitude that LPs belonged in the past. 2007 was the year of the iPod, and the year that digital music came into its own. Streaming music came not long after — Spotify was founded in 2008, and competitors were close on its heels.
In 2017, the answer you'd get could not be more different. Vinyl is cool again, as much as it ever has been if not moreso. The power of the internet, too, is changing the way that vinyl records are thought up and sold.
In Australia, vinyl represents almost 15 per cent of all physical music sales. This is massive for a format that, in so many ways, is inferior to the CD and the MP3. But there are reasons that vinyl is enjoying a second coming, and most of them have to do with the internet.
In 2014, vinyl sales were up 127 per cent on the previous year. In 2015, that dropped to (still impressive) 38 per cent growth and in 2016 reports so far, sales are up another 80 per cent. The same is true in the US and the UK. Retailers like JB Hi-Fi are devoting more floor space and digital presence than ever before to vinyl, despite average prices around the $40 mark and with Beatles and Bowie and Rolling Stones special editions pushing north of $500.
When the same store has hundreds of CDs under $10, that's a huge disparity in price for customers to bear. But they are, and they are loving the vinyl revival.
The rising resurgence of vinyl is innately tied to events like Record Store Day, celebrating a kind of counter-popular-culture that has sprung up over the last couple of years in Australia, and especially in the cultural hubs of Sydney and Melbourne. Independent labels and stockists are even pressing their own vinyl. Record stores are just as much social precincts as they are places to actually buy records — they're part of an imagined community, a community interested in celebrating music instead of just consuming it.
But at the same time, the internet is completely revolutionising the way that vinyl happens.
Playing vinyl is not like playing Spotify
It's an intensely tactile experience — especially in 2017, when we're used to tapping touchscreens — to actually play vinyl. You have to gently slide the record out of its protective slipcase, juggle that case out of the way without dropping the record and shattering it, then place the record on the spindle of the turntable. That's just the mechanics of the record itself, too — from there, you have to drop the turntable's tone arm onto the record — and they're all different, occupying some point on the complex spectrum between just pressing a button on an app and drawing a bow on a violin.
Playing vinyl can be an expensive exercise, too, for the uninitiated. There's a learning curve that doesn't exist with most pieces of technology in our modern age. It takes a little extra effort and care to carefully move a tone arm down onto a slice of vinyl without damaging it, and if you do damage that cartridge's stylus, you're shelling out more cash for a replacement. Eventually you'll have to replace one anyway. That's not something that happens with CDs or an iPod or your smartphone, outside of the normal yearly update lust that we all have — or unless you drop it. But perhaps that's part of the appeal.
Even understanding why a vinyl record looks like it does adds to the experience. A record's grooves are visible, with microscopic indentations that are read by the stylus cartridge, translating tiny holes into vibrations that themselves are converted into electrical signals and transported through circuit boards to amplifiers and speakers. Each track is separated — three to a side of a 331/3, and there are two sides on a record — by a few millimetres of blank space and silence. A 12-track album takes two separate records to play, and four trips back to the record player to actually make it happen.
There's no clunky Bluetooth handshake with vinyl — turn your little wireless speaker on, flick through the settings of your phone, tap the icon, wait a couple of seconds to hear an audible marker of a successful connection. Or worse, the just-as-likely wait, and the wait of a few seconds more, before you realise that the ever-finicky Bluetooth hasn't worked this time around. In an age where you can flip open the lid of Apple's AirPods and have them pair to your smartphone, it's equally satisfying to drop a tone arm onto a spinning platter and have music instantly burst into life from the speakers nearby.
Turntables are funkier than ever
Kickstarter opened huge opportunities to some crazy designs and off-the-wall gadgets — the Pebbles and the Ouyas and PonoPlayers and Fidget Cubes — and more and more, the same is true for record players. A levitating turntable pulled in $720,000. A portable vinyl player, a tiny mouse droid that rides around on the surface of a flat LP, has nearly $500,000 in funding.
Pro-Ject Audio's Debut range of record players are wildly popular in Australia, and JB Hi-Fi has its own exclusive variant called the Debut Classic. Pro-Ject sells turntables from as little as $299 to as much as $14,999 — there's one for any price point and level of commitment to the trend. Audio Technica makes a range of turntables with built-in Bluetooth and built-in phono amplifiers, making them easy for vinyl newbies to hook up to their modern technology — to UE Boom speakers and Beats headphones.
The barrier for entry to vinyl has never, ever been lower.
There's a turntable sold in Australia called the Gramovox Floating Record, hand-built by a company out of Chicago. It's a vertical turntable, that its creators say "combines the beauty and nostalgia of yesterday, with modern sound technology and contemporary design". It's a serious piece of equipment as non-professional turntables go, too — as well as built-in stereo speakers, it has an internal phono pre-amp and so can connect to a proper sound system with an external amplifier and powered or unpowered speakers. More than anything else, it looks gorgeous and shows off the record you're playing.
Vinyl records are weaponised nostalgia
Culture takes many forms in 2017; music doesn't just live on a single platform, and different platforms can create music. HBO made a TV series called Vinyl in 2016 about a '70s record company, and at the same time the media we know and love from the past is finding a new home on vinyl.
The internet also lets cashed-up buyers buy records more easily than they ever have before, and buy records that they can identify with on a level that's more than just about a musical composition. iam8bit — a "creative production company that refuses to be pigeonholed" — has dozens of vinyl records on its online store, designed and created in conjunction with brands like Nintendo and PlayStation and Disney and Capcom.
Those brands have their own particular kind of powerful nostalgia, from an era not so far off as vinyl's heyday, but from the age of the SNES and the original PlayStation and Lion King and Street Fighter. Now they're applying it to records, and it's paying off.
Late last year, iam8bit opened pre-orders for Hero of Time — a twin LP of the music from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, one of the most loved and most widely respected video games of all time. It found attention from every corner of the 'net, despite not existing beyond a web page at the time. The album is currently being recorded by the 64-piece Slovak National Symphony Orchestra, and will be delivered to buyers some time in the first half of this year — the 30th anniversary of the first Zelda game.
The record itself, at least from the artwork and images suggested by iam8bit, looks exquisite. Everything from the slipcovers to the artwork has been meticulously designed — a commission from Bandito Design Co. — and the LPs themselves are colored in the green and purple of the Rupees from Ocarina of Time. An eight-minute preview of the record currently lives on Soundcloud.
Not long ago, I bought a two-LP issue of the original soundtrack from Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. It doesn't have the fancy case of the Ocarina edition, but the records themselves are no less beautiful, with movie art of the Death Star and X-Wings. I wouldn't have known about it without the 'net.
Vinyl records now have a story to accompany them
Without Kickstarter, I would never have had the opportunity to get my hands on possibly the most incredible vinyl re-issue ever to exist, in my humble edition: a remastered version of the Golden Record, the discs originally pressed by NASA and created to represent Earth and its species to any alien race. The originals are currently travelling into interstellar space 20,650,000,000km and 17,080,000,000km from our planet, on Voyager 1 and 2.
Kickstarter's nearly $1.8 million of crowdfunding for the 40th anniversary edition of the Voyager Golden Record from nearly 11,000 backers meant that the team behind it could task the 1977 record's original producer to remaster the hours of audio tracks. 20 per cent of the net proceeds will be donated to the Carl Sagan Institute to further space research.
The 40th Anniversary Edition Golden Record will arrive on backers' doorsteps in a few months, and will arrive not just with a couple of LPs, but with a full box set including an artbook, full of images sent back to Earth from the Voyager probes, mission history, essays and other snippets of spacebound ephemera. And, of course, the Golden Record will arrive with a little slip of paper with a digital download code for high quality FLAC files — like so many of the records you can buy today, it also lives online.
Here's the most recent message that the Golden Record team sent out to backers, building the journey and the narrative around its records, months before the vinyl discs actually make their way across land and sea and into the hands of expectant listeners.
In the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena, California lies a massive building marked with a sign that sparks the imagination of all who see it: Spacecraft Assembly Facility. This is Building 179 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory where for 50 years, scientists and engineers have assembled the spacecraft, robots, and instruments that have made their way into space and taught us so much about what lies beyond Earth.
Last week, we were fortunate enough to make a brief visit to the awe-inspiring cleanroom of the Spacecraft Assembly Facility where engineers were constructing the Mars 2020 rover.
High on the walls above the workspace are huge emblems representing each of the missions that were assembled there, including Galileo, Cassini, Mariner, Viking, Spirit, and, the reason for our visit, Voyager 1 and 2. Indeed, before stopping at the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, we paid our respects to JPL's magnificent full scale model of the Voyager and one of the few original Golden Records still on Earth.
This nostalgia, and this history, and this story are what vinyl — the most tactile and experiential and loaded of audio formats, and moreso than ever in 2017 — will turn on in the minds of anyone thinking of dipping their toes into the culture. This is something that vinyl hasn't had before, not at the scale that the internet and that crowdfunding and viral success offers. It's an exciting time to collect a technology that's more than a century old.