Downloadable songs and streaming music may have doomed the compact disc, but their popularity has helped breathe life into something much older: the vinyl record. After a nosedive in the 1980s, every facet of the vinyl ecosystem is rebounding. Vinyl sales have been climbing steadily since 2007, reaching an all-time recorded high in 2015; major retailers including Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters carry vinyl, and new independent record stores open all the time. What’s more, German start-up Newbilt Machinery is selling the first new vinyl-pressing machines in 30 years; Jack White’s label, Third Man Records, just bought eight. So what gives? Obvious assertions about hipster lust for authenticity aside, experts attribute the renaissance chiefly to collecting and ownership.
“It has a lot to do with getting fatigued with everything in your life being connected to a screen or the cloud,” says Carrie Colliton of Department of Record Stores, a nationwide coalition of shop owners. “Deep down, humans still want some sort of physical element in their life.” Translation: A Spotify subscription gives you access to music, so if Spotify disappears, so do your tunes. But the two worlds aren’t necessarily in competition with one another.
“Listening to Spotify, you’re vetting your music,” says Dustin Hansen, general manager of the Graywhale string of record stores in Utah. “If you decide to take the next step, it makes sense to buy vinyl.” Records, he says, satisfy a host of needs. They’re collectible pieces of art that double as surfaces to roll joints on—and they offer a unique sound. Yes, it’s true: Vinyl can sound better. The soft hiss of the needle as it reads the grooves creates the fabled warm sound. And a true analog recording (i.e., one pulled directly from the original studio master tapes) has more detail than certain compressed digital versions. There’s simply more room in the grooves of a record to store nuances. Hansen adds, “You hear things in songs you’ve never heard before.”
FIVE TIPS FOR TURNTABLE VIRGINS
START WITH THE BASICS
A bare-bones vinyl system requires three things: a turntable, an amplifier and speakers. Some systems bundle two of the three; the Audio-Technica LP60BK-BT (pictured; audio-technica.com, $179) has a built-in amp and can stream straight to your Bluetooth speakers, making the leap to LPs preposterously easy.
UPGRADE YOUR NEEDLE
The simplest way to get awesome sound out of an entry- or mid-level turntable is to spring for a brand-new needle. Your local music-shop guy or girl can help—Colliton promises most aren’t snooty assholes. Also try TurntableNeedles.com or NeedleDoctor.com.
KEEP THINGS CLEAN
Flecks of dust and oil caught in the vinyl grooves can damage a record’s surface—and your precious needle. Invest $10 to $20 in a simple cleaning kit that includes cleaning fluid and a brush or cloth, and squeegee your records after every use.
EMBRACE THE DIGITAL
Record labels don’t expect you to sit in silence on the train, so the lion’s share of new vinyl comes with a digital copy. Amazon’s AutoRip feature imports tracks to your Amazon Music account, and indie musician favorite Bandcamp.com lets you download MP3s and stream purchases through its mobile app.
DIG AND DISCOVER
Nothing beats rummaging through the used bins at local shops to build a collection—search for stores at RecordStoreDay.com. And if you’re pining for a particular Zeppelin album, it’s sure to be in the 8 million–strong catalog at Discogs.com.