In my never-ending drive to eliminate unused bullshit from my life, I’ve been trying to sell an old, unused Sony turntable for the last month. Today, a buyer came and took it away. A super-nice guy who has taken up hobby electronics as a COVID distraction and who has an intimidating “collection” of 1960-1970s audio equipment. What he calls “warm” sounding is what audio techs and producers called solid state “harsh” and what electronic engineers know is “slew and IM distortion.” His description of post-70s consumer audio gear was “clinical” or “transparent.” (Who knew transparent amplification was a bad thing?) Of course I’ve heard these arguments from guitar players and equally weird and undefined stuff from audiophiles for decades. I would have never thought 70s Japanese audio equipment would become desirable. I am not making a claim for any sort of audio clairvoyance, though. Similarly, I didn’t think 50’s juke boxes would ever be worth anything, so I probably tore apart at least 100 of ‘em for the tube power amps and tossed the rest of the bits into my local garbage dump.Then my buyer dumped a bit of marketing information on me that I had to look up later, “Last year , vinyl outsold CDs. You know what? That is true. “Vinyl has emerged triumphant in the physical format war, overtaking CD sales [on a monetary basis] for the first time in over 30 years.” The key phrase here is “physical format,” which are CDs, vinyl, cassettes (yep, they still exist), and a tiny portion of other assorted formats like reel-to-reel tape. Vinyl sales have doubled from $333.4M (2015) to $619.6M (2020). That might seem impressive, except total physical music sales fell by $413M in that same period and the RIAA reports that music industry revenues went from $6.7B (2015) to $12.2B (2020) in the same period. For instance, CDs sales went from 1.4B in 2015 to 483M in 2020. Another way of looking at that data is to say total physical media revenue fell from 5% to about 4% in that 5 year period.
Even more interesting is that the industry’s peak physical revenue year was 1999 when total physical revenues were $31.8B; or 513 times the 2020 physical media revenue, CDs produced 13.2B in revenue in 2000 and declined rapidly from that point to today with a string of billion-dollar declines per year until the sales were close to what they are today. So, this is a kind of “triumph” that most industries would like to avoid. Inflation-adjusted (see the above graph), you can get an even more dramatic view of how far the mighty CD and LP have fallen since their peak years of 1977 (for the LP) and 1999 (CD).
So, the increase in vinyl album sales is only impressive if you focus on physical media sales, which isn’t necessarily a bad idea for independent music producers. Sometimes clinging to a chunk of a vanishing niche that still has customers with money is a good idea. Since the top 1% of music entertainment earners are raking in about 80% of the total revenue, the scraps that are left to the 99% are going to be very slim pickin’s and that is when niche marketing is most effective.
A problem with this focus is that this kind of revenue isn’t going to inspire manufacturers to build turntables or phono cartridges, which means NOS (new old stock) is going to become more valuable and the replacement parts and products will come from more dubious sources (low end Chinese manufacturing, for example). That might cause NOS turntables and cartridges to temporarily increase in price,
Non-technical audiophiles, like Tony Villar, claim “Vinyl, on the other hand, is a lossless format. The pressings are made directly from the masters and contain all the detail artists intended. This is why vinyl sounds better than digital and the main argument to why the vinyl format has the better sound quality.” That sort of stuff makes old school folks like me chuckle. Every step of the analog recording process is a loss-filled mess. Tape decks, pro or not, have substantial low and high frequency distortion components and frequency and phase compromises. Tape playback requires high gain, moderate distortion amplification and the older (1960-80’s) solid state tape electronics was a gross collection of slew distortion, intermodulation, and harmonic distortion errors that only the mostly-deaf could call “warm.” Tube electronics are even more distorted. Vinyl records are a freakin’ train wreck of compromise. Because the needle can’t track large excursions or move quickly (to reproduce high frequencies, for example), the 1954 RIAA equalization standard provides “emphasis” on recording/printing/stamping (analog compression) which requires “de-emphasis” (de-compression of sorts) on playback (by your phono preamp). There is nothing about that process that could be described as “accurate” or “warm” or or any other positive value.
The one thing LPs definitely have over CDs and virtual media is the “tactical experience.” You get a decent sized piece of art with a 12” LP. Turns out, that is a major part of the attraction to younger people. Once they have experienced the hassle and crackle-and-pop disappointment of listening to a record, the records go back into the sleeve and the package becomes the thing. Since they don’t have a lot of records, what they have becomes wall art. That means the buyers are buying another $20-50 mounting device for their $20-50 LP. That sort of makes sense, but with cheap high quality color printers I’m hard-pressed to understand why you wouldn’t just download the album art and print that? In Villar’s article, he even explains how to use a shareware program to digitize your vinyl. WtF? So, it’s obviously not about the listening experience. If I didn’t know how inconsistent humans are, I’d be confused.
My buyer admitted that COVID boredom was a big driver in his very recent interest in analog music reproduction. In fact, it sounded like he had collected more stereo equipment than records. One of his big self-selling points was that older stuff is “repairable.” He had a very specifically oriented bias against the “throwaway products” of modern electronics. Yet, he tested the accuracy of my turntable’s drive system with the most expensive, newest iPhone; the ultimate throwaway product in modern history. Again, humans are never bothered by contradiction.