Arts and Entertainment

The Shellac Comeback

A recounting of vinyl’s history, and speculation as to why it is on the rise again.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

In the era of lossless audio, stream counts, and artist radios, vinyl records are a misplaced phenomena. They stand opposed to the streamlined efficiency that on-demand streaming has brought. What was once a pricey process of needles, wires, and bulky equipment is now pocket-sized, no-frills, and high-speed. If Spotify and other streaming services are strictly better than the traditional ways of playing music, why are vinyl sales rising each year? What is vinyl anyway, and how did it rise to ubiquity in the first place?

Demystifying the Music Disc

While the analog sound wave was first recorded in 1857, it took another three decades to develop a commercially viable phonograph capable of audio playback. Early versions used grooved wax cylinders, which listeners would have to manually rotate with handles, allowing only a few seconds of audio to play at a time. By 1894, Emile Berliner had invented the lateral-cut gramophone record, which utilized the etched disc format we use today. By 1920, there was a record collection and gramophone in most American homes. Still, they were limited to just five minutes of music on each side until the mid-1930s when the standard shellac material was overtaken by polyvinyl chloride, hence the name “vinyl.” The new material allowed full-length albums or LPs to fit on a single disc.

From John Cage to DJs

Throughout its period of dominance, the vinyl record was a conduit for musical ideas and movements. As early as 1939, artists like John Cage and Pierre Schaffer manipulated, composed, and re-recorded vinyl field recordings and instrumental tracks into a unique new genre called musique concrète. Their avant-garde compositions were jarring and inventive, influencing a myriad of legendary composers like Iannis Xenakis, Oliver Messaien and Karlheinz Stockhausen. It wasn’t until the early ’70s that vinyl manipulation began to be used in the genres in which it is most well-known today: hip-hop and electronic. Jamaican dub disc jockeys, better known as DJs, began to experiment with their records at large Bronx street parties. In 1972, DJ Kool Herc invented the breakbeat, a splice of drum breaks from classic funk records that remains as the backbone of hip-hop and drum ‘n bass music to this day. Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash further developed the art of turntablism, and through the ’80s, producers in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago developed record-spinning techniques, adding quick-mix theory, beat juggling and various forms of scratches to their repertoire. In 1996, DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing…” marked a watershed moment for turntablism as it is widely credited as the first album to be entirely composed from samples.

The Compact Downfall

Vinyl remained unchallenged until the inventions of the Walkman and compact disc, better known as the CD, in 1979. They took up less space, were more accessible, and could store more music at higher quality. Subsequent developments of Napster and the iPod obsoleted CDs, and the music consumption zeitgeist became more and more distanced from the vinyl record, which came to represent the old generation. Vinyl sales plummeted throughout the ’80s, and they wouldn’t recover until 2008.

The Vinyl Revival

Since 2008, the rise of vinyl has been inarguably meteoric. Each year has seen nearly 50 percent gains in vinyl sales, culminating in 2021 when over 40 million vinyl records were sold, even topping digital and CD sales. There is a handful of reasons as to why vinyl has seen a resurgence. Some claim that vinyl’s comeback is due to the desire to tangibly own music, but why not return to the vastly more convenient CDs? A version of this logic is the reconnection to the process of vinyl. As technology develops, we have distanced from the music we enjoy, letting it fade to the background as we go about our lives. The ritual of picking up the needle on a turntable, dusting off a record, and watching it spin recenters music and gives it a sense of importance that pressing shuffle or slotting a CD into a player cannot. Some may also appreciate the aesthetics of vinyl. Vinyl packaging is artwork in itself, and many enjoy the attention to detail artists put into their product design. Another theory is that vinyl is a “lifestyle product.” In purchasing vinyl, a consumer may feel a sense of identity with an artist. They find validation as a “real fan” for buying their favorite artist’s album. The type of art that one enjoys is already a source of identity, and devoting time and money to that art amplifies that identification. For example, if someone considers themselves a “hip-hop head,” they might buy themselves a classic like Nas’s “Illmatic” (1994) on vinyl. Finally, the small imperfections in vinyl’s sound quality gives it life. Hums, flutters, wows, and crackles give a sense of nostalgia for a time that listeners have never experienced.

Though faux nostalgia is a particularly hipster-like and transient trend, vinyl seems to be here to stay, whatever the reason for its reemergence may be. It is by no means endangering digital streaming, as it will take a miraculous new invention to topple that behemoth. But for now, the worlds of digital and physical can coexist through music, and both spheres are only poised to grow.