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Why are vinyl records making a comeback?

Check the temperature in hell. This sort of thing isn't supposed to happen in the consumer electronics business. An old analog technology appears to be making a big comeback.  

Sales of vinyl records increased 77 percent in the first half of 2008, compared to the same period last year, following a 36 percent increase in 2007.

While vinyl records still account for less than 1 percent of total recorded music sales, the growth curve is so steep, it made me wonder whether we're looking at fad or a significant trend.

Turn back the clock for a moment and recall why most people abandoned vinyl in the first place. With CDs you could skip tracks or pause the music with your remote control. If you scratched a CD, it might not play, but if it did, you wouldn't hear a lot of scratchy surface noise. CDs were small enough to play in your car stereo or Walkman. You were freed from the enormous hassle of making cassette copies. And it was much easier to move a large CD collection than it was to haul crates full of records (and cassettes) around with you.

But what, for the sake of convenience, did we give up when we made the switch from records to CDs (and later to downloaded music)? And what did the artists sacrifice?

The sound of vinyl
While the mass market gave up on vinyl records, serious audiophiles and club DJs never did. Audiophiles argue that high quality vinyl records played on a high quality stereo system sound better than CDs or MP3 files.

"When done right, LP playback has an openness, transparency, dynamic expression and musicality not matched by CD," said noted hi-fi expert Robert Harley in his latest book, Introductory Guide to High Performance Audio Systems. "There's just a fundamental musical rightness to a pure analog source ... that seems to better convey the music's expression."   

The ritual of listening to a record
"Putting an LP on a turntable is an act that signifies a single-minded dedication to focusing on the music," Harley wrote. "When playing a record, you sit down in the listening chair, often with full-sized liner notes and cover art, and with no remote control to skip tracks. The process makes a statement that you are about to give the music your full attention for an entire LP side (at a minimum)."

With that in mind, established artists looking to forge a closer bond with their fans are releasing more of their works on vinyl. Many of these releases are instant collector's items - limited-edition deluxe pressings on 180 or 200 grams of virgin vinyl (giving you better sound quality than standard pressings on 130 grams of recycled vinyl). You pay a premium, but you may also get previously unreleased cuts, new liner notes, or special artwork. A good example of this trend in reissues is the July release of Led Zeppelin's Mothership.

A few well known artists have eschewed the CD format for their new releases, choosing to offer only vinyl and downloadable versions. Many new vinyl releases come with a code number you can use online to download a high-quality digital copy for your iPod.

Vinyl as artistic expression
For up-and-coming artists, releasing a vinyl record is way to stand out from the crowd. Writing for Electronic Musician, journalist Markkus Rovito said, "These days burning a CD is so simple that it no longer automatically indicates that an artist has a serious commitment to the music. Pressing a 12-inch record, on the other hand, shows at the very least a financial sacrifice and suggests that time was taken mastering the music to a high standard."

"Pressing a vinyl record should not be thought of merely as a ploy for attention," Rovito wrote. "There is a serious market for vinyl. Turntables have definitely reentered the mainstream consciousness as a result of the explosion of the DJ culture, and vinyl never went out of style with the punk and indie underground. For aspiring hip-hop or dance-music artists, making a 12-inch record is an almost inevitable rite of passage into a more established place in the business."

What next?
Vinyl records may still be somewhat hard to find locally, but there's no shortage of online outlets. Many of the sites peddling vinyl are obscure, but some are decidedly mainstream. Amazon.com has a vinyl store, which it bills as "the spiritual home of audio purists and DJs." 

What Amazon hints at, Neil Young said brazenly when he blasted the quality of digital sound during a recent speaking engagement, "We have beautiful computers now but high-resolution music is one of the missing elements," he said. "The ears are the windows to the soul."

Did artists, record labels and consumers paint that window shut when they turned to CDs and MP3s? Is the recent upturn in vinyl record sales a sign that the paint has been cracked and the window is beginning to open again?

What do you think?

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