Vinyl vs. Digital, a Side-by-Side Face Off
With all due respect to my audiophile friends, the end-of-year sales numbers for vinyl albums (up 39 percent from last year) are still just a blip on the radar. Vinyl sold 3.9 million copies according to SoundScan and that is a formidable number considering it is quadruple over what it was just five years ago. But, by comparison, Adele's 21 sold 5.8 million CDs, substantially more than the total number of vinyl records sold by everyone. It's pointless to even discuss the billions of tracks sold, so I won't even go there.
But, vinyl has become a viable option for artist trying to avoid piracy and provide a collectible option to fans. And the nerds love it!
I grew up with vinyl and, at one time, had a massive collection. I still love its warmth and the nostalgia I feel when picking up old records, but I have long since moved on to the convenience of digital, which got me to thinking what it would be like if I compared the two, so I did.
Audiophiles will argue this should be the only comparison worth mentioning, but they shouldn't break their arms patting themselves on the back. Yes, older records -- particularly jazz -- sound superior on vinyl albums without question, assuming they have no scratches or defects, but the rise of digital gave way to an entire sonic shift in every kind of music from classical to industrial. Records cannot produce the frequencies digital can and the end result, if done well, can be pretty incredible (see: Nine Inch Nails). Unfortunately, it is not often done well. Besides, it sadly doesn't matter all that much to a generation weened on earbuds.
Storing vinyl takes a lot of space, but records are fairly easy to maintain. Put them in a sleeve and on a shelf and you're good to go. They can be lost in a fire or destroyed by any number of disasters, natural or otherwise, but so can virtually any physical item. Digital is easily stored on a hard drive and now in a cloud, but as anyone who has lost data can attest, it is very easy to lose.
This is one of those areas where the comparison is almost unfair. I grew up at a time when you carted armfuls of records to friends houses, loaded them one at a time onto record players and listened. There is a real joy in that process, but it isn't easy. Now, you can carry an entire collection of music on a device only slightly larger than a credit card and take it anywhere.
The other day I was talking to someone about this topic who was my age and we were both remember how we used to have to go about discovering music. We would listen to the radio or talk to friends or read magazines. Once we found something we wanted, we had to drive to a record store to get it. If it wasn't available, it had to be ordered. A week or so later, we'd go back to the store and pick it up. That journey of discovery was pretty magical and endowed that music with a certain intrinsic value it wouldn't have had otherwise. It was my effort that got it into my hands. Still, it was a HUGE pain in the ass. No one can deny the infinite range of music available to us today via the internet is a wonderful thing. Whether we value that music or not is up to us.
This is a more complicated equation than you might think. Vinyl and CDs cost roughly the same amount, but there is little question the vinyl offers a greater value. Also, used vinyl can be extremely cheap and singles, if you can find them, even more so, which put them on the level of purchased MP3s. Still, the elephant in this room is the fact that pirated digital music is free. For the purposes of this argument, I'm sticking with the legal stuff.
I was sitting in the work space of an artist friend of mine recently -- one of the cooler cats that lives on this planet -- and he was playing jazz records while we looked at some of his art. I felt like I was playing out a scene from a Blue Note album cover. It's hard to get cooler than that.
Ultimately, despite the categories ending in a draw, the overwhelming advantage in accessibility and ease of use makes digital the clear frontrunner and the vast majority of people agree. Also, it doesn't hurt that you can download just about anything for free if you don't have an ethical dilemma doing so. Still, if you truly love music, it's not the worst thing in the world to have a nice record collection and a decent turntable. You may not be able to take it in the car, but it sounds good and looks better.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.