This year vinyl records are set to generate more revenue for the Australian music industry than CDs.
- The popularity of vinyl has increased as streaming becomes widespread
- The trend is in-part being buoyed by people who enjoy collecting rare LPs
- But a fierce debate remains about which medium delivers the best sound
It is a stunning rebound from 15 years ago when vinyl, which was once the biggest and most valuable music format, was banished to an audio graveyard full of cassettes and 8-tracks.
But in an era when virtually any song ever commercially released is available to anybody with a mobile phone, an age-old debate rages on among audiophiles.
Does music really sound better on vinyl?
“You’ve got to be delusional to think that vinyl sounds better,” ABC audio engineer Adrian Sardi said.
“If people knew what has to be done to the audio before it’s even cut onto a disc, let alone the stages that it then goes through to be pressed …”
Sardi would know — he has had a love affair with vinyl since his days DJing in sweaty nightclubs across Perth in the 1990s.
But perhaps of greater relevance, he is one of only a handful of people in Australia who own a short-run vinyl record cutting lathe, which he keeps locked inside a sleek home studio.
Adrian Sardi owns one of the only short-run vinyl record cutting lathes in Australia. (ABC News: Hugh Sando)
“Vinyl is a flawed and compromised medium and I do have to laugh when a lot of audiophiles will rave about vinyl and spend $20,000 on a turntable,” he said.
“If you want to talk purely analogue, tape sounds better than vinyl.
“You don’t have crackle, you don’t have surface noise, you don’t have issues with distorting higher frequencies.”
However, Sardi said the question of preference was entirely subjective.
Mr Sardi uses software to compress audio files ahead of the music being pressed on a vinyl LP. (ABC News: Hugh Sando)
“I like the medium — warts-and-all kind of thing,” he said.
“There are guys that will swear black and blue that records sound better. I think they sound different.
“It is not as clean and pure as digital. There’s something about vinyl … the sound, but also the feel.
“But when people say vinyl sounds better than a digital file — no, it really doesn’t.”
Who is buying records in 2020?
Sardi said the rise of the compact disc in the mid-1990s and its dominance of the market in the early 2000s made vinyl obsolete.
“It was almost on death’s door,” he said.
DJs are credited with keeping vinyl alive while CDs dominated the mainstream music market. (Supplied: Unsplash/zaya odeesho)
“The only industry that was keeping vinyl alive at that point were the DJs because they were buying everything on records to mix them with their turntables.
“But now the DJs have gone fully digital and it’s kind of all the bands and the indie kids who are into records now.
“So, it’s kind of a weird full circle.”
The Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) has predicted the revenue generated from vinyl sales would outstrip both CDs and digital downloads at some point this year.
“CDs are pretty much null and void as a medium now, virtually no one buys them,” Sardi said.
The packaging of Kanye West’s popular 2013 album Yeezus was pegged as an ‘open casket’ tribute to the death of CDs. (Supplied: Philip Rechter)
“The cool thing about vinyl is … you listen to the music in a different way as opposed to sticking on a Spotify playlist because you physically have to get up and change the record.
“When you put on a playlist you’re kind of passively listening to it in the background — a lot of the time you’re driving, or walking, or at the gym.
“I think music in general has become this secondary thought for a lot of people.
“It’s not like back in the day when you’d sit in your lounge room and you’d put a record on and you’d have these fantastic hi-fi speakers.”
Compare how a song sounds at different bitrates
Sardi said he believed the yearning for a physical product is sustaining the sale of vinyl, much in the way books are still popular even with the advent of e-readers.
“You’ve got the artwork — and the artwork looks amazing on a big 12-inch disc you know, it’s beautiful,” he said.
“You don’t get that with digital files, you just get a tiny little jpeg [image] on your phone.
“The liner notes … I used to read ‘who produced this? Who was the guest musician?’
“You don’t get any of that information anymore with digital files, at all.”
The ‘romance’ of a record
At 27, vinyl collector Matt Coniglio grew up in an era when CDs were king and online music piracy was at an all-time high.
Matt Coniglio describes himself as a ‘crazy, vinyl enthusiast collector nerd.’ (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)
He is part of a new generation of vinyl enthusiasts where the appeal is everything but the actual sound.
“For me, it’s the romance of owning a record,” Coniglio said.
“From playing it front to back and it touches a memory or an emotion, because you might play a certain record with a certain person.
“You have all these different connections so it just makes the music more than what it is, because you’ve got this physical connection with it.”
He began collecting vinyl before he even had a record player.
“It’s a way of supporting an artist, but also you’re a teenager, you want to put that up in your room, it just looks cool,” he said.
Modern vinyl records are being increasingly pressed with coloured, marbled and picture prints. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)
For Coniglio, the greatest appeal was the thrill of hunting and collecting rare records.
“It becomes an experience, record shopping,” he said.
“I would find a record that I’d have no idea what it was. I’d just like to play a guessing game — you might win, you might not.
“I found a couple of my favourite artists through doing that. It was a lucky dip.”
Matt Coniglio says there is a certain romance to collecting vinyl. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)
The hunt then turned into a lucrative obsession.
“That’s when I started subscribing and following all of my favourite artists on their social media platforms, and making sure I would have notifications set to my account so when a small or rare, limited release of like 500 or so copies dropped, I would get an instant notification,” Coniglio said.
“I could instantly buy these records — some of them sell out within minutes so it was like, woah, I’m obsessed, I need this record.
“It’s honestly just crazy what people could spend on a record — I think the most I’ve spent was under $200.”
The revenue generated by vinyl sales in Australia is set to bypass CDs in 2020. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)
He then began selling his collection to other hungry vinyl hunters.
“The most expensive I’ve sold a record for was around $650,” he said.
“There are people out there who will drop thousands of dollars on a single record and that’s something to be cashed in on.
“There’s a market for everything.”
Vinyl here to stay
The so-called “vinyl revival” has become so big in Australia, ARIA launched a chart in 2018 specifically to track vinyl sales.
The top-selling record last year was Queen’s Greatest Hits compilation, an album originally released in 1981.
Legacy artists such as The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and Elton John were also best-sellers, alongside releases from contemporaries like Billie Eilish and Tame Impala.
A close-up of the grooves on a copy of John Farnham’s Whispering Jack. The louder the track, the wider the grooves are. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)
Sardi said he only saw demand for the medium increasing as music consumers became more entrenched in the digital world.
“I think there’s a lot of people who buy them, put them on the shelf and just listen to the digital file,” he said.
“I think they like also supporting the artists.
“I think where vinyl has increased is the more indie and underground sort of stuff … but at the same time you’re getting Katy Perry on vinyl.
“I like the fact that this is something that’s staying alive, something that I grew up with.”