Yes, People Buy Vinyl Because It’s Cool-Looking
In recent years, vinyl has undergone a massive resurgence in popularity. It’s technologically obsolete, but that has been overshadowed by its popularity at vendors like Urban Outfitters, Amazon and Target — and as we learned by talking to some seasoned industry pros, it’s not because vinyl sounds good.
This millennial obsession might be the catalyst for what many in the industry have dubbed the “vinyl revival.” This unforeseen return of vinyl’s popularity ignited in 2005, and sales have increased nearly tenfold worldwide since, but why?
Technologically, it makes no sense. Streaming services are so much easier and cheaper to use. Millennials are supposed to be obsessed with social media and efficiency, right?
But not when it comes to vinyl. Instead, they’re interested in the aesthetic. Vinyl is cool precisely because of its clunk.
To many music fans, owning vinyl isn’t just about the music. It’s a tangible representation of the music you feel describes you. George Flanagan, who is the sales manager at one of Brooklyn’s most popular record stores, Rough Trade NYC, said this movement is driven in part by the millennials’ attraction to holding art in their hands rather than — or, more accurately, in addition to — scrolling past it on their phones.
“I think the resurgence in vinyl speaks to a void in a tactile experience in music listening that streaming leaves,” George said. “I know a lot of think-pieces have come out talking about this amazing and exciting surge in vinyl sales. From what our numbers have shown, it’s still an extremely small amount of sales, and a store like Rough Trade can only exist somewhere like New York City or Brooklyn that has the type of customer that’s interested in having that physical medium.”
Rough Trade NYC opened its doors in Williamsburg back in 2013 when the area was just becoming the hipster mecca it’s known as today. One of the reasons Brooklyn is able to support this vinyl culture is because many of the young people living there do still think it’s cool.
“There’s a cool factor I think with vinyl that you don’t get with CDs or streaming,” he said. “You know, these 14 year-old kids come in to buy vinyl, and they say like, ‘I’m going to put this on my bookcase,’ and I think, not to disqualify anyone because there’s plenty of young people who buy a turntable and actually listen to it, but to them, it’s more of the aesthetic.”
This aesthetic advantage is also felt by those on the production side of the vinyl industry. Stephanie Cochrane and Fern Vernon-Bernich work at Brooklyn Phono, one of the area’s last family-owned record pressing factories. Brooklyn Phono opened in 2000, while the industry was going through one of its toughest years in sales, but the factory said it has never struggled to find business, and they echo Flanagan’s thoughts on tangibility.
“We really haven’t noticed that huge spike everyone is talking about because we have been making vinyl the same way. The business has been steady, although cyclical. We started when the future for vinyl did look pretty dismal, but people are still buying it,” said Fern, who owns the factory with her husband, Thomas Bernich.
Their specialty at Brooklyn Phono is the artisanal craft of pressing, and they use machinery at the factory that allows for maximum control over the process. This attention to detail attracts everyone from local independent labels to superstars like Joan Jett.
“Joan Jett is a big customer of ours,” Cochrane said, “and has been since we opened. She’s very involved in the process, she likes pressing through us, especially for the independent label she owns, Blackheart Records.”
The Brooklynites also admit the art factor might be the key to continued interest in vinyl.
“It’s tactile,” Stephanie said, “and that’s what people get out of it that’s different than an mp3 or download. Regardless of sound, it’s an art. It has a natural sound, and when you go to play a record, you engage with it and it is an experience.”
But there is one question everyone always asks about the popularity of vinyl: is the sound quality really that much better? Stephanie and Fern seem to think so.
“It’s subjective,” Fern said. “The real difference is the way the sound is made. With vinyl, it is an analog system, and CDs replicate a digital sound. Digital could be described as cooler, whereas analog really fills the room because it’s a physical sound rather than a replication.”
George also thinks the sound quality helps sell vinyl, but at the same time, the millennials purchasing it might just be buying it for the aesthetic. “I think it has an appeal on both ways,” he said. “The aesthetic is what the kids love, it’s way more aesthetic than it is sound quality.”
Still, that’s another reason vinyl is able to remain so timeless. It doesn’t have to be as technologically advanced because the sound really is different.
Even then, it will always come down to the aesthetic for the younger population. Vinyl is cool-looking, and it proves that you are serious about music. “I am more excited by this younger generation,” George said. “They grew up downloading and streaming, and I think to buy a record, it’s kind of like a totemistic thing of like proving that you’re a real fan.”
But not everyone is excited about the younger generation getting into vinyl. There seems to be a rift between the older population who have been buying vinyl since its inception and the millennials who just picked up on the trend, but vendors aren’t worried about it.
“I’m sure there’s plenty of record store snobs who would turn their noses up at some 14-year-old kid buying a record just because they think it’s cool,” George said, “but I personally think that’s my future vinyl customer.”