1 | Sean Albiez – ‘Vinyl’ - Blo omsb ury En cyclop edia of Popu lar Music of the World 2019
The vinyl record has proven a resilient format for the sale and consumption of recorded music
since its introduction in 1948, though its fortunes in the global market have waxed and waned
considerably. ‘Vinyl’ is the generic term for the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or ‘vinylite plastic’ material
chosen by Columbia Records for the introduction of the long-playing microgroove record (LP)
launched to great acclaim after World War II to replace the old shellac1 78 rpm records. The change
from shellac, the previous dominant medium for sound recording, to vinyl appears to have been
somewhat transitional. There is evidence that some records which in the period following World War
II were thought to be manufactured from shellac were, in fact, manufactured from vinylite but with
fillers used in shellac retained (Canby, Burke and Kolodin 1956, 50).
Vinyl allowed for narrower grooves and for the slower 33⅓ and 45 rpm speeds to be used, with a
substantial increase in playing time per side. The new vinyl records, which included 7” (18 cm) singles
running at 45 rpm as well as 12” (30 cm) LPs running at 33⅓ rpm, were almost unbreakable. They
required new lightweight pickups tracking at only a few grams of pressure. In addition, consumers had
to buy turntables capable of playing at these new speeds as well as at 78 rpm if they wanted to keep on
using their collection of 78s. Osborne (2014) indicates that soon after the Union Carbon and Carbide
Company in the United States first manufactured PVC in the early 1930s it was utilized for disc-based
transcription recordings of radio shows as well as for synchronized sound in film and by the Muzak
company. However, it was too expensive for wider adoption. Vinyl was again used in the production of
12” 78 rpm discs from 1943 onwards in the shape of V-Discs produced for entertaining US service
personnel during World War II. In the post-war period vinyl became the dominant material for the
manufacture of commercial recorded music. Key to the success of these recordings was the longer
playing time and durability of vinyl discs compared to those using shellac and fillers.
The vinyl record format dominated global recorded music sales from the 1950s until the mid-
1980s, although the cassette market’s rate of increase was in fact higher than that of the LP during the
1970s and 1980s, and worldwide sales of the cassette were greater than those of the LP by 1988 partly
due to the establishment of mass music markets in Africa and Asia.
Nonetheless, the CD superseded the LP in sales by the late 1980s. Yet, from the 1980s to the 2000s
vinyl still had a place for enthusiasts and collectors as well as for DJs in the context of hip hop and
dance music, becoming a niche, minority, sometimes subcultural interest. From 2009 on evidence of a
renewed interest in vinyl records on a global basis became evident through increasing sales and
widespread media interest in what became known as the ‘vinyl revival.’ However, the rise in vinyl
sales, though marked, still accounted for only a minor portion of the overall sales of music on
traditional physical formats independent of digital files and the internet. In 2017, in the face of
streaming services, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) stated that
physical formats, though declining in importance, still accounted for 30 percent of global music sales
revenue. Vinyl LPs accounted for 14 percent of physical format sales in the United States, and 4.1
million vinyl albums were sold in the United Kingdom, the highest level since 1991. The scale of the
renewed interest in vinyl when viewed through the optics of retail sales of new releases is clear – an
important shift, but of a relatively small scale. The extent of the vinyl revival is perhaps greater than
2 | Sean Albiez – ‘Vinyl’ - Blo omsb ury En cyclop edia of Popu lar Music of the World 2019
these figures suggest. For example, Rosenblatt (2018) argues that second-hand sales by way of services
such as Discogs.com and eBay have not been included in IFPI figures and that new vinyl sales by
independent retailers have also not been reported to the IFPI or other gatherers of sales data. As a
consequence, there is an incomplete picture of the true level of the vinyl resurgence. Although there
has been undeniable evidence of a revival in terms of sales and in terms of wider cultural implications
(such as demonstrable, seemingly illogical, technostalgia for earlier inconvenient media technologies)
during the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is clear that for some in the music listening
audience – including rock music fans and aficionados, dance music DJs and audiophiles – the vinyl
record has sustained its value and currency since peak vinyl sales were reached in the late 1970s. The
reasons given for this persistence are varied. In 1992 Plasketes explored why some music consumers
and collectors still held on to vinyl as a format and argued that it was due to nostalgia and a resistance
to technology and notions of progress. These sentiments resulted in a minority of music listeners
collecting and preserving vinyl records, valuing the meanings and experiences attributed to and
contained within this medium as a cultural artefact. A decade and a half later Yochim and Biddinger
(2008) – in examining the continued consumption of vinyl by younger music fans as well as the earlier
core group ‘nostalgics’ – argued rather that collectors valued what they saw as vinyl’s aesthetic, tactile
and sonic superiority. These views did not simply constitute a romantic yearning for a golden vinyl
age. Collectors viewed vinyl as providing a more ‘human’ and authentic listening experience and
reported they felt more connected to the music and musicians they heard on vinyl records, old and new.
In line with the evidence provided by Yochim and Biddinger, Shuker (2010, 57-82) has argued
that Plasketes’s notion of a ‘vinyl junkie’ subculture of older listeners in 1992 has since morphed into a
cross-generational phenomenon. What may have once been simple nostalgia brought on by a sense of
‘vinyl bereavement’ has become a consumer choice involving various lifestyles and tastes. In addition
to rehearsing the generally subjective arguments of vinyl lovers concerning the medium’s perceived
superior sound quality in comparison to that of CDs and digital audio files, Shuker outlined the ways
in which continued vinyl record consumption was also about: the appeal of LP sleeves or jackets; the
appeal of the collection and physical ownership of original recordings during a time in which
collections were becoming increasingly virtual; the sense of direct engagement with the listening
experience that flows from the tactile sensation of handling records and the process of record turntable
operation; and the quest involved in tracking down, by digging through crates, elusive and collectable
Barron (2015) has suggested that perhaps the vinyl revival has simply been part of a wider
‘retromania,’ a term introduced by Reynolds (2011). ‘Retromania’ can be described as a phenomenon
whereby contemporary music and popular culture is suffused by the continued presence of older bands
and artists, by new bands modelling themselves on these classic bands and the persistence of fashions
and cultural artefacts of the past. Rather than nostalgia, Barron argues that new vinyl listeners who
grew up with CDs and MP3 are attracted to the tactility and novel rituals – no matter how inconvenient
– that are afforded through immersive vinyl listening (such as including the opening of the sleeve, the
careful storing and handling of records to avoid damaging the playing surface, placing the record on
the turntable and the stylus on the vinyl, the limited playing time and the inevitable crackles and pops
3 | Sean Albiez – ‘Vinyl’ - Blo omsb ury En cyclop edia of Popu lar Music of the World 2019
that mask the music). This ‘re-materialization’ of physical artefacts in an era of digital consumption
that can be thought of as ‘de-materialized’ is also considered by Magaudda (2011), who argues that the
quotidian nature of the digital consumption of music by the mid-2000s led to some music fans looking
for a more ‘authentic’ experience (however, it remains important to remember that digital consumption
independent of traditional physical media still requires a sophisticated material infrastructure – see
Devine 2019). This search in turn led to the re-integration of vinyl into new socio-material practices
involving renewed modes of buying, listening to, conserving and appreciating vinyl records as well as
the record turntable.
In considering the surprise expressed by mainstream media commentators towards the revival of
vinyl sales, Bartmanski and Woodward (2013) argue that nostalgic sentimentalism or or a fashionable
attachment to notions of ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’ fail to fully explain the vinyl renaissance. They contend
that vinyl records have become a container for cultural messages about the present, and that the format
is viewed by some as a critical and politically resistant medium. It is appreciated for its anti-systemic,
counter-cultural qualities. Values of exclusivity, sophistication, traditionalism and alternativeness are
ascribed to the consumption of vinyl records. However, with the corporatization of the annual Record
Store Day, and wider renewed interest in vinyl from the record industries, and with vinyl record
compilations released by mainstream supermarkets, this counter-cultural formulation has been
challenged. In an earlier study Hayes (2006) outlined how younger consumers were aware of the
potential for the consumption of vinyl to become a cultural political act, with their attachment to vinyl
records disrupting music industry attempts to define and regulate their tastes and identities. However,
countering this celebration of seeming cultural political resistance is Devine’s (2019) sobering study of
the history and political ecology of vinyl. His account of the toxic, carcinogenic and non-biodegradable
qualities of vinyl, and of how the vinyl revival is implicated in the increase in toxic waste that is a by-
product of the vinyl manufacturing process, challenges the soft politics of symbolic cultural resistance.
The hard realities of even inadvertently sustaining the role of the global petrochemical industries in the
production of vinyl, cassettes, CDs and other plastic containers of musical culture is troubling.
One of the central claims concerning vinyl records is that they are inherently sonically superior
to digital files and formats, and for some this is a reason for adopting the format. In many respects it is
difficult to objectively sustain this argument. For example, in mastering music for vinyl, dynamic and
frequency range is curtailed with extreme low- and high-end frequencies cut. This is done to avoid
groove cutting problems at low frequencies where lateral movement of the cutting stylus can break into
adjoining grooves if bass frequencies are too low, and extreme low bass frequencies can cause the
stylus to jump from the groove in playback. High-frequency sibilance, in which hissing sounds are
made by performers on record when emphasizing ‘s’ sounds, is ‘de-essed’ during mastering to control
high frequency distortion. Kornelis (2015) indicates that vinyl is also deficient in that the outer grooves
of a vinyl record are sonically superior to the inner grooves near the label. This is due to the fact that
the stylus travels2 an increasingly shorter distance as it moves towards the center of the record and, as a
result, the reproduced sound is of markedly reduced quality through the loss of high frequencies.
Kornelis writes that, for sound and mix engineers Bob Ludwig and Bob Clearmountain, vinyl was
unable to cope with the full frequency and dynamic range captured in studio productions. As a
4 | Sean Albiez – ‘Vinyl’ - Blo omsb ury En cyclop edia of Popu lar Music of the World 2019
consequence a vinyl record was only able to approximate a finished studio mix. As such, vinyl
mastering from the 1950s until the 1980s had to account for these limitations.
Oliphint (2014) has in addition written of the unpredictability of the vinyl pressing process
through which batches or individual copies of vinyl records can vary in audio quality. The fact that
vinyl also builds up static charges, attracting dirt and dust which eventually degrades listening through
growing surface noise, and that vinyl progressively wears down each time it is played, means that the
fragility of vinyl mitigates against any superiority it might be suggested it has over high quality digital
files. However, Bartmanski and Woodward (2013) suggest that the limitations of sound quality and the
fragility of vinyl are reinterpreted by some listeners as being part of its strength, contributing to its
authentic, ‘human’ qualities. They argue that a vinyl record’s past is inscribed onto its surface,
deteriorating and mirroring the mortality of human experience.
As such, the sound of vinyl records is the sound of distortion and a sound which conveys the
limitations of analog technologies. In any objective measure CDs, though susceptible to misuse and
abuse, offer a more consistent and less distorted sound, as well as wider frequency and dynamic range.
The preference for vinyl records would seem to be a matter of subjective taste, as well as a matter of
what Oliphint (2014) describes as its badge-like status, marking out the listener as a true music fan
1. ‘Shellac’ records were never made from shellac alone. Shellac refers to the hard brittle material then used
for making records before vinyl. It is a resin made from a substance secreted by the female lac bug on tree
branches in southern and eastern Asia. The discs were comprised of only about 15 percent shellac, to which
was added ‘filler’ that contained a diverse range of materials in a variety of often secret manufacturers
recipes. A mixture of minerals, fibers, and lubricants were combined, with shellac acting as a binding agent.
Devine (2019) identifies crushed slate and limestone, asbestos, asphalt, cement, flour and formaldehyde as
being used at various times, with carbon black used as a dye for a uniform appearance, as a filler and as a
form of lubricant. Scrap materials were also used, derived from recycling defective records and excess
materials trimmed during record pressing. However, these were often contaminated by other waste
materials. Limestone was particularly important as a filler as it was designed to grind the soft steel or fiber
replay needle (stylus) tip to the shape of the groove for optimum tracking of the recorded music waveform
with minimum noise.
2. In reality the stylus only moves laterally – it remains suspended over the vinyl groove that moves beneath it
– thanks to Lee Whitehead for prompting this clarification.
Borwick, John. 1994. Sound Recording Practice. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Audio
Engineering Society (AES). 1981. Disc Recording – An Anthology, Vols. 1 and 2. New York: AES.
5 | Sean Albiez – ‘Vinyl’ - Blo omsb ury En cyclop edia of Popu lar Music of the World 2019
Barron, Lee. 2015. ‘Back on Record – the Reasons behind Vinyl’s Unlikely Comeback.’ The
Conversation (17 April). Online at: http://theconversation.com/back-on-record-the-reasonsbehind-
vinyls-unlikely-comeback-39964 (accessed 11 January 2019).
Bartmanski, Dominik and Woodward, Ian. 2013. ‘The Vinyl: The Analogue Medium in the Age of
Digital Reproduction.’ Journal of Consumer Culture 15(1): 3-27. Online at:
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1469540513488403 (accessed 21 January 2019).
Bartmanski, Dominik and Woodward, Ian. 2015. Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age. New
York and London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Canby, Edward Tatnall, Burke, C.G., and Kolodin, Irving. 1956 (1952). 2nd ed. The Saturday Review
Home Book of Recorded Music and Sound Reproduction. New York: Prentice-Hall.
Devine, Kyle. 2019. Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gelatt, Roland. 1977. The Fabulous Phonograph, 1877–1977. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan.
Hayes, David. 2006. ‘“Take Those Old Records off the Shelf”: Youth and Music Consumption in the
Postmodern Age.’ Popular Music and Society 29(1): 51-68.
Kornelis, Chris. 2015. ‘Why CDs May Actually Sound Better than Vinyl.’ LA Weekly (27 January).
Online at: http://www.laweekly.com/music/why-cds-may-actually-sound-better-thanvinyl-5352162
(accessed 11 January 2019).
Magaudda, Paolo. 2012. ‘What Happens to Materiality in Digital Virtual Consumption?’ In Digital
Virtual Consumption, eds. Mike Molesworth and Janice Denegri-Knott. London: Routledge, 111-126.
Oliphint, Joel. 2014. ‘Wax and Wane: The Tough Realities behind Vinyl’s Comeback.’ Pitchfork (28
July). Online at: http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/9467-wax-and-wane-thetough-realities-behind-
vinyls-comeback/ (accessed 11 January 2019).
Osborne, Richard. 2014. Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record. Abingdon: Routledge.
Plasketes, George. 1992. ‘Romancing the Record: The Vinyl De-Evolution and Subcultural Evolution.’
The Journal of Popular Culture 26(1): 109-22.
Reynolds, Simon. 2011. Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past. London: Faber &
6 | Sean Albiez – ‘Vinyl’ - Blo omsb ury En cyclop edia of Popu lar Music of the World 2019
Rosenblatt, Bill. 2018. ‘Vinyl is Bigger than We Thought.’ Forbes (18 September). Online at:
(accessed 11 January 2019).
Shuker, Roy. 2010. Wax Trash and Vinyl Treasures: Record Collecting as a Social Practice. Farnham:
Yochim, Emily Chivers and Biddinger, Megan. 2008. ‘“It Kind of Gives You that Vintage Feel”: Vinyl
Records and the Trope of Death.’ Media, Culture and Society 30(2): 183-95.
John Borwick (2003) – extended and revised by Sean Albiez (2019/2020)