The year 2019 concluded on an extraordinary note for the music industry. In the week ending December 26, more than 1.2 million vinyl albums were sold in the United States. That’s the highest weekly number since Nielsen began tracking music sales in 1991. And this record for records wasn’t an anomaly; last year also boasted the third-, fourth-, and fifth-biggest vinyl sales weeks of that nearly three-decade period. Clearly, the LP’s resurgence in the 21st century—roughly a 10% increase in sales every year for the past 15 years—shows no signs of abating. Further evidence of this long-running trend lies in the return of mom-and-pop record stores throughout the U.S. and the success of the twice-yearly Record Store Day events in April and November. (Record Store Day Black Friday on November 29, 2019, yielded the biggest overall album sales week of the year, with 2.8 million sold across all formats, including 855,000 records.)
Vinyl now accounts officially for 26% of all physical sales of recorded music in the U.S., though it should be noted that Nielsen doesn’t count used record sales and it’s not uncommon for those to outweigh new record sales 80% to 20% at your typical store. The LP’s total share of the revenue pie is even larger, because—as no regular haunter of disc emporia will be surprised to read—prices of records have gone up nearly 500% within a 10-year period. Retailers are increasingly seeing vinyl as high-value, and consumers are willing to pay more, sometimes much more, to get it.
The question is: Why? Nostalgia is certainly a factor, but it only goes so far in explaining why music fans in their twenties or thirties, who never grew up with record players, are turning to vinyl. The most common answer one gets is that it’s all about the beauty of analog sound; purists argue that records offer a more natural presentation of recorded events, and a more human-scaled soundstage (the spatial replication of the recorded performance, which can be flatter in digitally reproduced music).
Not everyone buys this sonic argument. Vlado Meller, who was one of CBS/Sony’s chief mastering engineers for decades and who continues to master for both analog and digital formats, has long claimed that what some call the warmth or purity of vinyl actually stems from its physical limitations—it’s incapable of reproducing a pure full-frequency spectrum, though what it can reproduce luckily sounds pleasant to the human ear. “There are just too many variables affecting the final sound on vinyl,” Meller said in an interview with Sound on Sound, “whereas digital recordings do not have these kinds of limitations.”
Producer Joe Harley of the audiophile label Music Matters counters that the frequency spectrum of vinyl can be wider than digital, and that “the vinyl groove is the actual wave form; we’re just amplifying it. With digital we’re using ones and zeros in an attempt to replicate the actual wave form. We’ve gotten very good at it, but it still sounds somewhat synthetic. You can’t ‘win’ this debate, but I like to explain it this way: Comparing vinyl to digital is like comparing Tang and real orange juice. They’re both yellow and wet but real orange juice has pulp, texture, and dimension to the taste that Tang does not.”
No matter where you stand on the audio-quality question, though, you’ve got to admit that there’s more to the exponential rise of vinyl sales than the belief that it sounds better. Vinyl’s strengths go beyond its sound, encompassing the visual allure of the record as an object and the ritualistic nature of playing it. Removing the LP from its inner sleeve, placing it on the turntable platter, brushing away the dust, lowering the tonearm/cartridge to the record’s surface—it all makes the act of playback a cherished rite, giving the music greater respect. As Bill Frisell stated in a recent Stereophile article, “I used to sit around with my friends, and we’d put on a record and it was an event. We’d all gather around the stereo, put on the new Miles Davis record, and just flip out. It was special. It was a sacred time focused entirely on one side of the record, then we’d turn it over and do it again.”
Playing vinyl is a physical experience, whereas streaming is a detached one. This—along with the crate-digging culture resurrected by hip-hop DJs—perhaps best explains its re-newfound appeal.
The resurrection of vinyl that began in the mid-2000s wasn’t a creation of the mainstream music business. It was kickstarted by sales of used records, and jazz records in particular—not a shock given that many jazz fans never stopped fetishizing vinyl, and that fetishization only grew as LPs became harder to find. With original Blue Note pressings of Hank Mobley’s Hank Mobley (known to connoisseurs by its serial number, 1568), Lee Morgan’s Indeed, and Sonny Clark’s Sonny Crib fetching thousands of dollars at auction, record labels eventually recognized the growing demand for jazz vinyl. Today it’s being reissued with varying degrees of quality. Only recently have major U.S. labels joined the reissue fever initially addressed by smaller domestic and European Union-based labels.
When it comes to reissued jazz vinyl, what separates the great from the simply okay? The best-sounding vinyl reissues originate with the original analog master tape, from which a lacquer (an aluminum disc-shaped base plate coated with about 20 millimeters of soft lacquer) is cut and—after several production processes—becomes the mother stamper that presses your record. Lower-quality EU-based labels have no access to master tapes and thus use questionable digital sources, including CDs.
But here’s the rub: Not everyone who has access to master tapes does the same thing with them. “‘Mastered using the original analog tapes’ used to mean something and now it means nothing,” says Michael Fremer, Stereophile senior contributing editor and Analog Planet editor. “In the [audiophile] world, that would mean you put the tape on a machine and you cut a lacquer from it. It shouldn’t also mean ‘We mastered it to high-res digital first, and then we cut from that.’ No, that’s been done numerous times at this point. You shouldn’t digitize the tape and then cut lacquers from that.”
Of course, many do, as Fred Cohen acknowledges. Cohen is one of the world’s foremost authorities on collecting Blue Note records, as illustrated in his book, Blue Note Records: A Guide to Identifying Original Pressings. He’s equally renowned for his historic vinyl LP auctions, which have set the benchmark for many pressings, including the most valuable jazz record at auction, the aforementioned Hank Mobley 1568, which has sold for more than $5,000 in mint original 1957 form. And he’s been running the Jazz Record Center shop in New York since 1983. “This is a real dicey issue,” he says. “Just about everything we listen to now has been digitized. There are very few reissues coming out now which are strictly analog, and those are the ones we pay a lot more for: Music Matters, Analogue Productions, Elemental, and [Blue Note] Tone Poet—we assume all those are from tape.”
Although digitizing continues to be controversial, some digitally sourced vinyl titles that this reporter has heard sound excellent. Universal Studios engineer Kevin Reeves’ remasters for Verve’s Vital Vinyl series are a grand success, as was Concord’s four-LP set of Bill Evans’ The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961. Even Fremer admits there are exceptions: “I had a Deutsche Grammophon classical box set of Beethoven’s violin and piano sonatas. I also had one of the originals. The reissue [disc] sounds better than the original. I heard no traces of anything digital. I spoke to the guy that mastered it and he said, ‘The tape had problems that we had to fix; we couldn’t fix them in the analog domain. So we digitized the tape at 192Hz/24-bit resolution.’ And it sounds great.”
In the end, what may matter most is who’s doing the mastering. Fremer singles out engineers Bernie Grundman and Cohearent Audio’s Kevin Gray as “two of the good guys who know jazz.” He also praises Fred Thomas of SAM Records in France. “[Throughout the ’50s and ’60s] a lot of musicians left America or toured Europe. And when they toured Europe, they recorded with Disques Vogue and other French labels. SAM cuts from [those] master tapes. And Fred is friends with the photographers who shot a lot of those original covers, and they’re still alive. Fred uses negatives to print not only the jacket but also an insert of a beautiful picture of the jacket.”