Fantastic Formats: An exploration into the Popular Music Format

Vinyl has seen a resurgence of late.
Vinyl has seen a resurgence of late.

In our new monthly feature, Andy Weights looks at popular music formats, and the impact they had on music consumption. This month: vinyl.

Welcome to the first installment of Fantastic Four Formats, a monthly feature brought to you by The Waveform Transmitter. The Fantastic Four Formats is a series looking at the impact and meaning of today’s most popular musical formats; Vinyl, Cassette, CD, and the MP3.

*(imagine the scene; four ninjas holding, a vinyl record, a cd, a tape, and a laptop…haaaaaiiiiii-YAH!)

This month, LPs spin back in time and Andy Weights asks us; Are vinyl records the comeback kid of the four formats?

From the very first time a phonograph (invented by Edison in 1877) was played, we have craved the sound of recordings. Shellac made way for easier, cheaper vinyl, and between 1950 to 1973 vinyl had its hey-day.

But, as the oil ran out in 1973-74, the manufacturers switched materials and we were digesting vinyl records on RCA Dynaflex. The vinyl itself became thinner, and the sound quality waned. Along came a solution in the form of CDs and vinyl got left behind.

Accessing popular vinyl records from 1990 onwards became more difficult for the consumer. As the bright future of music was being extensively experimented with by the record companies, they attempted to find the most user friendly format for the impending millennium.

Downloading sprung up from the introduction of the internet and in swept a new craze; MP3s. Torrents and P2P sharing clients such as Napster (as was) broke the music manufacturers grip on how we obtained and paid for the music we listened to. Although with vinyl LPs the music industry had a strong format to get us back buying physical recordings.

“Oh, vinyl is back!” I hear, but for the majority of people with tuned in ears it never really went away… did it?

The vinyl format has lived on through the decades by virtue of its faithful labels, listeners, collectors and fans. Slowly bubbling away under the surface. As the senselessness in reinventing the wheel or changing the QWERTY keyboard proved, some things are best left the way they are, because they already work.

I don’t blame CDs for changing the fashion and that is what music formats are… fashion. As we’re finding out now with the popular albums getting more vinyl releases in shops like HMV and even Sainsbury’s; Record players being stocked by Argos again; charity shops asking face value for vinyl records; and adverts on TV.

CD sales are falling. Between vinyl records and CDs, music fans are seemingly showing a preference for vinyl records, and in 2016 we saw vinyl record sales go through the roof with 3.2 million sold. 2017 looks like it will be even better for the vinyl community.

The comeback kid or what?! Vinyl will continue to rise in popularity, it’s been with us since the beginning of recorded performances and it’s still got a fair way to go until the plug is pulled, production will stop and again it will drive itself underground for survival.

Just like the vinyl record, the way music is stored and played may step aside to allow new formats through, but vinyl seems to be ingrained in us music fans. We just can’t put them down, whether it’s due to the familiar ‘crackle and pop’ of dust on the record, the large artwork that can be truly immersive, or the ceremony of putting a record on.

The vinyl hits the slipmat, the arm is raised and placed, the needle gets into the groove and the pop and crackle assure us the show on the road. A ritual or habit? A pleasure or a need? For different people vinyl surely has the same appeal?!

Vinyl records and their sleeves are to be held, felt and smelt and have a fragility that in some way makes them a little like us; they have a story to share, they age, crease, scratch and fade.

Today, the shiny new records are being made to attract a new generation into listening to their current favourite artists on modern 180/ 200g ‘heavy vinyl’, while the remastered versions of classic albums are aimed towards avid collectors and the fans who can afford them.

On the other hand, there are swathes of people who go digging in dimly lit record shops and car boot sales and use Discogs and eBay to feed their habit with older used records.

Old vinyl records play the music the way it was intended to be heard; studios in the 60s and 70s mixed the sound for vinyl reproduction only. Similar techniques have survived and are now being applied to modern vinyl releases – the analogue / digital camps now working together.

Indeed, large collections of vinyl are heavy and bulky to move around. They come with scratches, skip, and come to the end of a side meaning we have to get up and move the needle along or flip the black circle over…

Sure, to locate the album or single your looking for can prove more expensive and harder to find, or the record player dies. But it is this analogue walk of life that ensures we don’t forget what it means to work for our dinner or, in this case, the enjoyment of our music. The more you put in, the more you get back.

Next month we’ll be looking at the rise of the CD.

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