Music & Musicians

Vinyl is vintage and the future, as new generation warms to an old music form

Key Points
  • Vinyl records lying around in your garage could be worth thousands.
  • Vinyl LP sales reached 13 million in 2016, according to Nielsen.
Young people look through vinyl records.
Andrew Cowie | AFP | Getty Images

Vinyl records, which is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity that's outstripping digital music growth, proves the adage that everything old is new again.

Last year, Vinyl LP sales reached 13 million, according to Nielsen's Year-End Report released on Jan. 9. That figure was an all-time high since Nielsen started keeping track back in 1991.

Despite the fact that cell phones and tablets are music lovers method of choice for music playback—a function of streaming media—vinyl's vintage novelty is feeding a boom in record sales. So what gives?

Clement Perry, the publisher of The Stereo Times, a magazine for audiophiles, said that for some, vinyl never went away: Indeed, a number of electronics makers still manufacture turntables for hardcore music lovers. The renewed interest in vinyl from consumers at large is partly due to its increasing availability.

"Millennials, a/k/a 'kids these days' are who we were back when we, or any generation, was spurred into a mania for records. For us, radio and records were the only way we could hear recorded music," Miriam Linna, president of independent label Norton Records, told CNBC in an email.

"Now with the internet and instant gratification, the younger record fans still love the feel and sound of a physical artifact. It's highly personal," she added, saying music has been "on a vinyl comeback trail for 30 years."

Linna added: "It hasn't happened overnight at all. It's small mom-n-pop labels that kept the pressing plants open and worked hard to keep the faith of the fans and artists."

Stir it Up turntable.
Source: House of Marley

According to MusicWatch, 56 percent of vinyl record purchasers are men, and almost half of purchasers are under 25 years old. The industry research company also found that 58 percent of vinyl buyers only purchase used records, versus 32 percent who only buy new ones.

Despite the recent surge, vinyl sales make up a small portion of music sales as a whole—just 11 percent of physical album sales according to Nielsen. Yet data shows growth in LP sales has outstripped digital downloads, and vinyl is drawing in a new generation of music aficionados.

Fabio Roberti is the owner of Earwax Records in the Brooklyn neighborhood Williamsburg since 1996, and has been a radio disc jockey for over 30 years. He said that many young people who come into his shop want to experience records in a completely different way.

"Today people come in and already know what they'll buy, whereas in the past you would have to take a chance," Roberti said. "People will go into the shop and go through YouTube or Spotify before buying a record — which I think eliminates some of the adventure I felt [when] you talked to the record owner and learned about it that way."

Even with the popular interest in vinyl, Roberti wasn't sure the resurgence is here to stay.

"It's hard to know where this is going in the next 5 or 10 years," Roberti said, noting that recordings have been around for over 100 years. Still, "the notion that a big analog disc can exist in 2017 is kind of amazing to me."

Perry of The Stereo Times believes vinyl is on an upward trend. "It's a tangible form… It's a little personal contact with the music that no other format can really match. It's really special in that regard," Perry said.

Vinyl is more special to some than others, with some deep-pocketed fans shelling out thousands for vintage records.

A recent survey conducted by website Mr. Gamez found the 25 most expensive records ever sold on eBay since its inception in 1995.

Topping the list was "God Save the Queen" from the Sex Pistols, which was auctioned off for $10,578. Taking second place is "Please Please Me" by the Beatles which went for $8,323.

The people who spend this kind of money, though, aren't just chasing sound quality. Vinyl, Perry said, allows you to connect with the music in a unique way.

"If you want to really sink into the soul of the music, vinyl gives you a better chance of doing that without becoming an audiophile," Perry said.

"I'm not going to tell you that vinyl is better — you can't quantify that it's better," he added. "People will say that they prefer it, [but] both vinyl and digital have their strengths and weaknesses."

Norton Records' Linna added that "vinyl record fans in general... value the song and how it motivates us. It's a pleasure to watch the label go around, to marvel, as I do with every record I spin, on the magic of a rotating piece of plastic, and how it can cause us to laugh, cry, fall in love, or jump for joy."

Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect that recordings have been around for over 100 years.