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  • Writer's pictureMicah Voraritskul

Vinyl’s comeback signals humans’ comeback in the AI era.

This is installment two in my “Human is the New Vinyl” series. For part one, click here.

The Walkman

It was 1985, and I was a wide-eyed ten-year-old eagerly unwrapping my first Sony Walkman on Christmas morning. As I positioned the orange padded earmuff-style headphones over my ears, I didn’t realize that this simple action would mark a ritual of listening that would occupy many decades of my life to come. I slid the cassette into the black plastic magic-maker with giddy fingers, locked the lid, and pushed play. Instantly, I was transported to Prince’s recording studio, hearing his raw lyrical genius come to life. My entrée into the enchanting universe of portable, high-fidelity music was a defining moment.

But the story of vinyl records began long before my personal journey. It’s a tale woven with innovation, cultural impact, and resilience, stretching back to the early days of sound recording in the late 19th century. From the rise of radio and the golden age of vinyl to the digital revolution and vinyl’s surprising resurgence, this is the fascinating journey of a medium that has left an indelible mark on music history.

The Early Days of Vinyl

The story of vinyl is a captivating blend of invention, technology, and people’s love of music. In the late 19th century, American inventor Thomas Edison introduced his phonograph, which used tinfoil wrapped around a cylinder-shaped drum to record and playback sound. German engineer Emile Berliner’s gramophone, which played flat shellac discs, was a closer cousin to modern records.

In 1901, the Victor Talking Machine Company released the first commercially successful record featuring world-famous Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso. The “Red Seal” record was a hit with consumers, and suddenly, the once unimaginable became a reality: people worldwide could enjoy world-class performances in the comfort of their living rooms.

The 1920s saw further advancements in recording technology with the introduction of electrical recording. This enabled new powered amplifiers and multiple microphones to produce and capture a broader range of sound frequencies while electromagnetic recording heads cut detailed inscriptions on recording surfaces. The rise of radio broadcasting during this time also increased the demand for recorded music, with vinyl records becoming the primary medium for radio stations to play music on air.

The Golden Age of Vinyl

The 1940s and 1950s marked a golden age for vinyl. In 1948, Columbia Records introduced the first long-playing (LP) record, a 12-inch disc spinning at 33 1/3 RPM that could hold over 20 minutes of music per side. The following year, RCA Victor released the 45 RPM single, a smaller 7-inch disc that became the standard for individual track releases. These innovations revolutionized the music industry, allowing for longer recordings and the ability to purchase and play individual songs at will.

The 1950s and 1960s saw further technological advancements, such as stereo recording and multi-track technology, which enhanced the listening experience. Iconic albums from artists like The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, and Michael Jackson showcased vinyl’s importance and cultural impact. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Dark Side of the Moon, Highway 61 Revisited, and Thriller are just a few examples of the groundbreaking records that defined this era and continue to influence music today.

Alongside these developments, a thriving “jukebox culture” emerged, with 45 RPM singles becoming the lifeblood of bars, diners, and clubs across America. The colorful, chrome-adorned jukeboxes, with their neat rows of vinyl records under clear glass, symbolized the spirit and diversity of the times. They were a gathering point for music lovers, a place where people could come together, dance, and lose themselves in the music.

The Digital Revolution

But in 1982, everything changed. The introduction of CDs marked the beginning of the digital age in music, and the shift was swift and dramatic. I remember when my older brothers unveiled their new component CD player, and I marveled at the digital sound, which was exquisite compared to my grubby, road-weary cassette tapes. CDs offered numerous benefits: durability, portability, the ability to skip tracks, enhanced sound quality, and longer playing times. They quickly gained market share, signaling a new era of music consumption.

While less popular than vinyl, Cassette tapes provided a portable alternative for music lovers. I have fond memories of the mixtapes I made and received, custom-curated songs that required intentionality and care to assemble. But even cassettes couldn’t withstand the digital onslaught.

The rise of digital audio formats and portable MP3 players in the late 1990s and early 2000s further contributed to vinyl’s decline. The ability to store vast amounts of music in a compact, easy-to-tote format was revolutionary. Vinyl sales plummeted from a staggering 341 million units in 1978 to just 1.5 million in 2006. It seemed like the beginning of the end for the once-triumphant format.

Vinyl’s Resurgence

Despite the digital revolution, vinyl’s unique allure persisted. Its warm, authentic sound and the tactile experience of playing a record kept it alive among enthusiasts and collectors. In recent years, vinyl has experienced a surprising resurgence, with sales steadily increasing since the mid-2000s.

Many music lovers appreciate the ritual of playing a vinyl record, the artwork, and the sense of connection to the music. Jack White of The White Stripes said, “The needle touching down on the record has a warmer and more inviting sound than any other music format. There’s a romance in it. You have to be physically present to play it…There’s something beautiful about that ritual. It demands your attention.”

Artists and labels have embraced the format, releasing new albums and reissuing classic titles on vinyl. Record Store Day, an annual event celebrating independent record stores, has played a significant role in the resurgence, with exclusive vinyl releases and in-store performances drawing crowds of music lovers.

The appeal of vinyl extends beyond just the sound quality. It’s about the experience, the nostalgia, and the sense of owning a tangible piece of music history. As vinyl collector and enthusiast John Cusack’s character in the film High Fidelity says, “What really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films — these things matter.”

Vinyl’s journey is a testament to its enduring appeal and cultural significance. From its early days as the dominant music format to its decline in the face of digital technologies and its surprising resurgence, vinyl has proven its resilience. It has weathered the storms of change, adapted to new technologies, and found new generations of fans.

As music consumption continues to evolve, with streaming services and digital downloads dominating the landscape, vinyl’s ability to connect listeners to music in a tangible and immersive way ensures its place in the hearts of music lovers. It’s a medium that demands attention and encourages us to slow down and appreciate the art of the album.

The story of vinyl reminds us that sometimes, the most meaningful experiences come from the imperfections and rituals that make life rich and textured. It’s a story of innovation, cultural impact, and the enduring power of music to bring people together. Dave Barry once said, “The four building blocks of the universe are fire, water, gravel, and vinyl.” And while he may have been waxing tongue in cheek, there’s no denying the profound impact that vinyl has had on the world of music and the lives of countless listeners.

Vinyl’s resurgence in the digital age, particularly in the era of artificial intelligence, is a testament to the enduring value of human creativity and the desire for authentic, tactile experiences. As AI continues to shape our world, vinyl’s comeback serves as a reminder that there is still a place for the human touch, for the imperfections and idiosyncrasies that make art and music so compelling. It’s a signal that even in an increasingly automated world, we still crave the warmth and connection that comes from engaging with something created by human hands and hearts.

You should do it. If you have a turntable, take your favorite record out of its sleeve, seat it, and drop the needle. Turn up the volume. Appreciate the warmth, the crackles, and the imperfections that make the sound so special. In an era increasingly shaped by algorithms and artificial intelligence, the resurgence of vinyl reminds us of the power and resilience of human creativity, passion, and connection. And while you’re at it, celebrate all that it means to be a human again.



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