Turning the Tables on the Vinyl Revolution

Recently, Sony Music announced that it would resume production of vinyl LPs, an operation the company halted in 1989, according to a report by CNN Money. The reason for that 1989 stop? Compact discs, which had taken over the market for audio recordings so completely as to render vinyl obsolete as far as Sony was concerned.

Now, as digital music and streaming are rising in popularity and the death of CDs is being proclaimed (sensationally and, perhaps, prematurely) by sources including Time and The Atlantic, vinyl is coming back.

Initially, it would appear that the production of new vinyl records is irrational. Just like gramophone records (vinyl) overtook phonograph cylinders and phonograph cylinders overtook phonautograph recordings, CDs overtook vinyl, as well as cassette tapes. This is because CDs were a technological advancement. Smaller, more portable, easier to store, and less fragile than vinyl (CDs can be stored horizontally without much danger of being damaged); more durable and convenient than cassettes (there is no need to rewind a CD); CDs rose in popularity for a reason. Music producers, like all rational producers, are interested in making their products cheaper to produce and more desirable to consumers. Similarly, rational consumers should be interested in low costs, both in terms of the price of the product and the time and effort it takes to acquire and use it. In this case, why produce something that has been rendered obsolete by technological advancement?

However, the appearance of new vinyl record releases and the production of new, technologically updated turntables suggests that perhaps this decision is not as irrational as it first appears. Maybe not even irrational at all.

The choice of music format is not only a matter of convenience, it is also a matter of tastes and preferences.

First, there are tastes and preferences regarding sound. A quick internet search (or a conversation with anyone who owns a turntable) reveals that many vinyl fans insist that music sounds sounds better, often described as warmer, on vinyl than on CDs or digital music. The evidence appears to be mostly anecdotal (although it is possible that the crackling and popping of vinyl records reminds people of a fireplace, a sound associated with warmth).

Second, there are tastes and preferences regarding the physical vessel in which the music is contained. With the exception of digital downloads, buying music involves buying a tangible object, which then sits around its owner’s house and is often treated as a decoration. Thus, people may prefer vinyl records over CDs for their aesthetic qualities. Also, some people may be very concerned with the statement that their music format choices make to visitors and the social costs associated with those choices. Either way, if the benefit a person receives from owning a vinyl record is higher than the cost of purchasing it, that person will buy it.

Although it may initially appear that music format choices are a matter of efficiency, there are factors besides ease of use that are taken into account when a consumer is selecting a format. Having different tastes and preferences does not make a consumer irrational and producing things that consumers want does not make a producer irrational.

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