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Vinyl holds out in digital world

By Kevin Voigt
For CNN
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(CNN) -- Digital downloads are taking a toothy bite out of compact disc sales and the music industry's bottom line. Compact disc sales have been in a freefall since 2000, dropping 20 percent in the U.S. alone last year.

The dive in CD popularity may be a predictable result of next generation technology -- after all, when was the last time you bought a live concert on video cassette, or cracked open a new 8-track tape of your favorite band?

Yet the grand-daddy technology of the entire music industry -- the vinyl record -- refuses to go to its grave.

In some markets, vinyl sales are staging a surprising comeback. The sale of 7-inch singles in the United Kingdom rose from about 180,000 in 2001 to more than 1 million in 2005, according to the British Phonographic Industry. Music retailer HMV predicts that sales will reach 1.5 million annually, figures that haven't been seen since 1979.

New products are hitting stores that allow vinyl aficionados to record their old albums direct to digital through home computers. The Ion USB turntable, retailing for $199, allows PC and Mac users to plug, play and record records through USB ports. Audio-Technica has released the LP2Da turntable for about the same price that hooks into an analog line input jack for PC users.

Teac has released the GF-350, an all-in-on LP-to-CD converting machine that retails for $400.

The resurging interest in vinyl has been led by musicians and, surprisingly, their teenage fans.

Popular bands such as the Arctic Monkeys, Keane and Primal Scream are releasing singles in the UK on vinyl. Two-thirds of the singles sold by the 2006 winners of the Mercury Music Prize -- an annual award for the best British and Irish albums -- were vinyl sales. Last year, the White Stripes single "The Denial Twist" entered the UK top 10 on the strength of vinyl sales alone.

Why are so many bands turning back to vinyl? In part, it's good marketing -- vinyl has never lost it's popularity with club deejays due to it's adaptability; deejays can manually change speed or drop in portions of a song while creating a live mix for the dance floor. Deejay devotion has not only preserved vinyl's niche in music sales, but, for bands, can open new doors to fans if a popular deejay works their new single into the mix.

But it also rekindles an old debate: Which sounds better, analog recordings on vinyl or digital recordings?

Vinyl records hit the market in 1949. The new technology, born from advances in petrochemical development, created better sound quality and could store a full hour of music, rather than just the few songs 78-speed shellac records could hold. Vinyl reigned supreme until the advent of the compact disc in the 1980s, which combined the portability of cassette tapes and much better durability than its scratch-and-warp prone predecessor.

From the start, many musicians rebelled against the digital revolution. Neil Young, one of the most vocal opponents of digital music, likened digital sound to "staring at a landscape through a screen window" in an interview with Guitar Player magazine. It's an apt metaphor -- indeed, the digital process mimics natural sound by taking minute "snapshots" of the music, mapping the points on a grid and then digitally connecting the dots to recreate the sound waves.

Despite the debate, musicians concede vinyl will never regain its throne (Even Neil Young released his latest album, "Living with War," on a digital stream from his Web site). And in many ways, with the digital revolution, the music recording industry has come full circle: the advent of vinyl allowed long-playing performances of classical music works and full-blown concept albums such as "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" by the Beatles or Pink Floyd's "The Wall."

But now, with iTunes and other download providers, consumers are turning away from buying entire albums and are instead purchasing a few favorite songs -- much like the 78-speed records that started it all.


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The grand-daddy technology of the music industry -- the vinyl record -- refuses to go to its grave.

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