What We Can Learn From the Rebirth of Vinyl

Browsing at a store in a suburban New England shopping mall last week, I noticed something unexpected. Vinyl records were available for purchase. And not vintage albums, the type of which you’d find in a dusty bin at a book sale, but new albums by popular indie bands. One can also shop online and choose between buying some new releases either as MP3s, compact discs, or albums.   The reemergence of vinyl is not just about how we listen to music. It tells us a lot about how economic change occurs, how societies react to it, and what the government’s proper role should be in both encouraging and responding to it.

The record album thrived for decades, surviving the 8-Track and competing with the cassette tape.  It wasn’t until the appearance of the compact disc, smaller and, some would say, with a better sound, that vinyl had seemingly met its match. Soon, music stores would be filled with rows and rows of compact discs, rather than with records. Because they were smaller in size, stores were able to maintain a larger inventory of compact discs than they were able to with records.

Then something happened to remove the compact disc from its place of supremacy in the music world. Specifically, the Internet happened. The music sections of bookstores began to slowly fade away and music megastores shut their doors for good. Such was the age of the MP3 file and of iTunes.

Throughout this process of both economic and technological change, people adapted. Many of us old enough to have lived through this era of dynamic change even went so far to occasionally repurchase the same recordings in different formats. We also adapted to how, and where, we bought our music. Just as the compact disc and the electronic file replaced the vinyl album, online shopping and instantaneous downloading replaced the neighborhood record store or the local chain outlet.

The economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote of the concept of creative destruction, the notion that capitalism fosters innovation that makes old business models obsolete, leaving economic losers in its wake. Although he was talking about the economy as a whole, this concept certainly applies to all those who lost their jobs at music stores in the era of online music. The government could have made it a policy to subsidize the production of vinyl records to keep manufacturers afloat and record store clerks employed. Thankfully, however, it didn’t. This allowed for vast, robust technological change, with some huge winners in the online music marketplace.

So, after all this, what explains the sudden return to vinyl? Perhaps records seem more “real” than files downloaded from the Internet. After all, you can hold, touch, and smell a record. The new fondness for vinyl may be due to nostalgia for days gone by. Whatever the case may be, consumers have increasing choices in which form they can purchase music. This is a direct, positive result of capitalism and a society that values innovation. That said, technological change has moved extremely fast of late. It is not unreasonable to think that maybe we’ve lost something in the process.