Zdenek Pelc was an unlikely visionary. The owner of GZ Media, a failing record pressing plant in rural Czechoslovakia in the waning days of the Communist regime, he had no idea that vinyl records, a seemingly obsolete technology in the 1990s, would soon be unexpectedly revived and keep his business from being consigned to the ash heap of manufacturing history. Disruption is usually the death knell for old forms of technology. Just as Edison cylinders were replaced by 78 rpm recordings, and tape machines replaced earlier ways of recording sound waves and high-fidelity LPs were replaced by CDs, vinyl discs were poised for extinction. But progress is not always linear. Yesterday’s technology can sometimes become today’s art. Photography did not replace oil painting. Old forms can coexist with the new.
Pelc was sufficiently intuitive to keep his factory open even when it seemed inevitable that CDs would disrupt the LP (and 33 and one-third singles made for jukeboxes) market with the digital platforms like iTunes, Pandora, Spotify and other streaming media. Accidentally or not, GZ was ready to move forward when vinyl suddenly made its comeback. His company now finds itself a world leader in pressing vinyl.
He maintained enough of the old equipment (even as he added CD-making machines to his operation) to maintain his vinyl manufacturing operations. He kept enough of the vinyl machines around to serve declining demand but held on to enough of it to replace hard-to-get parts whenever they were needed. By 2014, when vinyl was hugely profitable again, GZ Media company produced 14.5 million units and today expects to market about 20 million albums.
When “vinyl rose from the ashes,” as Mr. Pelc put it, GZ Media was there see its market become a global success story. It was fitting that the new Czech Republic would be able to prosper from vinyl’s return. Rock music had inspired the “Velvet Revolution” that helped overthrow Communism in Czechoslovakia almost 30 years ago. Rock music was almost entirely banned in the old Czechoslovakia and GZ had helped supply its black market in rock classics that had influenced a new generation of fans who were active in the pro-democracy movement, including Frank Zappa fan Vaclav Havel, who became the first president of the new Czech Republic.
Despite predictions that CDs and other digital media would replace vinyl records, they are again in demand—and fueling an explosion in turntable and cartridge sales to play them with. Although CDs were sold as a new, improved technology for delivering music, vinyl, after a steep decline in demand, became the preferred choice for a number of serious rock fans. We had been told they were nearly indestructible and would last forever. Some CD enthusiasts even claimed they sounded better. But the conventional wisdom didn’t hold. It was eventually challenged by serious listeners, including prominent musicians like Neil Young and Jack White who found vinyl records, despite pops, scratches and hisses, a warmer, fuller sound than they heard on digital recordings. Jack White's Lazaretto moved 86,700 LPs, the most units sold in a calendar year since in 1991 when Neilson Soundscan began keeping track.
When Neil Young launched a Kickstarter campaign for his PonoMusic, a digital music player and online store, his company's stated mission was to "re-create the vinyl experience in the digital realm. Years later, when Bob Ludwig was hired to provide the final edit (known as mastering) for a greatest-hits package for The Band, he got the album's master tapes back from Capitol Records to work from. The cutting engineer who'd made the original vinyl master said the album's extreme low end had had to be cut out. Vinyl fans considered this a “loss” and newer “lossless” sound files were developed to address the problem. But it wasn’t enough in itself to satisfy the ears of serious musicians like Young and White.
Pono didn’t really catch on. Most fans still preferred vinyl. Even Pono’s engineers admitted “no significant technical advantage over CD-quality.” By 2014, vinyl sales accounted for 6% of all music sales, more sales since 1988. It’s important for musicians who now need to sell more merchandise at shows to replace their loss of revenue from record sales since the streaming media came online. Vinyl records are certainly better for music memorabilia. Because it’s tangible, you can hold in your hands, read the liner notes, and appreciate the artwork and photographs.
Collecting vinyl rather quickly began to create a market for people who still preferred LPs to buying music on iTunes or other digital music platforms. They just didn’t have the same feel and talking to iTunes reps at a call center was not the same sort of experience as a shopping at a local record shop where the person behind the counter often possessed the knowledge of music that added value to any transaction beyond buying a hit record. Hearing and watching the great musicians of the 20th century on YouTube, introduced timeless music to new generations of music fans who learned they could find their music on vinyl. For many, the medium it was recorded on was 100 times more satisfying than firing it up on an iPod or some other portable electronic device. By the early 2000s, new record stores with solid vinyl collections were popping up coast-to-coast.
If the CD isn’t dead already, its days are certainly numbered at record stores. By 2014, Paul Epstein, owner of Denver’s Twist & Shout Records, noticed something: Vinyl records had surpassed CDs in gross sales revenue.
“There’s a romance with [vinyl] now,” Epstein said. “For years, millions of people have swapped convenience for aesthetics and in some crazy cultural way they all woke up and realized they had nothing and their music means nothing and iPods suck and they want to get back to music and caring about it.”
Audiophiles and musicians have been telling us this for years. Ben Ayres of the band Cornershop, who also works for Rough Trade Records, says, “It's warmer and it's truer to the experience of listening to real music, which has never been about crystal clarity but about a combination of sounds vibrating mysteriously at certain frequencies.”
Owning a vinyl record by your favorite band is proof of serious fandom. “It first became really apparent in the early days of the Arctic Monkeys,' says The Vinyl Factory's creative director, Sean Bidder. “So many kids already had their singles on free download that nobody thought for a moment they'd actually sell their records too. But as soon as they came out on physical release they sold by the shedload. The fans didn't just want the music. They wanted something they could touch and own.” Storing music in the Cloud is not nearly as satisfying as having a row of LPs on a shelf near your turntable.
In a time when computer users could access nearly any song they wanted with a mouse click, music stores were supposed to disappear. Vinyl is keeping that from happening. Record stores like the respected and acclaimed Music Millennium, established in 1969 likely owes its survival to the return of vinyl record sales.
When interviewed on CNN, Mark Katz, a music professor at the University of North Carolina, author of “Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music" said he doesn't think CDs and physical music storage will ever vanish altogether. “People like tangible things, and form meaningful relationships with objects they can hold and look at -- more so than strings of ones and zeros. That explains why vinyl sales are up, often among young hipster types who weren't even alive when vinyl was the dominant medium.
According to Mark Mulligan, a music industry analyst with MIDiA Research, “Vinyl is becoming the format of choice for the true music fan. Their view of the CD is Cher’s greatest hits in Wal-Mart, it’s the lowest common denominator for music. On vinyl, it’s sort of this mystical thing from the past.”
When supposedly indestructible CDs came out, the conventional wisdom held that the days of the LP were soon going to be over. Now the exact opposite has begun to happen. The CD is just one of many ways to listen to music. Vinyl is the tortoise that's overtaking the hare.
As David Greenwald said in an article in the Oregonian, “Even Steve Jobs listened to vinyl.” "There used to be this anticipation when you bought a record," he says. "You'd take it back with you on the subway and rip open the packaging, and you couldn't wait to get home and play it. That magic of anticipation has gone with downloading. You used all five sense to enjoy the experience of listening to music. The LP covers, the sequencing of the songs, the liner notes.”
Zdenek Pelc of GZ Media had the foresight to somehow know that he should hold on to the low-tech means of capturing music and kept his vinyl record pressing factory alive even during the lean times. When the music industry eventually saw that vinyl was an important part of its financial future, it changed the equation. Fans, audiophiles, and musicians made the difference.