If there is one thing that has always been true in music, it is that formats change. From the publishing of sheet music so that popular songs could be played at home, to the earliest phonograph and music boxes, the 19th century saw the rise of the seven-inch record. This soon evolved into the more robust twelve-inch vinyl records, which came to dominate the world of audio recordings.

But time moved on again with cassettes, compact discs, and eventually digital files and streaming. For a long time, it truly felt like vinyl was a relic from the past — something from your parents’ music collection. But in recent years, vinyl has made a remarkable comeback, with sales rising dramatically and a renewed interest in both new and old vinyl records.

In this article, we will take a look at how vinyl evolved from something of a special interest format by the early 2000s to regain its mainstream appeal. We’ll also take a look at its enduring popularity and what it might mean for the future of record sales.

A resurgence

In the mid-2000s, vinyl records had well and truly had their day. Having been the dominant music format for half a century, sales of vinyl records were finally surpassed by CDs in 1988. And while vinyl retained interest from those loyal to the format, in 2007 it reached its lowest ebb with vinyl sales in the US only just creeping over 1 million.

By 2020, however, that number had risen again dramatically, with over 27.5 million recorded sales in America. And the trend is in an upward direction.

What makes vinyl popular?

So, what is the secret of vinyl’s enduring popularity? Well, it is worth understanding what made the format so successful in the first place. Sound quality has always been a big part of the argument — music aficionados have long vaunted the perceived audio quality difference of vinyl versus more modern formats.

And they are probably not wrong either. Modern digital audio generally uses compressed files — especially when streaming, as files need to load as quickly as possible and use up as little bandwidth as possible. However, musical quality is not the only thing drawing fans in. Robert Palmer from Roan Records says:

‘There is definitely something to be said for the tangibility of vinyl.’

Palmer is a vinyl enthusiast and owner of Roan Records, a record store in Teddington in southwest London. He adds:

‘Anyone can stream music any time they want, but for those looking for a deeper connection to music, you can’t match a physical record you can hold in your hands and go through the ritual of putting it on and listening.

A format for older people?

As we’ve already mentioned, vinyl once held a reputation as a dinosaur format. Your parents might have a dusty old vinyl player they break out once every so often. So, you might be forgiven for assuming that it is the older generation driving the interest in vinyl — but you would be mistaken.

In fact, it is the interest of younger people that has helped rejuvenate vinyl sales. Even though many younger people don’t actually have the facility to play vinyl records, they are still buying them. This shows that at least part of the attraction is not related to the musical quality of the product they are buying.

For some, vinyl records represent a physical object that they want to own. Artists often bring out ‘deluxe’ editions of vinyl records in unique colourways in small runs. This makes them highly sought-after items of memorabilia.

Another factor is younger consumers wanting to support the artists that they listen to on a regular basis and understanding that streaming their music isn’t a particularly legitimate way of doing this.

No matter what has caused the resurgence in vinyl sales, it looks like this is more than a trend. Vinyl sales continue to rise to the extent that some artists and labels are struggling to get the records printed quickly enough to match demand.