The significant period for vinyl records was from the inception of the vinyl LP in 1948, to 1988, when CDs outsold records for the first time. However, it was long before vinyl became vinyl that it was on the way to becoming the world’s leading music format.
The rise, fall, and resurgence of vinyl is a period spanning almost a century. For audiophiles everywhere, it remains the singular most impressive format for recording and reproducing music.
Where it began
Vinyl records conception takes us to the creation of the phonautograph by Édouard-Léon Scott in 1857. While Scott’s invention recorded sound in the form of visual wavelengths and frequencies, there is no evidence to suggest he used the information to reproduce the sound.
Edison initially used tinfoil over a grooved metal cylinder. A sound-vibrated stylus left indents in the tinfoil when the cylinder rotated, which played back immediately. Later Edison would use a hollowed wax cylinder instead of tinfoil.
The term 'gramophone’ was coined by Emile Berliner, whose system played lateral-cut disc records. In 1889 Berliner’s discs were first marketed in Europe. Due to poor sound quality, the discs which were around 5” in diameter were played primarily as toys or for curiosity.
With plans to gain traction in the market with an entertainment system, Berliner created better quality gramophones, along with 7” records. However, compared to Edison’s wax cylinders, Berliner’s gramophones were still of considerably more inferior quality.
It was only when Berliner invested in the help of associate Eldridge R. Johnson that the Victor Talking Machine Company formed, bringing with it the improved sound quality of gramophones, allowing them along with lateral discs to go on to dominate the market.
In the 1910s, discs were triumphant in taking over from their wax cylinder counterpart, although Edison continued to create the cylinders until 1929.
The early recordings were done entirely acoustically by collecting sound through a horn. Which piped to a diaphragm, and which vibrated the cutting stylus. The acoustic recording technique proved difficult for musicians, with singers needing to nearly put their face in the recording horn to be audible.
More robust sounding instruments were often used in place of those did not easily heard on records.
In 1925 recording technology was advanced by Western Electric, whose engineers established the capturing of sound with a microphone and began using vacuum tubes as an amplifier.
Materials and size
Initially, the discs composed of zinc, which would cover in a thin layer of a compound of beeswax. This was etched by a vibrating stylus, marking a groove on the disc. The disc was submerged in chromic acid, allowing the previously imprinted track to be played.
Later the discs were created from a shellac compound, which continued to used until the 78 rpm format was abandoned in the 1950s.
As discs took over, different sizes were created to adapt to longer playing times. In 1901 the 10” disc was introduced, which allowed three to four minutes of playing time, compared to the cylinder’s two minutes. In 1903 the 12” disc was introduced.
During the Second World War, US Armed Forces produced large amounts of 12” 78 rpm ‘V-Discs’ for troops overseas. These were mainly made of vinyl, as a more durable and flexible equivalent to shellac.
After the war, vinyl records continued to be used as a more lightweight solution suited to the newer record players.
Cassettes and CDs
Throughout the 20th century, vinyl was the go-to source for music reproduction, dominating the market for an entire century.
Only when Phillip’s Cassette was released in 1962, did vinyl have its first whiff of a real competitor. The digital equivalent was a portable contender that could rewind, fast forward, play, pause and stop with the touch of a button.
With typically 30 to 45 minutes of audio on each side. The cassette tape was a more functional equivalent to what was, in comparison, a bulky and frail music format.
1974 offered a glimpse into a ‘Tomorrow’s World’ style future. Where physical records would succumb to technology, as Phillips began developing Compact Discs. The year marked a milestone in music reproduction, representing what would become the beginning of digital downloads.
In 1988 CD sales outnumbered vinyl for the first time. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, CD sales doubled vinyl, selling 150 million copies compared to vinyl’s 72 million.
From 1988 to 1991, there was a distinct decline in vinyl sales.
After decades of music seemingly disappearing into a computer hard drive, January 2017 reported the highest number of vinyl sold since 1991. In 2016 vinyl had reached a 25-year high, with more than 3.2m LPs sold.
In 2014 vinyl was the only physical format of music that had increasing sales from its previous year. UK sales had increased five-fold between 2009 and 2014.
2016 saw the deaths of iconic musicians including David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and George Michael. After David Bowie’s death, he became the bestselling vinyl artist of 2016.
Record Store Day
The annual Record Store Day event began in 2007 to “celebrate the culture of independently owned record store.”
The event has its headquarters in the US. But officially across several countries, including the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, and Australia.
Record Store Day has had a significant impact on the culture of records, encouraging those who grew up with vinyl and those who are new to it to support both independent record stores and vinyl as a music medium.