Audiophiles have long argued that vinyl records offer better sound quality compared to CDs or MP3s, but their stoic loyalty in the face of change was seen as little more than nostalgia over the 25 years digital recordings has dominated the music industry. In recent years, however, sales of LPs -- that's short for long-playing records -- have more than doubled online and are regaining overall market share, thanks to new converts looking for more than they can find in an MP3 selling for 99 cents online.
In 2008, 1.88 million vinyl albums were purchased, more than in any other year in the history of Nielsen SoundScan , which began tracking LP sales in 1991. The previous record was in 2000, when 1.5 million LP albums were sold. More than two out of every three vinyl albums bought in 2008 were purchased at an independent music store, according to SoundScan.
Vinyl record sales rose 14 percent between 2006 and 2007, from 858,000 to 990,000. In contrast, CD sales plummeted over the past three years, from 553.4 million in 2006 to 360.6 million in 2008. MP3 sales grew from 32.6 million to 65.8 million during the same time period, according to SoundScan.
Industry observers say vinyl record sales have skyrocketed because new buyers are discovering the value of owning albums, with their cover art, large liner notes and warm sound.
"There's nothing like a vinyl record. It's analog. It sounds as close as you're going to get to the artist. If you're that guy who sits in that optimum space in your living room, you're definitely going to hear the difference," said Steven Sheldon, president of Los Angeles-based Rainbo Records .
"Now, with that said, 99 percent of the public listens to music as a background off of iPods and everything else, but that's by far the worst sound quality. But, it's also the most convenient -- and convenience sells," he said.
Rainbo Records, which has been pressing vinyl LPs since 1955, doubled its production from 2006 to 2007 and more than doubled record output this past year. The company currently presses 25,000 albums a day; that's up from a low of about 6,000 to 8,000 a day in the late 1980s through the late 1990s when CDs were in their heyday. Since then, there's been a steady increase in vinyl production. Surprisingly, Sheldon doesn't attribute that rise to Gen Xers or even Baby Boomers, but to 13- to 24-year-olds rediscovering the aesthetic value of record collections.
"They were brought up on virtual everything. Their games were on the computer or on the TV. Their music was in a box," he said. "I think they also do recognize the difference in sound, but I think holding that 12-by-12 piece of art and holding that record in their hand is creating the buzz."
While you might think Sheldon has an ax to grind against modern forms of music recording, he doesn't. His company also produces CDs -- to the tune of 75,000 a day.
Over the past 30 years, the number of companies manufacturing LPs has dwindled, Sheldon said. But production remained relatively steady for those companies that remained in business, kept afloat by the aficionados who swear by vinyl's sound quality.