Beyond the Needle: History of Vinyl Records
History Buffs and Music Aficionados gather around, for today we are marrying the two subjects in harmony—the history of the vinyl record.
Record players are not just vintage CD players that older people and hipsters have in their living rooms. No, record players were the first iPod; they were the first Walkman; they were the first device that allowed music fans to sit at home and listen to the music of their choice. Before that, people were just playing the radio. Imagine that for a moment: before vinyl records and record players, you couldn’t listen to what YOU wanted to listen to. What a world, huh?
To gain some humility of this fact, we’re doing a deep dive into the history of vinyl records.
What is Vinyl?
Calling records “vinyl” is much like calling a fence “wood” or a surfboard “fiberglass.” Vinyl is the material the record is made of. And before vinyl was shellac and before shellac were gigantic cylinders made of zinc and glass. But that was way back in ’87… 18-87.
Reeling back to “what is vinyl,” vinyl is a synthetic plastic called polyvinyl chloride. It is made from ethylene (crude oil) and chlorine, and its creation was part of the plastics boom in the early 1900s. Material scientists were constantly innovating with these synthetic polymers that seemed to outperform wood, stone, leather, ceramic, metal, and glass in various respects.
- Fun Fact: Depending on the creation process, polyvinyl chloride (or PVC) can be turned into PVC piping or vinyl records. That doesn’t mean you should start replacing your piping with your old vinyl collection…
Though invented decades prior, vinyl records weren’t popularized until Peter Goldmark came around in 1948…
Sayonara Shellac and Viva Vinyl
In 1948, backed by Columbia Records, the first vinyl record was introduced at the soon-to-be standardized 33 1/3 rpm speed. It used microgroove plastic to extend a 12-inch record’s playtime to 21 minutes on each side. Forty-two minutes of (almost) uninterrupted music!? Is your head exploding yet?
Probably not. To understand why this is mind-blowing, you’ll need to glimpse into the world one year prior…
It’s 1947. World War II ended just two years ago, and people are still enjoying their music at home one 5-minute song at a time on their 78 rpm shellac records. To go from a record holding two songs, one on each side, to holding a full-length album? That’s why vinyl records hold such prominence in the music industry. They changed the way music lovers would enjoy listening to their music forever.
- Fun Fact: Shellac is made from the female lac bug. These tree-dwelling bugs secrete “lac” which hardens and cakes onto the tree. This resin-like substance is scraped off and dissolved in bulk quantities to be reshaped into the disk record. Its natural resistance to moisture is what made it first popular among music records and was known as the “natural plastic.” While easily scratchable, it did have one downside. One drop and the record would smash into a hundred pieces. Fragile, to say the least.
The War of Speeds: Shifting From 78 RPM to 33 1/3 RPM
The announcement of a new vinyl record to be played at a new speed cannot be understated. It created a war within the music industry—the War of Speeds. If you’ve heard anything about vinyl record history, or if you own a record player, you probably know about the three standard speed settings: 78, 45, 33 1/3.
- 78 rpm – This was the classic speed. It was generated based on the modern engine of the time. Large 3600 rpm engines would operate with 46-teeth gears. As the shellac records were mass-produced, these engines would run at a speed of 3600 divided by 46, or roughly 78.2 rpm. Thus, this was the speed it needed to be played to hear the audio appropriately.
- Once 33 rpm records popularized, only older classical music still made it onto 78 rpm records
- This lasted about 11 years—up until the last 78 rpm record was produced (in the US)
- 45 rpm – Less than a year after the 33 rpm record was announced, the 45 rpm 7-inch record was released by RCA Victor—Columbia Record’s primary competitor. The two record speeds quickly overtook the market. 33 rpm records became known as LPs (or long plays), and 45 rpm took over the EP market (or extended play)—which was generally when a band would put out a single or dual track.
- 45 rpm singles, though only fitting 4-5 minutes per side, were popular amongst younger teens and adults
- They could be traded and collected easier than LPs
- Short play 45s, because they were smaller and portable, inspired the creation of portable music players
- 33 1/3 rpm – Most records that you see today are 33 1/3 rpm LPs. While 45s and 33s held stakes over different areas of the music industry, 33s were the true successor of the form. Still collected, bought and sold today, LPs are regarded as a window into the past. A reflection of a different time. And its sound quality, though imperfect, is preferred by many, even today.
Record players still come with an rpm setting with three switches—33, 45, and 78—although hardly anybody has 78 records anymore. Because 78s were mainly shellac records, most of them are either broken or in high-security protective cases.
1979: The Beginning of the End For Vinyl Records
Devised by Masaru Ibuka, the co-founder of Sony, in 1979 another device hit the music industry with implications equal to that of the first record player: the Sony Walkman. If you are over the age of 35, the hair on the back of your neck probably just stood up.
The Walkman changed everything.
Using magnetic cassette technology (cassette tapes), you could grab a music tape, some batteries, and listen to your music anywhere: on the bus, at school, at the beach. No more rushing home from school to crank up your turntable; with the Walkman, you could take to the streets with your favorite tunes blasting in your eardrums.
Within five years of the Walkman’s release, cassette tapes were outselling records, and it would only be a few more years after that until vinyl record sales would plummet to an unsustainable low point.
The End of Vinyl Records (…or is it?)
Once the Walkman was invented, it felt like all bets were off.
- Portable CD players – In the 80s, portable CD players became the “next Walkman.” CDs were a more dynamic, compact disc. Not only could they hold more music, but you could create your own mixtapes without recording it by holding a microphone up to a speaker.
- iPod – Then in 2001, Apple launched the iPod, and all other music listening devices would be lost to the tendrils of history. Once you offer a consumer the power to play their own music, in any order, create custom playlists on the fly, there was no going back.
- Streaming services – Of course, the rest is history. With Napster, then came iTunes and streaming services that allowed consumers to listen to any song at any time. Suddenly, going out and buying music became a “retro” activity.
With these inventions, how could a vinyl record keep up? How could something that has a “lesser” sound quality, is stationary, and has to be flipped halfway through compete? It was the end of vinyl records.
Or was it?
2008: The Vinyl Comeback
As music fans embraced the future of free digital music, there was a small minority who were pushing back. In 2008, for the first time since 1984, the sales of LPs rose. And it wasn’t a minor fluctuation; vinyl sales increased by 89%.
Since then, sales have steadily risen over the years, with an estimated 9.7 million vinyl record sales in 2018 alone.
Reasons for Resurgence
It’s hard to say what accounts for this meteoric resurgence of vinyl records. Some claim that vinyl records sound better and many value their personal record collection. But in an age where digital sounds are perfected down to the very waveform, could this really be true?
This audiophile suspects it’s in the process of perfection that the flaw is seen.
If you’ll allow some musings of the inner soul—humans are imperfect. And in our imperfection, vinyl stands as a testament to the beauty that comes from an “imperfect sound.” Digital music is wonderful and has spurred new genres and methods of music creation. Nothing can take away from that. But perhaps the two can live in harmony—much in the same way 33s and 45s held different areas of the market throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, digital and vinyl have their respective places in music lovers’ ears.
Wrapping Up Today’s History Lesson
From the gramophone to the jukebox, to the iPhone, technology has shaped the way people listen to and enjoy music. Perhaps the most interesting and profound of inventions was the creation of the LP vinyl record. Between having no say in what you listen to on the stereo now, when we have full control of our music experience, vinyl records stand as a link, a marker of human progress.
Hopefully, this vinyl record history expanded your appreciation of vinyl records and the vital role they played. So bust out that LP player and start listening to those classics the way they were first produced!
What is Vinyl. http://www.whatisvinyl.com/
American History Now. The History of Vinyl. http://americanhistorynow.org/2014/01/27/the-history-of-vinyl/
New World Encyclopedia. Shellac. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Shellac
LA Times. In a digital age, vinyl’s making a comeback. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2009-apr-26-et-vinyl26-story.html
Forbes. Vinyl Sales Continued To Grow In 2018, Report Says. https://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewleimkuehler/2019/01/07/vinyl-sales-grow-2018-buzzangle-beatles-kendrick-lamar-queen-album-sales/#15d27319775a