Cult item for collectors and music lovers alike, the good old 33 1/3 RPM LP has been making a comeback over the last few years: a return to favour for the vinyl record, an object whose design has changed very little since it was launched in the 1940s.
For over 40 years, it was the only way to play sound recordings and it never really went away.
History of the vinyl record
Sometimes known as liquorice pizza, the current microgroove records were first invented in 1947 but it was Columbia Records that publicly unveiled the 33 1/3 RPM vinyl record in New York in 1948.
As the name suggests it is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). A spiral-shaped groove is engraved on each side and the sound is recorded in the lateral modulation of each of the two walls of the groove.
The playback principle remains the same: the record revolves at a constant speed on a motorised plate, and a diamond (or needle) connected to an electromagnetic head maintained by an arm on a pivot runs along the groove. The head receives the sound in the form of electrical impulses and converts it for the listener.
In December 1982, Japanese company Sony unveiled the first model of its laser Compact Disc player: a laser beam scans a mini-disc of 12cm in diameter comprised of millions of tiny holes that are invisible to the naked eye, and which restore the music in a binary manner (1 or 0) much more effectively than microgroove records. No more pops and crackles, gone are wear and tear on the vinyl, scratches, etc. It ushered in new ways of listening to music: skip to another track without having to lift the tone arm, listen to the same song over and over thanks to the "repeat" button, change the order of the songs, and more.
In the 90s, the CD became the dominant format and most major labels such as Columbia, RCA, MCA, and others decided to stop manufacturing vinyl records. However, despite being forced into retirement, the vinyl record resisted and remained the favourite media of clubbers, DJs, and musical genres such as hip-hop, techno and house.
The vinyl album: a surprising comeback
Its resurrection would arrive with the emergence of the MP3 format, and the democratisation of the use of the Internet, in the early 2000s. As MP3s gained in popularity, making CDs has-beens by attacking their quasi-monopoly (digital), vinyl appeared as an alternative to digital, as well as an arty collector's item with its large format sleeve and its very specific and retro uses.
The figures speak for themselves: although the market has become a niche market, in 2016, sales of vinyl LP in the United Kingdom increased by 53% over 2015, a historic record since its programmed end, amounting to 3.2 million units sold.