The Resurgence of The Vinyl Age: A Love Letter to Turntables and Record Stores

Illustration by Anaika Mehta ’27

Vinyl was the primary medium for consuming music in popular culture from the 1950s to the 1980s. Every night, families would gather around their stereos, lay down a beautiful 33, and listen to the delightful sounds captured on a physical print. 

There is something more impressive about music that comes from vinyl. It hits you in a different spot, a different vibration of the ear drums. It was the communal aspect of music that made it powerful.

But then, vinyl died.

The 1990s brought on the compact disk (CD), and with it came the extinction of vinyl. What was the point of having an expensive, inefficient way to listen to music rather than an inexpensive, efficient one? CDs would be the new method for people to listen to transportable music; each disc could be put into a player that you can carry with you, unlike a record player that remains stuck on your bedroom table. 

I understand this connection to transportable music entirely. I find that listening to music during commutes, walks, or runs; anything on the move makes me more engaged with the music as a whole.

The people chose the CD. Vinyl sales in 2005 reached their depths, and less than a million were sold. Another contribution to the crisis was the rise in streamed music. Even less analog than the CD would be the rise of digitization, music that could be purchased online with the growing popularity of the internet. Streamers such as Napster and iTunes, who sought to capitalize on the booming internet market, effectively decimated both the CD and vinyl markets. 

Miraculously, in the 2010s, vinyl came back. A disconnect felt throughout the 1990s and 2000s revived the return to tactile music. The intangibility of the trend added to its mystique. A modern surge in record sales has bolstered an industry of chic stores seeking to engage young listeners in the world of vinyl without all of the… dust. 

One of my favorite go-to record haunts is Rough Trade in Midtown. Their business model serves the supremacy of new and old records, combined with a large online presence. Additionally, they have many in-person events with popular artists; I have met acclaimed musicians like Daniel Caesar and Kenny Beats through Rough-Trade-organized events. 

More tasteful vintage stores are equally on the receiving end of the vinyl boom. However, the future of vinyl remains undecided. All things considered, streaming is still king. As a digitally oriented society, how will we still manage vinyl as an art? Will it go extinct forever, or will it remain an unwavering method of listening to music?

I recently spoke to Mike (who did not divulge his last name), the manager at Academy Records’ second location at 12th Street and 1st Avenue. The original record store opened on 18th Street back in 1977, but they expanded locations to the new one near Stuy-Town in 2001.

The store seemed mostly unaffected by the “trendy” modern revival of vinyl.  

“This store predates the current vinyl resurgence,” Mike said. “You do always have to adapt to changing conditions, but we were already established before then to ride whatever came in the future.”

Additionally, hypothesizing on a decreasing market, Mike has a simple solution: “If the market were to contract, we would have to increase the number of revenue streams … we do overwhelmingly in-store sales, but we do sell online.” 

Post-pandemic, Academy Records shifted back to in-person events, with the “Academy Records and Friends” vinyl fair occurring a couple of weeks prior. It was quite successful, and the store hopes to repeat the event multiple times throughout the spring.

My personal vinyl setup. Image courtesy of Mason Zelenko

In comparison to Rough Trade, Academy Records varies wildly. “We’re pretty different, other than records…they are almost entirely new records, we are mostly used records,” says Mike. 

The fact of the matter is that the used record has a stigma that stores like Rough Trade simply do not want to take on. People like the cleanliness of the new record and are repulsed by the almost tainted quality of used records. I think both new and old have their pros and cons: with a new record, there is little chance for breakage, and it has that pristine look and feel. But there aren’t many new remasterings of classic albums that were also made for the medium itself. Audiophiles can argue all day long about the subject. 

As for the clientele base, Mike reflects on some similarities:  “It is also a different market, with different customers, but there is overlap.”

 It seems that young enthusiasts who would like Rough Trade also like the more authentic feel at Academy Records. I fall into this crowd, and I most definitely will be visiting Academy Records again. Classic vinyl lines the walls, and avid crate diggers rapidly flip through the wax in search of that perfect cut. They keep on, steadfast, and will continue to come here until the mortar falls off the brick.

Sometimes, cultural zeitgeists are so intangible that they refuse to change and grow unless prompted by some unguided force. Maybe that force was our souls. Maybe it was realizing that there is no record store for streaming, and there is no groove and needle infused into computer code. 

How do you give someone a feeling? I don’t know. But I can give them my copy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, or Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Any record, honestly. That would measure out to something.

Mason Zelenko is an arts writer and “Gracecast” podcaster for The Grace Gazette.