Vinyl is more than simply a material used to make disc records; the term is shorthand for a culture, a lifestyle, a set of attitudes about music technology, even an object of obsession and addiction. Vinyl, specifically polyvinyl chloride (PVC), became the standard material in the manufacture of records with the introduction of 33 1/3 and 45 RPM discs in 1948, replacing the shellac 78 RPM records that had been in use since the 1890s. The vinyl record remained standard until the 1980s and early 1990s, when it was largely replaced by the compact disc (CD).
Although relegated to the margins, vinyl continues to hold a special place for a certain segment of listeners and performers in the twenty-first century. Listeners value vinyl records both for their sound and as objects to be collected. Many audiophiles claim that the “warm” analog sound of a pristine record played on a fine turntable is superior to the “cold” digital perfection of any compact disc. The appeal of records, however, is perhaps more a function of their materiality than their actual sound. With the invention of the record came the advent of record collecting, and soon after came the obsessive collector who seeks rare or unusual records with extreme devotion. In the 1920s the “disease” known as “gramomania” (derived from “gramophone,” the British term for phonograph) was facetiously identified, and “vinyl addicts” continued to figure in the popular imagination throughout the century (e.g., in Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel High Fidelity and its eponymous film adaptation in 2000). Although such “addicts” represent a small fraction of those who collect records, their example reveals that there is more to vinyl than simply music. Record collecting is about the thrill of the hunt, the accumulation of expertise, the display of wealth, the visual and tactile sensation of artifacts, and the creation and cataloging of memories.
A certain type of musician—the disc jockey (DJ)— also values vinyl, not simply as a means for reproducing existing sounds, but for creating new music. DJs are often thought to do little more than play records, but the ways in which many hip-hop and electronic dance music (EDM) DJs in particular manipulate records elevate them to the status of musicians. DJs may combine the sounds of multiple records, alternate between discs in complex counterpoint, or “scratch” them (move them back and forth underneath the stylus), all of which can create new sounds not contained on any single one of the manipulated discs. EDM DJs often combine dozens of individual songs into a seamless musical flow that may last several hours, while hip-hop DJs (also known as turntablists), may take a single passage from a record and manipulate it into an extended composition.
The standard equipment for most DJs has been two turntables and a mixer (a machine that regulates the signal being sent from the two machines to the speakers). In the 1990s, however, various companies began developing and refining CD turntables. The advantages of these players are clear. It is a much simpler matter to find, repeat, and shape particular recorded passages than with traditional turntables, and one need not worry about replacing cartridges or wearing out records. (With digital turntables, the DJ manipulates a simulated record platter, whose movements—even scratching—are converted into signals that transform the sound of the CD.) Moreover, with inexpensive CD burners, DJs can easily compile their own individualized records from other CDs or from digital files, such as MP3s.
Despite these advantages many DJs have resisted the incursion of CD turntables. This resistance is strongest among hip-hop DJs, and can be explained with a single word: vinyl. Because vinyl was present at, and largely responsible for, the birth of hip-hop (which developed around the art of the DJ), it is considered a precious substance, one that carries with it the whole history, the DNA, of hip-hop. Moreover, with traditional turntables, the DJ handles the sound directly, essentially touching the music; CD players remove the immediacy and tactility of vinyl. Nevertheless, as CD turntables continued to improve in the early 2000s, DJs increasingly began turning to digital machines. Some have argued that DJing transcends vinyl and must evolve with changing technologies.
In the early years of the new millennium, vinyl finds itself both cherished and embattled. It continues to be collected and manipulated, and coexists, sometimes uneasily, with digital technologies. Although it plays an important role in the lives of many listeners and performers, its place in the musical life of the future is uncertain.
Katz, Mark. 2004. The Turntable as Weapon: Understanding the DJ Battle. In Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Milano, Brent. 2003. Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Schloss, Joseph G. 2004. Materials and Inspiration: Digging in the Crates. In Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based HipHop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Straw, Will. 1997. Sizing Up Record Collections: Gender and Connoisseurship in Rock Music Culture. In Sexing the Groove, ed. Sheila Whiteley, 3–16. London: Routledge.