When CDs made vinyl obsolete ... and how it came back
The CD meant LPs were breathing their 'last gasp' in the 1980s, but now vinyl sales are on the rebound
Anyone looking to buy a new vinyl album this month may have luck finding Adele's new release 30. Any other artist's new vinyl output could be harder to find.
According to Variety magazine, more than 500,000 vinyl copies of the British singer's album have been manufactured "in the months leading up to the album's Nov. 19 release."
And in 2021, "manufacturing shortages and overbooked pressing plants that have essentially turned almost every new LP release into a limited edition," added the entertainment trade publication.
That's a turnaround from more than 30 years ago, when LPs were breathing their "last gasp," in the words of one CBC reporter. The reason for their demise was a new format in music: the CD.
New format, new machines to buy
In early 1986, the CD player had been on the market for just two years, as the CBC business program Venture told viewers in January that year. Reporter Linda Sims said that already, some 30 companies were manufacturing 50 models of the machine.
Those manufacturers had learned something from the consumer adoption of video players. Videocassette recorders had become popular earlier in the '80s.
"After the VCR battles of Beta versus VHS, electronics manufacturers got wise," Sims explained. "Compact disc players are all one format."
As she visited a retailer, Sims said the uniform format was one factor for the CD player's popularity. Another was its performance.
The CD's small size was an asset, too.
"The compact disc has gone into ... an ultra-portable, almost Walkman-sized product," said Keith Harfield of Vancouver's A&B Sound, demonstrating a handheld unit. "That's how big it is."
Trying CDs before buying
Almost two years later, in November 1987, CDs had proven so popular that a Toronto bar with a difference opened to cater to the needs of would-be CD buyers.
"Inside, people are having fun listening to their favourite music," said CBC Toronto reporter Stu Paterson, as the camera showed a row of people wearing headphones. "These people are auditioning compact discs they're thinking of buying."
At $20 for a CD — about $41 in 2021, according to the Bank of Canada's inflation calculator — listening before committing to a purchase made sense.
"Here, we have private listening," said the owner of the CD Bar, which was said to boast 1,700 titles. "You choose to listen to jazz, someone else chooses classical. You're standing next to each other and both smiling."
Paterson liked what he heard, noting his listening choice of "oldies", i.e. Motown music, sounded "better on CD."
'Last gasp' for vinyl
In October 1988, reporter Kathy Kastner met Ross Drake, a music aficionado who she said had invested "thousands" of dollars in CDs and the system to play them.
"As for his records? They just gather dust," said Kastner.
"The record ... wears very quickly. You'll get a lot of pops and hisses and it sounds like Rice Krispies after a few playings," said Drake.
He said vinyl records also didn't impart the "wonderful lows" and "terrific highs," like the sounds of cymbals, that CDs did.
Kastner also noted that the price of a CD had come down to about $17 ($34 in 2021), while records were up to "$10 or $11." By then, a local Toronto store, Record World, was selling records and CDs in about equal numbers.
A customer in the store said CDs were "worth the money" and said it was a plus not to have to turn over a record.
Kastner recapped the formats that had preceded CDs: 78s in the 1920s, then 33 RPM LPs, cassettes, "and now the CD."
"While cassettes are holding their own, it's just a matter of time before the vinyl record breathes its last gasp," she concluded.
By 1990, a Calgary music store was down to a single box of records for sale. That year's New Kids on the Block album Step By Step was seen in the box of about 40 or 50 LPs.
"Last chance! LP blowout" said a handmade sign on the box at the Sam the Record Man store inside a mall.
The store's paltry record supply didn't bode well for CBC Calgary reporter John Spittal, who was looking to replace a beloved record — from among a collection he said he'd been building for 20 years — because it skipped.
"Less than five per cent of sales at this store are records," noted the reporter.
"We do still get some adamant purists who want the vinyl," said a shop clerk who identified himself as Conan. "They get angry when they see this."
But a dealer at the city's Recordland, which had an extensive supply of used LPs, said he was starting to see cases of records going up in price, "because they're getting harder and harder to find."
What goes around comes around
Less than two decades later, in early 2009, CBC News: Sunday found vinyl records were very much in play again.
"The music industry is suffering, but vinyl sales are soaring," said host Carole MacNeil.
Overall music sales were continuing to plummet, said reporter Deana Sumanac. CDs were increasingly "losing the battle" to digital downloads.
But she said vinyl had undergone a "renaissance" in the last year, selling 38,200 units in 2008 compared with 13,900 the previous year.
"A number of artists, both emerging and established, have demanded that their work also be available on vinyl," explained Sumanac.
Steve Kane, president of Warner Music in Canada, tried to sum up the format's appeal compared with digital music.
"There's something magnificently innocent about vinyl," he said.
Even though vinyl made up 40 per cent of revenue at on Toronto record store, Sumanac wondered if vinyl's "new cool" was "here to stay."
"I think it'll remain a niche product," said Kane. "I think digital, that's here to stay."
A May 2021 report from Global News projected sales of vinyl in Canada for the year could reach beyond 1.2 million units.