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Are Gimmick-Free CDs Poised for Comeback in the Music Industry?

It must have seemed like such a good idea at the time. Sub Pop had released I Love You, Honeybear, the latest from Father John Misty, in the usual formats (digital, vinyl, and compact disc). Those looking to enhance their listening experience for an extra cost could purchase a copy of the limited-edition deluxe LP on "tricolor vinyl in a Dioramic, Meta-Musical Funtime gatefold jacket with alternate cover artwork." In other words, they spent a lot more money to get the vinyl equivalent of a Hallmark card that plays an ironic '80s song while Garfield pops out on a Slinky to wish a happy birthday.

One day later, Sub Pop issued an apology to those who purchased the deluxe LP. In their pursuit of giving those seeking a unique experience, the distinctive packaging caused "the vinyl to warp and making that handsome, painstakingly and expensively produced jacket an elaborate record-destroying device," according to the press release on the label's website.

See also: Five Reasons Why CDs are Better Than Vinyl

Those who bought the album on CD didn't have to contact Sub Pop to replace their shiny plastic discs, because they weren't disfigured by special packaging. CDs were meant to withstand these conditions. They don't have to be dusted with a special brush before they are placed in the disc plater. You don't have to switch sides after hearing three songs, only to dust it off again before playing the next three songs. CDs don't scratch easily if you lay the needle on them wrong. The music doesn't jump a beat if the slightest bump hits your CD player. You can stack compact discs on top of each other because they're not pressed on 180-gram vinyl. And unless you're rocking a 1978 Ford Pinto, you can play a compact disc in your car.

Despite all the work you have to do to play vinyl, it is the one music format that has shown growth in the music industry. Sales have gone up more than 50 percent since 2013. Of course, as downloading swept the nation, compact disc sales have fallen 80 percent since their heyday in 2001. Back in the 1990s, you could get 12 compact discs for only a penny from Columbia House Music Club. Today, you can order one vinyl record from several mail-order services for nearly $30 or wait in line in front of your favorite music store on a Saturday morning in April for a day the record industry has dubbed Record Store Day, when records produced in limited numbers are sold for exorbitant prices because their of perceived rarity.

The reason retail prices for vinyl continue to increase is that there's the perception that vinyl produces a better quality of sound than a compact disc. Most audio engineers will explain that is a myth. According to an article by Chris Kornelis for our sister paper LA Weekly, research shows that vinyl doesn't reproduce bass very well. In fact, most records had to play on an old cheap turntable before being pressed or they had to go back to the drawing board. Too much bass in one speaker could cause the needle to vibrate off the groove and the record to skip. Having music read by a laser makes a more dynamic musical range possible, but because most of the early releases on CD were mastered in analog, that range wasn't realized by early adopters of the format. Then everything in the '90s was mastered to be as loud as possible to get a listener's attention. Compact discs were uncool from the start and record labels who wanted their music played on the radio accidentally kept it that way.

But why does vinyl dominate despite its inferiority? Champions of wax gush over its "authentic" sound. People love the crackle and pop when the needle hits the record. It's hard to resist the allure of vinyl when its weaknesses are covered up by the showmanship of Jack White. Take for instance White's appearance with the legendary Neil Young on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. White was dressed like a slick salesman in suspenders as Young strapped on his harmonica and guitar. He stepped into a refurbished Voice-o-Graph booth from 1947 to perform a rendition of Willie Nelson's "Crazy" right before a studio audience. One commercial break later, Fallon, White, Young, and an astonished Louis C.K. listened to the grainy sounding recording. The reason for all this: White's label Third Man Records is releasing Young's covers collection A Letter Home. White also thinks that maybe you'll even come to Nashville and make a record of your own using the machine at his record store.

Last year gave us the release of White's Lazaretto Ultra EP. While this version is free of fancy dioramas and chips that warped the Father John Misty album, the vinyl version of the album is filled with the gimmicks galore: Side A begins on the inside of the record and plays until it hits the locked groove on the outside of the record. This means it will play the end of the song over and over again until you remove the needle. There is also a hologram of a spinning angel, two hidden tracks on each of the labels, and the first song on Side B, "Just One Drink," will play an electric or acoustic version depending on where you drop the needle.

Most people, even those who run indie labels, still see vinyl as a passing craze, but Sub Pop and White will try every trick in their books to prove otherwise. Vinyl records are a niche product that has been marketed to hipsters who will pay good money to make listening to music an event. While it is true that the experience of listening to a record sure beats listening to a bad digital recording stream on a smartphone and into your ears through overpriced headphones designed by Dr. Dre, but how many times are you going to repeat that experience? Once, maybe twice. If you need to have something tangible, put a compact disc into your boombox, computer, or car stereo and the music will last forever. That's what you're paying for, not the frills that come with the music.

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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil