The Birth of Vinyl
In 1877, Thomas Edison created what was known as the cylinder phonograph. While wonderful, there was no real way to mass produce it. But Emile Berliner created the mass-production flat phonograph record in the late 1880s. Berliner was able to tap methods used in a printing press to create audio recordings. As his access to enough funds presented a growth issue, he partnered with Eldridge Johnson, who would eventually take over, leaving Berliner on the outs. Johnson proved a formidable partner who had strong relationships and access to capital. As a result, Johnson took over Berliner’s patents, pushing out any other competitors. He successfully launched the Consolidated Talking Machine Company, renamed in 1901 as Victor Talking Company, making his phonographs the most successful on the market.
Johnson grew the business through aggressive advertising. Inspired by British painter Francis Barraud, he adopted the recognizable iconic dog-and-phonograph logo, purchasing the US usage rights to it. By the end of 1901, the logo became synonymous with innovative listening devices. As the industry became more inundated with competitors, Johnson (now referred to as Victor after his products) spent too much time fighting patent infringements by competing businesses. Those battles, however, led him to further innovation when, in 1904, he began design on a new, less massive turntable that was sleeker, had clearer sound, and included a cabinet underneath to store records and accessories. By 1906, he was marketing the new Victor-Victrola to the wealthy at a steep price tag of $200 (which in today’s market is around $5,000). To his (and his employees’) surprise, the Victrola was a hit and would be mass distributed by 1907. Having sold 15,000 Victrolas at $200, the company was primed for growth and new models.
Fast forward more than 100 years, and Victrola is still holding strong, adapting to the modern market with retro designs as a nod to its humble beginnings and implementing technology such as Bluetooth speakers.
How Vinyl Formed Our (Gen X) Childhood
Those who remember the days when going to clubs meant the DJ was spinning records that weren’t plugged into their iPhones or laptops know that nothing quite compares to the feel and sound of a vinyl record. In spite of 2021 technology that blows our minds with kickass headphones, wireless sound systems, and the like, once upon a time in the 1980s, we misfit kids were stoked to get down with LPs and turntables. Records were rad and we knew it—even if CD sales were starting to dominate.
We listened to our music on our parents’ old record players from the ’60s and ’70s. We were obsessed with John Hughes movies, The Breakfast Club, and bands like the Sex Pistols, Run DMC, and the Beastie Boys, and vinyl gave us an edge. We were retro before we even knew it was cool. Turntables became our preferred mode of expression and, thankfully, our parents were onboard (probably because they felt like their generation was finally appreciated and understood).
Our record collections began growing, including classics like Dylan, The Beatles, The Doors, Zeppelin, and a hearty dose of Barbra (hey, Streisand still rules). But bands such as Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Violent Femmes, and of course the killer intro to Ice-T, NWA, Wu Tang Klan, and The Fugees were infiltrating our young minds with full albums, rare singles, and secret finds. Penny Lane in Venice changed our world; Tower Records lured us with crazy collectibles; and Amoeba Music ate up any money we were saving.
My parents gave in and let me borrow their albums. My dad introduced me to Black Sabbath and Iron Butterfly. My mom introduced me to Carole King and The Supremes. Music became the one thing I loved more than anything, particularly when played on old-school turntables. I’d head over to my grandparents where my grandma would introduce me to old Mexican love songs and my grandfather would teach me about the soul of Latin beats. My other grandparents would listen to the crooners—and I loved every part of it. My sisters and I will never forget when we got Michael Jackson’s Thriller album in 1982 and turned our parents into fans. We played that album so much, we literally wore it out. When MTV played the video, we’d hurry to the turntable to keep up the momentum, put on the album, and perfect our best zombie moves.
By the 1990s, record sales were beginning to show signs of waning, but vinyl singles were still dominating. In an article in Billboard magazine, an exec for United Record Pressing comments on the misconception of vinyl sales in the ’90s. “The seven-inch vinyl jukebox was [still] huge. And from my time working at labels at that point, I always had stacks of 12-inch singles behind my desk. Most radio stations were using 12-inch singles, every birthday party DJ, every roller rink, every discotheque, and record stores in general.”
Fast forward. Over the last few years, Gen Z has taken a liking to Crosley and Victrola portable turntables, and young people own LPs. In fact the RIAA Music Industry Revenue Statistics reported that, in 2018, vinyl record sales were up 8 percent with $419 million in sales. No one imagined that the pandemic would boost vinyl record sales, yet last year, 27.5 million LPs sold in the United States with a 46 percent increase over 2019. It seems vinyl records have made a comeback, and as a product of the 1980s with teenage children who asked for turntables and vinyls as gifts this year? I can say that the vinyl record is indeed hot. How gnarly is that?