Five reasons why vinyl is better than streaming
Streaming platforms allow you to play thousands of songs at the click of a button. So why are so many people still investing in vinyl records? Read on to find out.
In recent years, music streaming services have seen a dramatic increase in popularity. The convenience of accessing vast catalogues of music on demand for free or for a relatively low upfront charge is undeniable. However, vinyl has also been growing consistently in the last decade, despite being an obviously less convenient and more expensive way of listening to music. While the determining factors behind this phenomenon are complex and varied, here’s my take on the top five reasons why vinyl is better than streaming (and why investing in vinyl is definitely worth it).
1. Audio quality
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Have you noticed how you can stream and download so many songs and albums for such low prices and how wonderful it is that they don’t seem to take up that much storage space on your phone? Well, this is because the audio material on streaming platforms is compressed. Audio data compression is a process whereby algorithms are employed in order to remove certain information (deemed less “important” or “noticeable to the human ear”) from a certain recording so as to reduce the file size. Spotify is particularly known for doing this. The main reason why streaming platforms can store thousands of songs and albums with small file sizes at such low costs is because the audio has been compressed. Most of the music you hear on streaming platforms and on TV is in some way compressed into what is known as a “lossy” format (the typical example being MP3). As a result, some details of the recording are missing, and the overall sound quality is reduced.
Imagine looking at a pixelated picture. You get the sense of what the image is about, but it is obviously not the same as in high resolution. Some streaming platforms, particularly Apple Music, have started offering audio in what is known as a “lossless” format. Unlike “lossy” formats, a “lossless” format is, in theory, one where no information has been lost (rather, and this is my emphasis, where less information has been lost, but that’s a discussion for another day). With vinyl, in contrast, there is no audio data compression involved. What you hear is what the signal is picking up from the grooves, and what the grooves contain will have typically (hopefully) come from the master recording. The result is more detail and nuance in the sound, and an overall higher-resolution audio quality. Another day I will elaborate on the difference between lossless and lossy formats, high-resolution audio, and how all this fits into the digital world of sound. But for now, remember that vinyl is analogue. That is, not even digital. Not even lossless, let alone lossy. Vinyl is on a completely different level.
You might wonder whether the investment in vinyl is worth it and to what an extent you would be able to hear the difference in sound quality, given that you don’t think of yourself as an “expert”. All you care about, at the end of the day, is being able to enjoy your favourite tunes with minimal hassle involved. Let me tell you a story that might make you reconsider. A couple of months ago, I was hanging out with a friend at home, having a chat and a few drinks. Obviously I suggested putting some music on and I went for “Midnight Love” by Marvin Gaye on vinyl. When the record ended, I suggested playing one of my playlists on Apple Music (yes, as you can see, I also use streaming services from time to time). The focus was catching up with my friend and having a good time whilst listening to music in the background — this wasn’t a sound experiment or a listening session. A couple of minutes later, he asked me where the music was coming from. Well, it was coming from the same amplifier and the same speakers! (My sound system, which is not sophisticated by any means, allows me to switch from vinyl to a variety of other sources, including bluetooth, fairly easily.) My friend was genuinely stunned. He couldn’t believe his ears. He couldn’t understand how or why the music sounded so different if the audio system and the speakers were the same. Mind you, this friend of mine is not an audiophile. He is what I would call a casual listener, which means that he enjoys listening to music regularly but he is not too fussed about formats, sound quality and stuff like that. To me, these differences are very noticeable but I had always thought this was because I consciously pay attention to these details. I found it very interesting and actually quite revealing that my friend was able to notice the difference in sound quality so quickly. Oh, and by the way, most of the tracks in the Apple Music playlist I was playing were supposed to be “lossless”, which reinforces the point I made earlier.
As you can see, you don’t have to be an audiophile to notice the huge difference in sound between vinyl and streaming. If you enjoy listening to music and care about what you hear, trust me — you will be stunned too.
Albums are not merely a collection of tracks but there is a visual element that will accompany an album release. The pictures and graphic elements on the front, back and inside of a record are collectively known as the “artwork”. When you stream a song, you can see a miniature version of the album cover on your phone screen. Vinyl, especially the standard 12” record, allows you to appreciate the artwork of an album in its full glory.
When an album is being conceived, the artist and their team usually spend a considerable amount of time designing the artwork carefully in a way that will complement the audio material. This is particularly true in the case of concept albums. There are album covers that have become as iconic as (sometimes even more iconic than) the albums themselves. In the same vein as a lossy audio file omits certain details from the recording, the lack of tangible artwork means that streaming is not telling you the whole story. Plus, the size of vinyl artwork makes it an ideal decorative object that you can display on a wall, for example. Many collectors do this by purchasing two (or more) copies of the same album: one for listening, and the other(s) for display, whether framed or as a standalone item. Not to mention picture discs, coloured vinyl or even the labels on a standard black vinyl record, where artists can include additional artwork, and which in many cases have intrinsic value per se (some vinyl editions with a certain label or of a certain colour will sell for considerably more). Another day we can talk about whether the quality of the sound of coloured vinyl and picture discs is the same as standard black vinyl (short answer: it depends), but one thing is for sure: vinyl artwork looks beautiful and has a lot more potential than a cropped image on your phone.
Just think of some iconic album covers: “Abbey Road” by the Beatles, “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen, “Rainbow” by Mariah Carey or “Nevermind” by Nirvana, to name a few.
Artists sometimes include certain additional details or elements in the physical artwork of a record. It is well known in the vinyl community that the original pressing of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” album contains a subtle yet powerful patchouli fragrance sprayed all over the inner sleeve. Vinyl allows you to “feel” an album beyond the realm of what you can hear.
3. Listening experience
Not only does vinyl offer superior audio quality and access to the full artwork, it also invites you to engage with the music and with the act of listening in ways that a streaming platform will never be able to imitate. From the moment you hold a vinyl record in your hands, you can admire the artwork, feel the texture of the material and set the mood for a promising and enriching listening experience. With vinyl, you are automatically engaging with the album in a meaningful way. Scrolling up and down your phone screen will never make you feel the same.
There is something almost ritualistic about putting a vinyl on, watching the disc start spinning on your turntable and letting the music fill your room with energy. Vinyl invites you to take a moment to unwind and focus on the music without the distractions of a phone call or an email popping up on your screen.
One obvious drawback is that you cannot take your vinyl music away with you when you go jogging, shopping or when doing stuff around the house. This issue of portability (or lack of it) is one of the reasons why cassettes took over vinyl in the mid-80s, as the typical consumer felt the need to take their music away with them inside their pockets so they could play it in their cars. It should come as no surprise that streaming has now become the main (and sometimes only) way many people consume music: in addition to the obvious benefit of paying a low subscription fee to have access to entire music libraries, you can take your songs away with you wherever you go.
Vinyl works more like a sanctuary: you need to go to it when you need it, it doesn’t follow you around. The logistics involved mean that the act of listening will take centre stage. This is also why vinyl is a wonderful way of sharing music with your loved ones in an intimate setting. It forces you to stop everything else you may be doing and get absorbed in the music.
I personally use streaming services when I’m on the move so I can discover music (new and old). Unlike other collectors, I don’t buy albums blindly. I like being able to hear a bit of the music first so I can get a feel of the style, the overall vibe and the way it’s been recorded and produced. If I like it, I add it to my wishlist and try to buy it on vinyl as and when I can. “Test-listening” on streaming helps me make conscious decisions on my vinyl collection.
As someone who listens to a lot of music in various formats on a daily basis, I can tell you that vinyl is definitely the most magical, meaningful and enriching listening experience you can treat yourself to.
An album is not merely a random collection of songs: it is a cohesive body of work. The order of the tracks is far from arbitrary or something that is decided on a whim: it is a long process usually involving meetings, disagreements and sometimes even altercations among band members. The final tracklist is often the result of a complex and painful process because many artists view it as crucial to the conception of a record.
Vinyl is the ideal format to listen to an album from start to finish, as the artist intended. When you find the time to play a record, you are more likely to listen to the whole album in one go.
Some readers will remember that Adele sent shockwaves across the Internet in November 2021, upon the release of her album “30”, when she publicly asked Spotify to remove the default “shuffle” feature, which randomly alters the order in which songs are played. Spotify agreed and reverted to the traditional way of playing records, i.e. from start to finish.
In addition, music on vinyl is split into at least two sides, which means that halfway through an album, you need to flip the record around in order to continue listening. This pause or interruption is sometimes deliberate. “The Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd comes to mind. With streaming, as you are merely presented with an impersonal list of tracks, you don’t get to experience album sides, and therefore, you don’t automatically realise that some songs are grouped together for a reason.
In the same way as chapters in a book give structure to the plot of a given story, the order of the tracks in an album and the division into sides of a vinyl record are a fundamental part of the backbone of an album. They exist for a reason.
While it is true that, all in all, vinyl can be seen as more expensive than streaming, you should also consider the value you are getting. The audio files that you download from a streaming platform have no intrinsic value. With vinyl, there is always a resale value which can, on occasion, and if you make the right choices, grow exponentially. Even if the value of a record doesn’t necessarily go up, you will always be able to get something in return if you ever decide to resell it. Your taste in music or financial circumstances may change over time, but the vinyl records you buy today can always come in handy to resell in the future.
Another advantage of vinyl over streaming is that, once you own an album, it’s yours to keep, listen to, or potentially resell. Forever. With streaming, in contrast, you are subject to the platform continuing to make the relevant files available for consumption. An artist may renegotiate terms with a streaming platform or may decide to remove their catalogue for artistic, commercial or political reasons. Once you own a vinyl record, if you look after it, no one can take it away from you.
The way you consume music will not only have an impact on the value you are creating for yourself, but also for the artist. Artists receive a tiny percentage of royalties when their songs are streamed. The best way to support an artist you admire, if you value their work, is to buy their physical records (ideally directly from the artist’s website, or from concession stands at concert venues). If you’re lucky, you can ask the artist to sign your record during or after a concert or at signing sessions. An autograph can add significant value to a record — not just from a financial point of view.
As you can see, there are plenty of reasons why you should still invest in vinyl records. Streaming has many advantages but it will never be able to come close to, let alone replace, the unlimited potential of owning a record. If you really like an album, by all means stream it, but I would strongly suggest you get it on vinyl. Your ears, your soul, your future self and, importantly, the artist, will thank you.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. What’s the main reason why you stream music and/or choose to buy physical records? Were you aware of these differences?
Thank you for reading and/or listening. Happy spinning!
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