Vinyl storage stages a comeback

Vinyl storage - in the form of LP records - is staging a comeback. Over 8 million LPs - more than 5 petabytes in digital capacity - were produced last year, up 49 percent. But the old technology has problems.

A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal detailed both the recent rise and possible downfall of vinyl storage. While vinyl LP sales have been growing since 2006, the technology and skills required to produce LPs are in danger of disappearing.

Problem areas:

  • Only one company provides 90% of the required polyvinyl chloride in the US.
  • The equipment to produce LPs is decades old and no longer manufactured.
  • The human know-how required for the labor-intensive LP process is aging out of the workforce.
  • Investors are reluctant to put money into a tiny industry.

Machines get old too

The record pressing machines are much slower than CD pressers - which can pop out a disc in 3-4 seconds - while an LP takes about about 30 seconds. Factories run the machines around the clock, leading to breakdowns and a scramble for ever rarer spare parts.

Even more serious is the state of record mastering machines. These cutting lathes convert music into a single long analog groove for the metal-plated "master" from which molds are made. The machines are old and the expertise required for a high-quality master is in danger of being lost.

Fans to the rescue?

But LP fandom is growing. Just a couple of months ago The Beatles in Mono $300 boxed LP set was released and quickly sold out.

Most Beatles albums were mixed in monaural sound and that is the way Beatle George Harrison, at least, preferred them. Even Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was mixed by the Beatles in mono, with the stereo mix a last minute job by Abbey Road engineers, not the band.

Playback is much simpler, as LP turntables are still being produced. Take the Spiral Groove SG1.1 turntable with Centroid arm, a combo that retails for $31,000.

The Storage Bits take

The LP revival illustrates an important point about old media: they often hang on for reasons other than simple utility. You can still buy 8 track tapes and leather-bound books.

But continuing support for old media has to come from somewhere. In vinyl's case, it isn't yet clear whether market demand can keep the technology alive.

Perhaps some analog loving tech billionaire will fund a foundation to keep LP production alive if new investors don't step up. After all, digital killed the analog star, so why shouldn't a digital fortune save it?

Comments welcome, as always. How do you feel about vinyl's future?

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