Pet peeves with the vinyl resurgence

Vinyl is hotter than ever. But as labels race to capitalize on the trend, they're making some odd packaging choices--like releasing full-length LPs at 45 rpm.

Matt Rosoff
Matt Rosoff is an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, where he covers Microsoft's consumer products and corporate news. He's written about the technology industry since 1995, and reviewed the first Rio MP3 player for CNET.com in 1998. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network. Disclosure. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mattrosoff.
Matt Rosoff
4 min read

Vinyl accounts for less than 1 percent of overall music sales, but it's been making a bit of a comeback: sales almost doubled between 2007 and 2008 and grew another 33 percent in 2009, according to Nielsen. That's only 2.5 million records out of a total of more than 370 million albums sold in all formats, but record companies don't see many growing business areas, so they're suddenly jumping aboard.

New vinyl hasn't been this abundant since the mid-1980s--you can even find it in Best Buy and Wal-Mart. I give particular props to independent labels like Merge and SubPop, which issue codes for downloadable MP3s with new vinyl, so I can get them to my iPod almost immediately. Vinyl reissues also seem to be at a 20-year-high--in the last couple of months I've picked up new records from bands I haven't heard since college, like Galaxie 500, Mazzy Star, and the Cocteau Twins.

Maybe the instructions to play this record at 45 rpm are subliminally encoded in the psychedelic target design. Caribou

Unfortunately, as the record industry rediscovers this glorious old format, they're not always getting the details right. For example:

Slow motion. Twice in the last couple of months, I've placed a new record on my turntable and thought that it sounded a little funny. Only when the underwater-sounding vocals kicked in did I realize that I was playing it at the wrong speed. It turns out that these double LPs--Grizzly Bear's "Yellow House" and Caribou's "Swim"--were supposed to be played at 45 rpm, the speed usually designated for 7-inch singles and 12-inch dance remixes. That wouldn't necessarily be a problem--45 rpm albums supposedly offer higher fidelity--but neither of these albums had "45 rpm" marked anywhere on the record or packaging. How was I supposed to guess?

Which side are we on? The term "record label" came from the physical paper label in the center of old records, which invariably had a company logo on them, usually alongside song titles. Physical labels tend to be much more artistic these days, with cryptic graphic designs or illustrations. Unfortunately, most of them don't have any number or letter designating the side. There used to be a rule of thumb for these kinds of labels--side A was the one with the picture, and side B had song titles for the entire album. But that custom seems to have been abandoned. To figure out which side to play first, I often have to squint at the tiny etching at the inner edge of the vinyl, right next to the label, and look for a tiny "A" or "B." If it's a double album, I also have to look for "1" or "2" to figure out which record comes first.

But I just turned it over! Albums with as few as 10 songs are now routinely split into double LPs, sometimes with less than 10 minutes of music per side (I'm looking at you, Sup Pop.) It's one thing for early '60s LPs and punk records to run short--they usually only had 25 minutes of music total. But taking a long album and purposely splitting it up so I have to stand up and walk to the turntable every two or three songs is strange. This isn't a physical limitation: side one of Neil Young's 1990 record "Ragged Glory" runs more than 30 minutes.

Coupon complexity. I greatly appreciate record companies that go to the trouble of offering coupons for free MP3 downloads with vinyl records. But do they really have to make me enter both the UPC code from the back of the record and the alphanumeric code from the coupon itself? I know piracy is a problem, but using two-factor authentication for free MP3s seems like overkill.

Quality control. Vinyl is a lot fussier than CDs--it warps if it gets too warm and can bend from being stacked or stored improperly. This was a real problem three or four years ago--about one out of every 10 LPs I purchased had physical deformities that fouled up the playback. The local record shops were generally pretty nice about taking them back, but one clerk confided that it was common--for instance, every copy of the Sigur Ros box set "In a Frozen Sea" that they sold was almost immediately returned because the records were warped. Quality control seems to have improved dramatically since then, but this store still finds it to be enough of a problem that they've posted a sign explaining that vinyl returns won't be accepted unless the record is broken or unplayably scratched.

Don't get me wrong: I love my vinyl, and don't want to return to the dark days of the early 1990s, when I was forced to buy new releases on CD or (gasp) cassette. I'm just hoping for a little more usability testing.