Initially rejected by consumers during the 1930s, vinyl records have enjoyed a lengthy lifespan, once the market finally embraced them. Even the advent of compact disc technology during the 1980s failed to kill the format, which remains favored among audiophiles who find it "warmer-sounding"--and, by implication, a superior listening experience. Largely confined to niche markets, like dance music, vinyl comprises a small portion of current releases. However, one fact seems clear--reports of vinyl's early death appear premature.
Recording and playing back sounds became feasible in 1877, with Thomas Alva Edison's invention of the phonograph. However, Edison's technology relied on wax cylinders that became useless after a few plays. This situation improved in 1887, when Emile Berliner patented a new recording system that used a flat disc. Berliner's innovation made it possible to mass produce the technology and advance it past novelty status.
Mass production of recorded music underwent another big change in 1930 when RCA Victor rolled out the first available vinyl long-playing record. The new product was intended to upgrade from shellac discs that played at 78 revolutions per minute. RCA's records played at 33 1/3 rpm, and were pressed on 12-inch flexible plastic. However, lack of affordable playback doomed the product, along with unwillingness to spend money during the Great Depression.
Long-playing records emerged as the prevailing format in 1948, when Columbia Records debuted the first successful 12-inch disc, effectively launching the modern recording industry. Columbia's disc used microgrooves, which were four times smaller than those of 78s--allowing up to 30 minutes' playing time per side. Vinyl records also played with less surface noise and broke less easily than shellac, the key material used to produce 78s.
Undaunted by its failure to dominate long-playing technology, RCA Victor introduced a competing vinyl format. The 7-inch Extended Play (EP) disc spun at 45 rpm, and emulated the running time of 78s. By 1950, however, the 33 1/3 LP format became standard for albums, which were designed to showcase 40 to 45 minutes of an artist's best materials. Record labels reserved the 7-inch format for "singles," which promoted one song per side, while EPs became less common.
Skepticism from audiophiles about compact discs, which became the defining format during the 1980s, has always ensured at least a niche market for vinyl. However, the reality is that most records are still pressed on recycled vinyl, which became a common cost-cutting measure during the 1970s. To offset such quality complaints, bands like Mission Of Burma have issued albums on 180- to 220-gram "virgin" vinyl--which is mostly reserved for reissues of classic material.
Ralph Heibutzki's articles have appeared in the "All Music Guide," "Goldmine," "Guitar Player" and "Vintage Guitar." He is also the author of "Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton," and holds a journalism degree from Michigan State University.