How can we explain the simultaneous rise of streaming music subscription services and the vinyl revival? Vinyl sales surpassed CDs for the first time in 2020 and are growing at a faster rate year-over-year than streaming. Yet an explanation that relies solely on superior sound quality is incomplete.1 Records may indeed be superior to other formats in terms of some audio qualities, but they are limited and arguably inferior in others.2 While the stereotypical LP listener is often imagined as the audiophile who rejects digital audio formats, the boom in both vinyl sales and streaming since 2007 suggests that not all listeners are acoustic purists. In fact, in interviews with record enthusiasts, a pair of researchers found that many respondents “referenced the sonic superiority of vinyl and then quickly admitted that they could not detect the difference between analog and digital sound.”3 If not audio quality, what do record listeners value such that they would pay $25 for an LP—more than twice the cost of a CD or a month of a streaming service subscription? We argue that vinyl records afford a conspicuously multimodal experience that contributes to the perceived aesthetic value of music by creating a sense of discernment and pleasure that has been attenuated by the on-demand availability of streaming music.
Aesthetic objects and practices are often described in terms of the primary sense modality through which they are created or experienced. Painting is a visual art; dance is kinesthetic; perfume is olfactory; wine is gustatory; massage is haptic; and so on. Such descriptions are, of course, simplifications, since sensory experience is necessarily multimodal. We never simply see the painting—instead, we see the painting while hearing the chatter of other museumgoers and smelling the floor wax and feeling the wool sweater on our necks and recalling what we learned about the artist sophomore year. Importantly, these secondary sense experiences and contextual features can have a significant effect on the primary modality and, in turn, the overall aesthetic experience. This can be explained by the process of multisensory integration—in which the brain works to organize all the sense data it receives into a coherent whole4—and the phenomenon of cognitive penetration—in which cognitive inputs, such as beliefs, desires, and expectations, influence perception.5
Experiences of music are likewise multimodal, since music “involves more than simply the acoustic signal.”6 This means that the way one experiences music, and the basis on which one evaluates it, goes beyond auditory perception.7 All formats of recorded music generate multimodal experience, but the prominence of non-acoustic features that factor into this experience depends on format and varies by degree. This quality of prominence in one’s awareness is what philosophers term salience. Our suggestion is that the experience of music afforded by vinyl records grants a greater salience to a range of non-acoustic features that positively influence the way we evaluate music that we hear. When considering the aesthetic value of LPs, then, one must look beyond their supposed superior sound quality to the full range of aesthetic features they offer. In addition to the much-remarked-upon sonic qualities of vinyl—the purported warmth, format-specific mastering, and even pops and hisses—the aesthetic experience of vinyl includes visual, haptic, and olfactory aspects, which are experienced simultaneously.
After sonic qualities, the visual aspects of vinyl receive the most commentary. Scholars note that the sheer size of the LP enables large-format album artwork.8 This scale allows collectors to view album jackets as works of art unto themselves, which is attested to by several monographs dedicated to the visual aesthetics of LPs. The large format not only allows for high-quality reproduction of cover art but also conditions the reception of the music.9 Visual information affects the perception of acoustic qualities and is associated with listeners offering more positive evaluations of their emotional experience of the music, whether they are casual listeners or professional musicians.10 In live music, visual information influences a range of perceived features, from the emotional quality of intervals to the duration of notes. It is reasonable to suppose that album art can similarly influence the way music is perceived and evaluated. In some cases—think My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless—the art underscores the aesthetic sensibilities of the music contained within. In others, the art may deceive, rendering experimental sounds more traditional (think the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds) or playful sounds more sinister (think Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James). The Clash sound more like the Clash when you’re gazing at a 12 x 12” Paul Simonon on smashing his Fender P-Bass.
In addition to these visual qualities, the multimodal experience of vinyl involves touch. While all formats preceding MP3s are tangible (and even digital files are material, in the sense that they take up space and depend upon a physical interface), the LP foregrounds its materiality in a way that others arguably do not. Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward have suggested that it is the haptic, rather than the auditory, that marks the analog/digital divide.11 The haptic quality of the format involves the physical heft of the album itself—the recent preference for 180-gram vinyl has little to do with acoustic qualities. We remove the LP from its sleeve, dust or clean its grooves, and place it on the turntable. Rather than merely pressing play or skip as one would with digital interfaces, we lift and place the tone arm and flip the record when the side is complete.12
Finally, although less discussed than sight and touch, vinyl records have an olfactory quality that is absent in other musical formats. Music industry figures, including Kill Rock Stars label president Portia Sabin, radio DJ Stuart Maconie, and singer Morrissey, have discussed the smell of vinyl.13 Whether the “the distinct scent of a freshly opened record” or the decaying-sleeve mustiness of a used collection, smell is a mode of experience that other formats lack.14
These salient non-auditory features of LPs suggest that common explanations of vinyl’s aesthetic appeal in terms of superior sound quality miss something important. Interestingly, however, the popular narrative that vinyl sounds better may, in some sense, make it the case that vinyl sounds better. Expectation has been shown to impact various forms of sensory experience in very real ways.15 Just as being told a wine has sour undertones can result in one reporting that the wine tastes sour,16 the expectation that an LP will offer superior quality plausibly affects listener experience and subsequent ascription of enhanced aesthetic value.
Some theorists describe the perceptual influence of certain non-perceptual factors in terms of “cognitive penetration,” which is said to occur when higher-level cognitive or psychological states causally and directly influence perception.17 Thus the cognitive content provided by LPs (by information in the liner notes, say) or the psychological states they evoke (such as wistfulness) may shape what a listener hears. Whether this amounts to cognitive penetration of auditory perception itself, or merely the way the perceptual content is interpreted, is ultimately beside the point. In either case, non-auditory features of the LP influence—and, in our view, enhance—the aesthetic experience.
While all aesthetic experiences are multimodal to some degree, our experiences of music mediated through vinyl records are conspicuously so. Multiple sensory inputs shape our experience with vinyl. We don’t merely listen; we see, we touch, we smell. Moreover, we collect, maintain, store, and display. While these experiences may seem to be secondary modalities compared with listening, they cannot be separated from—and contribute significantly to our perception of—the aesthetic experience of vinyl. Rather than intrinsically superior acoustic qualities, which arguably derive from a self-fulfilling expectation, it is the multimodal experience that we value in vinyl.
Joshua P. Friedlander, “Year-End 2020 RIAA Revenue Statistics,” Recording Industry Association of America. https://www.riaa.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/2020-Year-End-Music-Industry-Revenue-Report.pdf
Shane Hoose, “Turning Tables: Engineering the Vinyl Revival,” College Music Symposium 58, no. 2 (2018): 1–24; and Dylan Matthews, “Vinyl’s great, but it’s not better than CDs,” Vox, 19 April 2014. https://www.vox.com/2014/4/19/5626058/vinyls-great-but-its-not-better-than-cds
Emily Chivers Yochim and Megan Biddinger, “‘It kind of gives you that vintage feel’: vinyl records and the trope of death,” Media, Culture & Society 30, no. 2 (2008), 189.
Barry E. Stein and Terrence R. Stanford, “Multisensory integration: current issues from the perspective of the single neuron,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9, no. 4 (2008): 255–266.
Lauren Y. Atlas and Tor D. Wager, “How expectations shape pain,” Neuroscience letters 520, no. 2 (2012): 140–48; and Petra Vetter and Albert Newen, “Varieties of cognitive penetration in visual perception,” Consciousness and Cognition 27 (2014): 62–75.
Michael Schutz, “Multimodality,” in Music in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. ed. Bill Thompson and Geoffrey Golson (Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, 2014), 723.
Michael Uwins, “Analogue Hearts, Digital Minds? An investigation into perceptions of the audio quality of vinyl” (138th Annual Audio Engineering Society AES Convention, Warsaw, Poland, 7-10 May 2015), 1. Uwins notes that “listener preferences are profoundly influenced by other, non-auditory attributes [which] are as much a part of the vinyl experience as the music etched into the grooves.”
Yochim and Biddinger, 188. See also Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward, “The vinyl: The analogue medium in the age of digital reproduction,” Journal of Consumer Culture 15, no. 1 (2015), 9.
Marilyn G. Boltz et al, “Audiovisual Interactions: the Impact of Visual Information on Music Perception and Memory,” Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 27, no. 1 (2009), 45. Boltz et al. argue that “visual information influences the emotional experience of music listening.” A visual component can affect the listener’s experience of “tempo, instrumentation, and dynamics.”
Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward, Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 30, quoted in Harper, 54.
John Corbett, Vinyl Freak: Letters to a Dying Medium (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 10, quoted in Adam Harper, “To Have and To Hold: Touch and the Vinyl Resurgence,” Tempo 73, no. 287 (2019), 54. Corbett argues that “LPs have enjoyed a haptic history, chapter upon chapter of tactility – the weight, texture, and surface.”
Sabin quoted in Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, Why Vinyl Matters: A Manifesto from Musicians and Fans (Woodbridge: ACC Editions, 2017), 181, quoted in Harper, 56. Maconie quoted in Richard Osborne, “Vinyl, Vinyl everywhere: The analog record in the digital world,” The Routledge Companion to Media Technology and Obsolescence, ed. Mark J. P. Wolf. (New York: Routledge, 2018), 28. Morrissey quoted in Osborne, 24.
Carey Fleiner, “Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record,” Rock Music Studies 1, no. 1 (2013), 95.
Atlas and Wager.
Ab Litt and Baba Shiv, “Manipulating basic taste perception to explore how product information affects experience,” Journal of Consumer Psychology 22 (2012): 55–66.
Susanna Siegel, “Cognitive Penetrability and Perceptual Justification,” Noûs 46, no. 2 (2012): 201–22.