RIP New Vinyl (because the WSJ says so)

"Why Vinyl's Boom Is Over." Neil Shah's doom-laden piece with the booming headline in the July 22 edition of the Wall Street Journal triggered some thoughts.

"Folk music duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings were frustrated by the quality of vinyl LPs being produced today. So they decided to cut their records themselves," writes Shah, quoting Rawlings as saying "What people do nowadays is take a digital file and just run vinyl off that." Neil, if you wanted to write a gush piece on Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch, whom you clearly adore, then fine, I have no objections but don't append it to an "issue" to make it relevant.

And speaking of that duo, their whiny, doom-and-gloom quotes fit right in with their music. I have always found it to be funereal in the extreme and a weak copy of the mountain music performed and recorded by a truly great performer like Hazel Dickens.

Not so long ago, at a concert in Santa Fe, NM, I accompanied Mike Metzger, former managing editor of Stereophile's Guide to Home Theater, to see Welch and Rawlings perform at a club for a crowd that stood in hushed reverence. Of course when the tempo of the music never gets above the level of a dirge, it's hard to be anything but solemn. In one of the evening's very quietest moments, Mike blurted out, "If I'd have known I was going to a funeral . . ." A chorus of loud, annoyed "Shhhs" went up and we quickly exited the building pursued by menacing stares from the Rawlings/Welch faithful. Neil Shah's Twitter feed is now a full-blown shrine to those two. Give them credit, they have created and nurtured a cult of sorts. And this kerfuffle oughta sell them a few more records.

My greatest objection to the piece would be its lack of balance. A little research would have uncovered facts like that there are labels, artists, LP pressings plants, and even major-label catalog departments who are making excellent-sounding vinyl, be it new music or reissues. While the headlong rush towards selling vinyl again has produced LPs with sonic issues, this is by no means an all-encompassing problem. As for pressing plants, RTI and QRP are two domestic LP pressing plants that do quality work. In my backyard, Brooklyn Phono also does quality work. If you want to make good-sounding vinyl in 2017, there are certainly good choices.

Not so sure either about that 80% figure Shah cites as new LPs that are cut today from inferior sources. A number of labels, Analogue Productions being a great example, won't reissue LPs if they cannot find a quality source. And these labels, Intervention Records would be another example, would never resort to the "hiding" of sources that one of Shah's interview subjects mentions. As a general rule, if the low price of the reissue or new LP is too good to be true, the sound probably ain't great. And read the hype stickers. Most reputable labels will make point of trumpeting their sources. Again, a little balance might have rounded out the portrait. But then that scare headline wouldn't have worked would it?

And then there's confusion. If Welch and Rawlings' former label Warner Music Group licensed a Dutch LP reissue label to make LPs from a CD, well then shame on them. But then how is it that Bill Fields from the same Warner Music Group is allowed to blame "less-reputable labels." Like who, the WMG who gave Music on Vinyl the license?

And to the heroes of our story I say: learn from your mistakes and PS: welcome to the music business. Don't tar an entire industry because of your unfortunate experience. Again, they're highly skilled at making art outta being morose.

Also, in reading the quotes from Michael Fremer, editor of our sister site and longtime Stereophile senior editor, I immediately suspected there was more to the story. The entire "Yeah, but . . ." section of the interview with Michael had been cut out. I'm sure he had more to say. Only what supported the "crappy vinyl—LPs are dying again" argument was printed. Stay tuned to for more.

And finally how can you do a Death of the LP (again) piece by citing only Music on Vinyl as the culprit? From my experience with them, Music on Vinyl licenses music from major labels only for distribution outside the US. They shouldn't even be doing business in this country. While their records can be found on eBay and Discogs, I rarely see them in record stores or even on Amazon.

Again, while not all LPs are created equal and some not-so-great newspaper editing may be at work here, never fear folks, new vinyl isn't all going back to the cut out bins quite yet.

Lincolnmat's picture

I can see having a beef with The Wall Street Journal for this article. Why did you have to attack Gillian Welch and David Rawlings in the process? Their music not being your cup of tea shouldn't be a launching point for such a harsh appraisal of them. They are reporting an experience they had. It is unfortunate that they had such an experience. They shouldn't be personally attacked by a Stereophile writer too. Are you trying to make them even MORE negative on vinyl and those who promote it?

This only reminds me of your harsh assessment of Glenn Frey immediately after his passing.

Please me more considerate of the artists that make the music that gives us reason to listen. They have it hard enough with the music industry, they shouldn't be so harshly treated - with the possible exception of a music review.

Matt Sallman

NeilS's picture


John Toste's picture

You saved me some effort chastising Mr. Baird.

But Robert, don't be so damn sour. Also, if you can't recognize the superior quality of the GW & DR output, even if it's not your personal taste, consider another line of work.

Brown Sound's picture


The Glenn Frey roasting of last year, was in very poor taste, in my opinion. I agree the WSJ article is garbage, but this artist bashing, please! But only Robert's opinion really matters, right? Thanks again, Matt.

mmole's picture

"In one of the evening's very quietest moments, Mike blurted out, "If I'd have known I was going to a funeral . . ."

I admire your honesty yet I'm appalled by your rudeness.

ednazarko's picture

I won't go any further with that since I'm sure everyone knows, and many have their own unsuitable for publication version. But this story (yeah, so it sounds like I'm picking on you but I'm not, you just happen to be the latest thing I've read) starts as an example of "if I don't like it then it sucks" reviewing. Used to be that only us amateurs did that kind of thing, usually after a lot of alcohol and in noisy settings, but with social media making us all famous for at least 15 seconds, now everyone's doing it. Even professionals.

Used to be people reviewed music they liked. And only that. If artists tour and make a living, and sell music, beginning with "it sucks" (even in different words) says a lot about the reviewer and less about the artists. My father loved The Mills Brothers, beyond any music ever recorded. As a teenager, my opinion was short and sweet- they sucked. But they weren't performing to me. It took years for me to grow up enough to understand the enormous diversity of music styles and performers out there, and to learn to appreciate each for what they were. The Mills Brothers did some wicked tight harmonies, and arrangements that were hard to not sing, hum, or whistle (as my father did) along with. They always sounded happy, or at least not unhappy. They spoke to, and uplifted, a lot of people who weren't me. And eventually I understood that "weren't me" didn't mean "sucked." No, not on frequent rotation in my listening. Yes, I own a few albums, for when people who are fans come to visit, and we talk about what they love about The M Bros. I'll miss those fans when they're gone.

As I advise people about all kinds of styles in all the various arts - if you don't like it, change channels, go to a different gallery, buy tickets for something else. There's no virtue in making other people unhappy or demeaning their tastes.

I'm glad that Robert does come back around to acknowledging they have a following that loves what they're doing, although not without a dig. As an artist (no longer in music or theater, but photography has its "it sucks" controversies like all arts) my back gets up when someone who has a pulpit goes down the amateur critic path. Sorry about that. But it looks like I'm not alone.

I've loved reading Robert's struggles with how to deal with a ton and a half of albums in a visually tolerable way, his lovely story about one hit wonders, and on Sousa and Fiedler versus all wind renditions. (I have three linear feet of LPs from one hit wonders, a fascination I've long had. Cutout bins were a fantastic musical education.) The beginning of this piece was so negative I went and looked to remind myself that he writes beautifully about unusual music in a way that draws me in and makes me want to buy him a beer to keep him talking.

So I'll just file the beginning of this in the cutout bin. And eagerly await another Baird lesson in music and artists I should know better.

Johan Stam's picture

Robert, please leave the lashing out to the WH clan. You clearly don't like Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch. That is fine. It is not my cup of tea either. But as an audio journalist you should keep some measure of objectivism in you writing, which in this case you clearly did not. I'm sure there are hundreds of artists whose music you love but that I cannot stomach. But it is a matter of taste. In both cases the artists should be respected for their creative effort. And so should their fans for enjoying it. You should know better, and so should your editor.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Seriously though, if the recording medium is high-bit PCM wouldn't the ideal playback source be high-bit PCM? And analog tape may have its charms, but it still has its own "sound" and that sound ain't reality any more than an mp3 is. Don't get me started on eccentric pressings and inherent IGD.

" . . . new vinyl isn't all going back to the cut out bins quite yet."

All things must pass.

Michael Fremer's picture

You are an imbecile if you believe that. Seriously though, you are an imbecile. Don't get me started. Oh wait! You did. All things must pass. I hope that's true of your ignorance and your wise-asscrack comments. Have a feat day Robin!

Robin Landseadel's picture

Thanks Mikey, I didn't know you cared.

I did not say that analog tape equals MP3. Analog tape has its own collection of distortions, different from and not equal to the distortions of MP3. But they are still distortions, what goes into the machine is not the same as what comes out. And the LP format also has its own sorts of distortions, not the least being inescapable Inner Groove Distortion. However good the sound of an LP may be when it starts, it's only going going to get worse as the arm moves towards the spindle. The closer the needle gets to the center of the record, the less surface passes by the stylus. And there's no way to avoid that.

I re-read both articles. Both have their own skew, their own perceptual biases. At the bottom of this discussion is the realization dawning on some people that the LP they bought of the CD they've got sounds the same or worse than the CD. There are some LPs that are mastered from Redbook files, or sound like they were cut from Redbook files. I've bought a few of those. I've also bought recent pressings that were way off-center. And after all is said and done, what the producers came up with for the LP is usually derived from some digital file.

I've owned tens of thousands of LPs and CDs, am familiar with positives and negatives of a lot of formats, seeing as I still have DATs, 78s, SACDs, DVD Audio, Blue Ray Audio and way too many cassettes. As of right now, my favorite format is the DAP. The sound quality potential of these devices is amazing. I'm listening to Redbook files on some of the cheapest HI-Rez gear—Fiio X1 DAP, Fiio Monte Blanc 12a headphone amp, Sony V6 headphones—and hearing details I've never heard before on recordings I've heard many times via many different formats. Its some of the best digital replay I've heard so far, and I know that there are similar devices of much higher quality than the gear I'm now using.

It's not as if I haven't heard properly set-up high end turntables, I realize that a dedicated hobbyist can get awesome results with a turntable-based system. But most people don't have the time, money, space or inclination for a full on vinyl habit, and the quality of digital replay continues to race ahead [Moore's Law still applies].

The potential for the market for LPs to expand has built-in limitations, as the WSJ article points out. I'd say one reason is that digital replay is getting better faster than LP replay.

I used to work at Tower Records, Berkeley. It was the moment [1984] that CDs stated to appear. You never heard such an anti-CD Luddite in your life, as I told as many customers as I could how awful CDs were. I noticed the truncation of reverb tails, the removal of low-level detail, the fog and snarl of bad digital sound. Didn't really start to clear up until 2000, is much better now. But the sound of all-digital recording and replay is still different from all-analog recording/replay. People have preferences, subjectively preferring one over the other. Preferring one over the other does not make one an imbecile. Saying that the flaws of LPs are driving me away from the format does not make me an imbecile.

gsnorris's picture


There ARE ways to avoid it, like the Harmon Kardon ST-7 "linear tracking" arm/turntable I bought in 1976.

Robin Landseadel's picture

A linear tracking arm only addresses one element of IGD. Though the revolutions per minute of an LP turning remain constant [hopefully] from the start of an LP side to the deadwax, the actual surface area passing by the stylus reduces every rotation, akin to a tape recorder gradually slowing down, starting at 7.5 IPS, slowing to 3.75 or even 1.875 if the groove gets close enough to to the label. This is baked into the equation, there's no fix, only work-arounds. Taking an album that originally was a single disc with two sides of about 22 minutes a side and splitting it into 2 discs with 11 minute sides [and inflated price] is a common solution these days. The issue of IGD is an inherent, unfixable distortion, one absent in any digital format.

tonykaz's picture

Headphone is going gangbusters,

Best Buy's Magnolia Stores are selling 4K Video Monitors,

Audiophile shops are struggling ( those still open by appointment ),

Nitchy tweeks ( like me ) are buying schiit from Schiit and vintage gear on eBay. My favorite Salesmen are Tyll, Herb Reichert, JA and Kevin Deal.

I'm likely to "impulse buy" a UE Custom In Ear Monitor after watching Jana get a pair and reporting her experience than feeling any excitement from watching an Analog Planet Video of an East German outfit making record players.

21st. Century, Ready or Not, here we come!

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

Those who forget the past are likely to repeat some of its mistakes when they least suspect...

tonykaz's picture

How can we forget that most of the World's Vinyl production was not very good?

They overran production runs, they pushed out dubious quality.

A well done Vinyl is a 1 of a 1,000 run, costing $50.00 and needing a $20,000 Player System.

The guys that have 5,000 + Vinyl collections will never listen to any of them again, there isn't enough time left in their lives.

Tony in Michigan

ps. Vinyl, now, is just another "Collector" item, might as well collect Coins or Stamps.

dalethorn's picture

"It costs too much." - Dubious argument.
"It's not convenient." - Ditto.
"It's old technology." - Ditto.

Now, I collect digital because it is cheap, convenient, and easy to archive without fear of deterioration. All of this assumes that there's no EMP wave coming that will wipe my digital files out of existence in a moment. Still, I know what vinyl is and sounds like, and if I were to move into my dream house and set up an elaborate playback system, I'd get a turntable and a few dozen of the best LP's and snicker at the poor folks who don't have the space, the funds, or the time to enjoy real records.

tonykaz's picture

Hmm, maybe.

You still might end up being disappointed with the playback quality of Vinyl.

I just had a 5.1 Magnapan demonstration playing a U-boat WW11 movie ( U-571 I think ), those Sound Effects were stunning, I don't think Vinyl would ever have had that level of Scary.

A "Live" String Quartet is still superb.

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

Wow - judging by the comments here you can't do artist criticism in the same context as sonic criticism. I remember reviews in Audio magazine decades ago that described the Moody Blues as "Mantovani with teeth". That didn't bother me because I understood the reference, but in today's vinyl revival of the sacred, that reviewer would likely get a lot of brickbats.

Edit: Somehow I missed Hazel Dickens, but no more. Orders have been placed. I love hillbilly music.

Anton's picture

Hey, silly people, why waste time on Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings when a guy can onanistically submerse himself in the newest re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-reissue of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album?

I agree with one person's question from above: if you hate GW/DR so much, why waste your time loudly suffering through a show? Don't understand that behavior at all. I'm trying to picture Robert Levine congratulating himself for talking over a performance of Gorecki's Third Symphony because he's upset that he isn't hearing Die Fledermaus.

If the WSJ had published an article about Giles Martin having to go through a search for better pressing results for a project, we'd need sunglasses to read the glowing/fawning adoration that would accompany that report.

OK, GW/DR sucks. The Eagles suck. The Beatles' finding a fiftieth way to fleece their lovers, that's righteous!

itsratso's picture

whiny? a girl that doesn't write happy songs, preferring to write about heroin addicts, prostitutes and rapists. and you say "whiny". what a hack job.

JohnVF's picture

I've been buying records since the dark days of the early '90s (too young to have done so prior, except the occasional K-tel in my elementary school days) and have greatly enjoyed this vinyl resurgence. But lately, the prices have gotten to be absolutely absurd. Nothing-special releases of well-exposed artists are selling for upwards of $30. Who can continually pay $30 for a common album release or reissue with nothing going for it besides it being on vinyl? I'm not poor, I'm well employed and have thousands of LPs, but I've reached my breaking point. I just can't do it anymore, the prices are just, well..they're beyond the pale. We're being taken advantage of and like everything in this hobby, a group of people will defend it no matter what. If a pair of nothing special 3-way loudspeakers that i just looked at can cost $40,000 for no reason other than high-price increases demand in our backwards luxury goods market, then I guess $30 nothing special albums are to be expected.

You'll find me figuring out streaming and in the used-bins, my 12 turntables hungry for what I can't afford to feed them with.

scottsol's picture

In 1971 the typical list price of an LP was $4.98, the equivalent in 2016 dollars of $29.86. Given that modern technology has not reduced the cost of LP production and that the number of units produced if far less than back then, there is no reason to expect modern LPs to be less expensive than they were in their hay day.

Michael Fremer's picture

Neil is a fraud. He misquotes me, ignores most of what I said to him and...well I'll be writing it all up for I hope people other than the dyspeptic sore losers posting here. So Robert doesn't like Rawlings and Welch. I do. but seriously folks. I find the whining and complaining about his stated opinion, spectacularly over-sensitive especially coming from readers here who are particularly snarky and incredibly ill-informed.

dalethorn's picture

My sentiments too - thanx.

Anton's picture

Which are the ill informed ones?

Trying to keep up.

I am pro-vinyl, but anti-smearing of the artists and their quest for good pressings!

downunderman's picture

Art criticism has a long and storied history of unkind, sometimes caustic assessments of artists efforts.

Roberts only 'error' was to not fully unleash his inner Christgau.

More power to you Robert

chtgrubbs's picture

I would think that her desire to put out a truly great all analog LP would be drawing cheers from from vinyl lovers. It seems to be Neil Shah who has misconstrued her comments.

TNtransplant's picture

Check out 'People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938' on Tompkins Square (sorry, CD only). Interesting implied comparison to the late, great Hazel Dickens; probably wouldn't describe most of her recorded repertoire that I've heard as all that "cheerful". Robert, are you critiquing a dirge-like quality of GW&DR's music or their "authenticity"? If the latter, wonder how you feel about, oh, let's say Geeshie Wiley vs. Rhiannon Giddens?*

If you're going after WSJ article for perceived "lack of balance" your blog post response might have been better served by focusing on that (and MF's reported being misquoted) rather than mixing in off-topic attacks on GW/DR. I'm fine if you don't care for GW/DR's music, but if Shah supposedly mischaracterized MF's comments (?) why would you assume he did not do the same to GW/DR?

MF: hopefully we'll be getting your POV on this episode. If possible, would encourage you to reach out to GW/DR to get their POV as well. Perhaps in the context of reviewing The Harrow & The Harvest, which I believe is the first release of any of their albums on vinyl.

* Actually, from an "audiophile" perspective this might be considered a variation of the ageless "sound quality" vs. "performance quality" debate. Wonder what proportion of Stereophile readership might actually listen to recorded performances from the 78 era?

dalethorn's picture

If you're into dirge-like popular music, the late Shizuka Miura is the ultimate. My Shizuka favorites are:
Planning for Loneliness.
The Burial of a Shooting Star.
Flowers for the End.

And, she committed suicide. But the music is lovely.

scottsol's picture

Because it distracted from the column's purpose of critiquing the WSJ article, the amount of copy used discussing the music of Rawlings/Welch constituted poor journalism. However, the same amount of copy being used to praise them would have been equally misplaced.

Either way, it is a distraction from the real issue of the state of and prospects for the Vinyl LP industry.

papermill55's picture

Below is a response I sent Neil in reaction to the WSJ article.
We corresponded respectfully and engagingly.
Most of the comments here reflect the passion of our hobby. But at the same time are way too emotional.
There is room for discussion, so let's be civil.

Thanks for the article on vinyl.
As a LP aficionado I've witnessed and enjoyed the revitalation of the analog media.
However, might your explanation of the reason why LP growth has slowed - digital source vs analog tape quality only scratches the surface?
A few questions to consider.
1) What of the "fad" nature of vinyl. Much of the explosive growth of vinyl sales has been due to a younger demographic. Are they still buying records? I'm a personal witness to Record Day which anecdotally demonstrates a growing enthusiasm for vinyl. But is it being maintained among the less passionate consumer?
2) Does that younger demographic really care or notice, ultimately, the quality of the playback from the two sources? Do they have the equipment to discern the difference?
3) Is the continued steep incline of sales these past few years now restricted by production capacity?
Most surviving vinyl presses have been identified and restored. Many record labels are facing significant backlogs and lead times to get their vinyl to market. Do you have any data to indicate that production might be a limiting factor to this bottleneck?
4) How are turntable sales performing? Again, anecdotally, it appears that sales are healthy and more manufacturers continue to enter the market?
Just curious.
Once again, thanks for the article. As a print subscriber (now you know how OLD I really am!), I appreciate the fine coverage the wsj provides.

wyoboy's picture

OK RB--we get it you don't like Rawlings etc.--and we get it that MM is as rude as it gets, not to mention the worst editor of S&V ever but with good taste in music, IMO. However, how about giving us technical information on the WSJ article and vinyl sources--it would be nice to know if vinyl is just using digital sources or not--make it about the production, not the artists.