Vinyl: Then, Now, and Beyond

Tara Abhasakun

04 Apr 2024

From retro roots to Billie Eilish's iconic green vinyl - how music's classic medium continues to shape modern trends

Music sensation Billie Eilish has made headlines after criticising other music artists for producing vinyl albums. The singer told Billboard, “We live in this day and age where, for some reason, it’s very important to some artists to make all sorts of different vinyl and packaging… which ups the sales and ups the numbers and gets them more money.”


 In 2024, the entire concept of vinyl albums seems like something from the stone age. 


But how was vinyl invented? When did it grow popular? 


Vinyl records have a rich history of innovation and cultural significance. 

The birth of sound recording

The story of vinyl began in the late 19th century with the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877. Edison's groundbreaking device allowed for the mechanical recording and playback of sound using a cylindrical wax cylinder. This marked the dawn of sound recording technology and paved the way for the development of vinyl records.

Shellac era

In the early 20th century, shellac became the primary material for making records. Shellac records, known for their brittle nature and limited playing time, were the dominant format for several decades. However, they were prone to breakage.

Vinyl becomes all the rage

Vinyl's rise to popularity began in the 1940s with the introduction of the vinyl long-playing (LP) record by Columbia Records. These 10 to 12-inch discs could hold up to around 20 minutes of music per side, offering a significant improvement in sound quality and durability compared to shellac records. This innovation revolutionised the music industry and laid the foundation for vinyl's dominance in the decades to come.

The golden age of vinyl

The 1950s and 1960s marked the golden age of vinyl, with record sales soaring and vinyl becoming the preferred format for music lovers worldwide. Artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan released iconic albums at this time on vinyl records.

Vinyl culture within the music industry

Vinyl records very much became cultural artefacts. Record stores became hubs of music discovery and community, while DJs wielded vinyl records to symbolise creativity and expression.

Format wars and decline

The advent of new technologies, such as compact discs (CDs), posed a threat to vinyl’s popularity in the 1990s. The vinyl industry faced fierce competition from this new invention, leading to a decline in vinyl sales. Many predicted the demise of vinyl records as digital music began to take hold.

Vinyl revival: music’s original medium makes a comeback

Despite the challenges posed by digital music, vinyl records experienced a surprising resurgence in the early 2000s. A growing nostalgia for vinyl fueled a renewed interest in the format. Record labels began reissuing classic albums on vinyl, while new artists embraced vinyl as a way to connect with fans on a deeper level.

The use of vinyl today

Today, vinyl records continue to hold a special place in the hearts of music enthusiasts around the world. People in several countries including the US and UK celebrate Record Store Day, an annual event celebrating independent record stores and vinyl culture.

The legacy of vinyl

The legacy of vinyl records extends far beyond their role as a medium for music playback. They are artefacts of a bygone era, preserving the sounds and stories of generations past.

However, as Eilish pointed out, there is an environmental cost to vinyl. Most vinyl is non-recyclable. According to Sharon George of Keele University, most modern records have a carbon footprint of 0.5 kg of CO2. George says that sales of 4.1 million records would produce 1.9 thousand tonnes of CO₂, not including packaging. This is the entire footprint of almost 400 people per year.

Some companies are pushing to change vinyl production. Deepgrooves, a vinyl pressing plant, attempts to press vinyl records in a way that is “as green as possible.” Deepgrooves uses BIO-Vinyl made from 100% circularly recycled oil without the use of the fossil industry. This is just one of several techniques used to reduce environmental impact.

Eilish’s remarks have ignited a conversation about this classic music medium.