Although music is now almost entirely digitized, it’s tough to think of vinyl as obsolete. If you’re an audiophile or an antique collector, a vinyl record can be a prized position that you’d be willing to do whatever it takes to keep in tip-top shape.
So, do vinyl records wear out?
Vinyl records can survive for +100 years with proper care, but they’re not indestructible. Factors like the needle’s markings, storage conditions, and play frequency can all wear out an LP. Plus, one wrong spin can ruin the record for good.
What’s In a Vinyl Record, Anyway?
Vinyl records are made of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and a bunch of other additives, but PVC is what you need to worry about for now.
To be able to judge the vinyl record’s resilience, it’s important to note a few physical and chemical characteristics of PVC:
- PVC is highly non-biodegrade. So, you won’t have to worry about it decomposing with time—not during our lifetime, at least.
- PVC isn’t as brittle as shellac resins. That means that while it’s scratchable, it won’t just shatter with normal wear and tear, as with old shellacs.
- PVC has decent chemical resistance. That’s why the LP records could withstand minor spills or exposure to cleaning agents.
- PVC is prone to thermal deformation. Many PVC products are molded into shape with heat and pressure, so they’ll be susceptible to damage with high temperatures.
- PVC is suitable for the build-up of static electricity. In most cases, the static electricity causes temporary pops and clicks, but it could also draw dust to the grooves.
Users Also Read: How Much Are Crosley Record Players Worth?
Why Do Vinyl Records Wear Out?
It’s not uncommon to find vinyl records that have been passed down through a generation or even two and still play nicely to this day. Yet, other people might notice that their LPs are losing quality in only a few years.
So, why is there such a vast disparity in the expected “shelf-life” of a vinyl record? Well, it all comes down to how much wear and tear the record is actually exposed to.
Let’s take a look at a few common factors that can contribute to a vinyl record’s longevity:
1- Dust Accumulation
Good-old dust is the most common culprit with vinyl LPs.
While having a thin layer of dust on your record doesn’t sound like a big deal, it can significantly ruin the experience. Best case: it’ll create extra noise, but the worst-case scenario? It’ll prematurely wear out the record.
That’s because the fine particles settle into the grooves. Then, when you play the vinyl, the needle will scrub these pesky dust particles against the surface, scratching or deepening the grooves.
So, think twice before you leave your collection naked. Something as simple as the original jacket can add years to your record, but if you’re willing to take a step further, consider getting high-density polyethylene (HDPE) sleeves.
Plus, a bit of TLC in the form of dry wipes and distilled water rinses can go a long way in preserving vinyl. Note that the key word here is: distilled. The minerals in tap water can often do more harm than good!
2- Wrong Handling
While dust is reasonably easy to tackle with simple cleaning steps, oil from fingerprints can be much more challenging to remove from vinyl.
Not only is that residue unsightly, but it could also attract microbial growth over time, leaving your record exposed to molding. Sure, you might try to clean up that mold, but it also means unnecessary usage of chemical agents.
Whenever you’re not using the record, make sure no dirty (or sweaty) hands get to it by storing it vertically on a high shelf, out of children’s reach.
3- Damaged Stylus
Ideally, the stylus (needle) on your record player should be made of a precious stone, guaranteeing minimal impact on your LPs.
However, if you get a cheap or a worn-out stylus, you could speed up the wear process on your record.
Imagine a broad needle trying to make its way through a thin groove. The most obvious result is that it’ll widen the groove walls, reducing sound quality and allowing even more debris to accumulate.
Personally, I think that most people will be fine with a high-quality stylus for a couple of years.
Meanwhile, record players in commercial sites are played way more often. This means the owner might need to replace the needle every six months. It sounds like an expensive habit, but it’s definitely more sustainable that aging a valuable record collection prematurely.
Asides from replacing damaged styluses, you should also check that the tone arm isn’t putting too much force on the grooves. That’s why counterweight is such a crucial feature to consider before buying a record player!
4- Playback Frequency
No matter how well you maintain and store your vinyl record, it’s bound to lose a bit of its quality over time.
Some people recommend rotating between a few different styluses to distribute the wear evenly. However, there isn’t much evidence to back this up.
Others might even opt to record the first playing on a digital device. This way, they can enjoy that first minty-run without having to put the record through even more wear and tear.
In fact, historic records tracing all the way back to 1900 are digitized to increase their availability without wearing out the record itself.
For your home collection, you can always be mindful of “over-playing” your prized vinyl records. Yet, this shouldn’t be your number one priority at all. LPs are made to be enjoyed, so don’t just let them collect dust on the shelf!
Related: NP6 Needle Replacement Guide
5- Temperature Fluctuations
Although PVC is seemingly very resilient, it’s particularly sensitive to changes in temperature. According to the American Library Association, the ideal range to store a vinyl record is 60-75°F.
If it’s exposed to too much direct sunlight or heat, it’ll warp over time, especially around the edges. This uneven surface can cause the stylus to bounce and skip, leaving permanent damage on the record.
Some people might try to re-shape it with heat and pressure, but it’ll never be as good as new.
On the other hand, vinyl records could also crack in colder rooms. In that case, there isn’t much chance to try and reverse the temperature-induced wear.