Sunday, August 17, 2008

Vinyl lives! The resurgence of records

“We’ve always sold vinyl. But in the past, it was all audiophiles, DJs and older people … Now, it’s almost exclusively kids –college-age and under –buying vinyl. And it’s everything from Radiohead to Led Zeppelin.” Kelly Mordaunt, Record Theatre’s University Plaza manager and buyerPatience is the key. If you wait long enough, everything that has gone around will come around again. Beatles haircuts, bell-bottoms, Pumas, stoner slang –just when you think these bits of cultural detritus are buried forever, back they come. Music –its stylistic leanings, its modes of distribution, its sonic textures –is no different.

Venture into a college dorm or perhaps a high schooler’s bedroom today and you might be surprised to find them doing something you did yourself at their age –sitting in front of an actual stereo system, staring at a gatefold record sleeve and listening to the sound emanating from a diamond stylus tracing the grooves of a spinning black disc.

Vinyl is back. Really. Suddenly, those dusty old records you’ve stashed in the attic have become cool again.

And it’s not just for the audiophile, the tireless collector, or the cranky rock critic clinging to the belief that the digital age has all but destroyed the sound quality of recorded music.

Teenagers and college students can be found shuffling through stacks of records in music shops, in search of a rare disc from the ’70s, a classic release from the early days of ’80s alternative, or even a brand new album from a contemporary act.

Here in Buffalo, a national trend has been mirrored over the past year –percentage-wise, vinyl sales have shown a greater increase than their digital brethren, according to retailers.

Surprisingly, it’s the sound of vinyl that people want, and they’re hitting the stores to get it.

“We’ve always sold vinyl,” said Record Theatre’s University Plaza manager and buyer Kelly Mordaunt. “But in the past, it was all audiophiles, DJs, older people, serious collectors who came in to rummage through the used records or grab the latest release from [boutique vinyl distributor] Sundazed. Now, it’s almost exclusively kids –college-age and under –buying vinyl. And it’s everything from Radiohead to Led Zeppelin.”

An upward climb

In July, Mordaunt said, 12 percent of the University Plaza store’s total sales could be attributed to vinyl. In 2006, sales of records at the same location accounted for only 1.6 percent of sales. The trend is likely to continue. According to Mordaunt, vinyl sales have been on a steady upward climb since the spring.

Record labels have not let any of this pass unnoticed, of course. Eager for a way to stop the bleeding caused by Internetbased file sharing, and desperate to reconnect with a potential customer base used to getting music for free (or close to it), the suits have stepped up the attack a bit. In the coming weeks, for example, EMI will release the entire Radiohead catalog on vinyl. That label will do the same for Coldplay’s oeuvre.

Brian Wilson’s much-anticipated “That Lucky Old Sun” will be released as a vinyl LP Tuesday, three weeks prior to its CD street date. Legendary Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s new live album hits the streets in September as a five-LP vinyl box set, via Columbia Records. Later in the fall, when the legendary Miles Davis album “Kind of Blue” gets the deluxe box set reissue treatment from Legacy records, a vinyl corollary will hit the streets right along with the CD box.

Soon, it’s likely that, just as every artist with a clue and a computer jumped on the MySpace bandwagon, releasing a new album in both the digital and the vinyl format will be the rule, not the exception.

In early June, Rolling Stone reported that just under 1 million LPs were purchased in 2007, and projected that, based on current sales rates, that number is likely to double this year. Simultaneously, sales of turntables moved from 275,000 in 2006 to just under half a million last year.

These figures influenced some retailers – including Stereo Advantage and Circuit City in the Buffalo area –to begin stocking turntables and replacement phono cartridges in their stores. “We’ve never totally stopped stocking turntables,” said Stereo Advantage audio specialist Brett Mikoll. “But over the past few years, we’ve really stepped up our stock, in direct relation to the increase in the amount of people looking for them.

“It’s interesting that so many of the people coming in to buy turntables and replacement styluses are really young – teenagers, mostly. They’re totally into the whole vinyl thing, and really into the equipment end of things, which is pretty cool.”

Responding to consumer demand, manufacturers like Audio Technica now offer turntables with USB ports, to enable the transfer of analog vinyl information to a digital domain. “Older customers are coming in consistently to buy the USB turntables –they’re looking to transfer their vinyl collections to the digital realm,” Mikoll said. “The amount of kids coming in lately, though –that’s been a real surprise.”

Young and eager

So what are these newly addicted vinyl junkies seeking for their fix? According to Mordaunt, the treasured items range from “used vinyl artifacts, pieces of art to hang in their dorm rooms” to classic punk releases from the likes of MC5 and the Stooges. Used vinyl buying and selling has never really gone away; local vinyl-only dealers like Record Baron in Kenmore have been favored spots for the connoisseur and collector for years. But, again, it’s the younger age of the customers that is the phenomenon.

“As soon as something by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd comes in the store used, it disappears pretty much immediately,” Mordaunt said. In fact, Led Zeppelin’s recently released vinyl box set version of the landmark “The Song Remains the Same” album has been one of Record Theatre’s strongest sellers. That it has managed to become such despite its hefty $150 $60 list price flies in the face of the notion that, in the era of peer-to-peer file sharing, young people are no longer willing to pay for music.

And sales of new vinyl are also on the upswing. Coldplay’s recently released “Viva la Vida,” for example, sold out its initial run of vinyl pressings within weeks of release, and is currently in its second run. Mordaunt said she can’t keep the coveted long-player in the store.

Radiohead, as one would expect from the closest thing to a revolutionary modern rock band we have, has been deeply involved in the nascent vinyl rebirth. Though the band offered its latest magnum opus, “In Rainbows,” as a “pay-whatever-you-like” digital download in January of this year, its recent release on vinyl LP urged listeners to drop in the area of $15 by the thousands. “The success of that album on vinyl in our store is pretty much mind-blowing,” said Mordaunt.

Elvis Costello, Ryan Adams, the Raconteurs, Wilco, Conor Oberst, the Walkmen, Nine Inch Nails and Bruce Springsteen have all released vinyl versions of their newest albums, most of them choosing to preface the CD and online versions of those efforts with at least a one-week, vinyl-only run.

Many of these vinyl offerings are coming with a prize in the bottom of the package, a la Cracker Jacks. Costello’s “Momofuku” double-vinyl, for example, came with a code offering a digital download of the complete album, gratis. Most artists releasing new vinyl are offering a similar treat.

“That’s not really the main reason to buy vinyl, though,” said Eric Syms of Buffalo, who started collecting vinyl a few years back. “I buy mostly older stuff –rarities, cool punk and indie-rock records, things with cool artwork. But bands like the Walkmen, Silver Jews, the Muslims –all their music sounds way better on vinyl than it does on CD.”

Syms raises what is the most interesting point in the digital-vs.-vinyl debate –sound quality. There’s a reason MP3 files are traded with such nonchalance, and why the music industry has been unable to claim its pound of flesh from the whole exchange –sound-wise, these files really are pretty close to worthless.

Digital compression

The digital era has done some good for music, certainly, but to ears accustomed to the warm, rich, round and organic sound of vinyl records, CDs and MP3 files sound something akin to dreadful. Why? Most of the reason concerns the compression necessary to fit so much information into a downloadable form. The music sounds squashed, flattened, its depth of field sacrificed in the name of painless distribution and reproduction.

Eric Syms of Buffalo began collecting vinyl a few years ago, but still buys CDs and downloads music on his computerOver the past decade, things have degenerated to the point where that brittle, over-compressed sound is actually being actively sought by artists, producers and record labels alike. Yes, it’s true –the mode of dissemination has circled back to dictate its terms to the artistic process itself.

“I see this as a definite reaction to –and rejection of –the download culture,” said Mordaunt. “This resurgence of kids being interested in the classics, and actually really caring about the sound quality of new releases from new bands ... it’s a return to the way things were before the digital madness took over.”

“I just can’t stand all of that compression,” said Syms. “Vinyl just sounds better, for the most part. Plus, I like the artwork. It’s all part of a sort of experience that you just aren’t gonna get downloading a file on your computer.”

Of course, CDs still dominate the music industry and there’s no reason to think vinyl will take over. Remember, the industry buried vinyl once, and is only interested in it now because its sales are on the upswing, while CD sales continue their downward spiral. Digital music is not likely to disappear. Ever.

“I still buy CDs, I still download, and I still listen to digital music,” said Syms. “But vinyl is more interesting to me, even if I’ll probably always have more CDs than I do records.”

Meanwhile, the black circle spins on. For some people, this is nothing but good news.

[Buffalo News]

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