Sunday, August 3, 2008

Vinyl makes a comeback

Unfortunately, record stores may not be around for much longer.

CD sales continue to decline, and many music stores, such as Millennium Music downtown and Cat's Music in Mount Pleasant, have closed their doors for good.

Lately, it seems that most of the buzz about the music industry is all doom and gloom. Except for what would seem like a most unlikely resurgence: the LP.

Yep, vinyl is back.

While this vinyl resurgence isn't going to be enough to save the music industry, it is a welcome trend for local shops struggling to stay in business in the digital age.

"We're definitely seeing more interest in vinyl lately," says Mike Vick, manager of Cat's music on James Island. "We're increasing our vinyl collection, about half new, half used," Vick told Preview.

For many sound purists (aka "audiophiles") and DJs, vinyl never went away.

But, for the majority of the music listening public, the preferred format for music is certainly digital.

First, it was the CD and now the MP3. As technology has progressed, this transition from analog to digital seemed inevitable, offering music fans the instant gratification of downloading music from the Web and the convenience of taking music with them on devices such as iPods and other MP3 players.

But with the convenience of digital downloads, something was lost; something that made discovering and listening to music fun.

The joy of finding that pristine double-gait, limited-edition, 180-gram vinyl record just doesn't seem to have an equivalent in the digital world, where browsing and purchasing is done with a click of the mouse.

Where's the fun in that?

Missing from today's binary culture is the visceral pleasure induced by placing the needle in the groove and listening to every nuanced sound in the order in which it was intended by the artist.

Clay Scales, owner of Fifty-Two.Five record store on King Street, agrees that something is lost in this digital music realm.

Clay Scales, owner of Fifty-Two.Five on King Street, holds a John Mayer LP sent to his store to promote the singer's new live album.

"I think the iPod is responsible for the vinyl resurgence. Purchasing and listening to music on an iPod is such a nonsocial activity. I think people are really drawn to the physical act of opening an album, actually walking over to a turntable, and listening to music with their friends," Scales says.

Music executives, eager to capitalize on any possible revenue stream, are also taking note.

Bands such as Metallica are rereleasing their catalogues as ultra-high fidelity, half-speed LPs in an effort to entice fans with superior sound quality. More mainstream bands also are releasing vinyl versions of their albums in hopes of reaching new audiences.

Labels are also sending promo LPs to stores instead of the standard CD.

"You know they're pushing vinyl when they're sending promotional LPs of the new John Mayer album," says Scales as he holds up the album.

Musicians including Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and Wilco, famous for their attention to fidelity, are releasing 180-gram versions of their albums for discerning fans. These heavier vinyl discs have deeper grooves and are able to produce better sound than your garden-variety record.

Does vinyl really sound better?

Most audiophiles describe vinyl records as having a warmer, fuller sound capable of more accurately reproducing the live music.

"Man, you can really tell a difference," says Vick. "The LP is the real version of the album, in my opinion."

Gesturing toward the racks of CDs that take up most of the floor-space in his store, Vick says, "If it were up to me, it would just be records and MP3s. The best of both worlds."

Vick's sentiment may soon be a reality.

Many record labels are addressing the desire to have a hi-fi, analog (vinyl) version of the music as well as a digital version. This would be done by including a disc containing the album in MP3 format or a coupon allowing the purchaser to download the recording.

"That's really all ya' need," says Vick. "You have the records for listening at home and the MP3s to put on your iPod and take with you."

Online retailers have taken notice. recently launched a vinyl-only section, branding it "the spiritual home of audio purists and DJs." The site also lists the launch date for yet-to-be-released LPs.

For people wanting to convert their existing vinyl to digital, there are turntables available with USB connectors for converting LPs to a digital format.

Before downloading the next album on your list, check out one of the local record shops and rediscover the sound of vinyl.

[The Post and Courier]

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