Ed Collins of Collins Music and Collectibles in Suisun City, sorts through some of his inventory of used albums. (Joel Rosenbaum/The Reporter)
The vinyl LP, believe it or not, is making a comeback. True, record album sales have steadily declined in the past 25 years - to 3.4 million discs in 1998, reaching an ebb with 900,000 sales in 2006 - as music consumers, young and old, gravitated to the more easily available CDs and online downloads of mp3 files.
Curiously, however, sales reports show that while CD sales declined 17 percent last year, to 511 million units shipped, vinyl LP sales jumped 37 percent, to nearly 1.3 million.
Deejays, audiophiles and hardcore fans of vinyl are hardly surprised by the news, but industry watchers say some music buffs, especially those in their late teens and early 20s, are ditching their CDs for the rich, warm sound of the LP. Analog sound, not digital or electronically "sampled" sound, offers more sonic rewards and pleasure because it is closer to the actual sound created in the recording studio, they note.
This emerging trend has prompted all the major record labels (Warner Bros., Sony, EMI, BMG, Universal) to not only issue new discs by artists such as Radiohead and Coldplay but also to re-issue some popular albums from their back catalogs. In fact, Warner Bros. on Friday released the new Metallica album, "Death Magnetic," in a five-record (45 rpm) boxed version, available in some retail outlets and through the company's online vinyl store, www.becausesoundmatters.com. And the few record-pressing plants still making vinyl are "completely booked," said Josh Bizar, director of sales for Music Direct, a Chicago firm that specializes in home sound systems and vinyl discs.
New vinyl records, because they are printed in relatively small quantities, "are instantly collectible and disappear (from store and online shelves) almost as soon as they come out," he said, adding that "smarter" consumers are buying two copies and re-selling the extra on eBay "for ridiculous sums of money" - and getting it.
The resurgence of vinyl is due in part to its exotic and somewhat retro appeal - after all, its newest fans were not even born when CDs were initially mass marketed - but some teenagers say the reason is not only the sound quality, even the pops and clicks of imperfect records. They say some music is available only on vinyl.
"In a time when you can (illegally) get virtually any CD you want at the click of a button, for free, there's something exciting about finding something that no one has heard yet (er, in a long time)," said Sarah Rouleau, a senior at Buckingham Charter High in Vacaville and a former pop music columnist for The Reporter. "In fact, in online torrent communities, for instance, obscure, fresh-from-vinyl mp3 rips are in hot demand."
Additionally, Rouleau noted many hip-hop and rock 'n' roll groups "have begun adding fuzzy or crackling loops to their tracks to sound like old LPs, as a kind of tribute to the old technology and sound.
To Rouleau and her contemporaries, 2008 is an era when many music collections are the same and vinyl LPs offer a completely different audio and tactile experience. As their parents or grandparents knew, it takes time to enjoy a vinyl LP: taking it off the shelf, carefully pulling out the sleeve, equally carefully placing it on the turntable, laying on the needle. It offers a more personal connection to the music.
To some young fans, vinyl LPs are hip status symbols, "kind of a badge of honor" and are a sign of a "determined" music lover, said Bizar.
But while finding and purchasing vinyl - whether in a store, online or at a garage sale or flea market - is not overly difficult, sometimes finding a turntable is, said Rouleau, who has unsuccessfully sought out working record players at thrift stores in the Solano County area. She expressed chagrin at the price of new audiophile-quality turntables, which start at about $300.
"I own a few things on vinyl (lots of bands give them out for free with purchase of a CD), and I've tried to find a turntable, but ... They're awfully expensive to purchase new, and, because they're such a hot item, it's pretty difficult to find them in thrift shops."
But they appear to be plentiful at Collins Music & Collectibles in Suisun City, a longtime and funky Solano County used vinyl and music equipment store, where clerk Dennis Palmer showed off several models and new styluses for sale.
The Vacaville Radio Shack, in Vacaville Commons on Harbison Drive, had fully automatic belt-drive turntable in stock, with many more models - Audio-Technica and the Stanton T.90, with a USB port - available online, prices ranging from $60 to more than $350 for a higher-end model, with some customer reviews posted.
"I get at least one customer a week coming in here asking about a turntable," said salesman Anthony Vasquez.
At Best Buy on East Monte Vista Avenue in Vacaville, store manager Evan Pendley showed off one turntable in stock, the ionAudio for $158. He said a new complete sound system can range anywhere from $400 to $500 to more than $10,000.
Likewise, Bizar, 39 and a longtime vinyl aficionado, suggested record fans invest in a turntable that begins in the $300 range, saying the cheaper, all-plastic models do not deliver good sound quality and may not last as long.
"The turntable is the first link in the chain" of assembling a home sound system, he said, adding that a good stylus (beginning at $50) will offer "100 times the resolution" of sound that a CD offers. "Depth and warmth of the recording come into play," he noted. "It sounds so much better than downloading onto your iPod. It all depends on the turntable and needle - you have to get that music out of the grooves."
Palmer, of Collins Music, agreed and cautioned consumers to beware of buying used equipment.
"We show them that they work," he said of turntables offered for sale. "But that's it. We don't guarantee them or warranty them - unless you're a customer we've known for a long time."