Thursday, September 11, 2008

New generation discovers warm sounds of vinyl

Earlier this summer, 22-year-old Erik Olson, of Grand Rapids, sold off his entire collection of CDs so he could invest in a new music format he finds way more satisfying -- thrilling even.

"I was getting bored listening to music. I was looking for a change," he said of his lock-stock-and-barrel switch to vinyl LPs.

Devoted iPod user Eric Feirick, 27, of Grand Rapids, just bought his first turntable, aka a record player, so he could explore "something different" musically, which in his case meant searching for old Al Green albums recently at The Corner Record Shop, 3562 Chicago Drive SW in Grandville.

Just down the aisle, I found longtime record buyer Craig Patterson, 46, who had pulled out a John McLaughlin LP and was scanning bins for Bill Chase jazz records.

"I never really left vinyl," said Patterson, a Grand Rapids audiophile. "If I'm going to sit down and really listen to something, I'll listen to vinyl."

Introducing the hottest technology in music today: Vinyl records.

No kidding: Those flat black 12-inch discs kids mocked just a few years ago as outdated relics of the baby boomer-saurus era have become the trendiest thing the ailing music industry has to offer.

Steve Williamson owns The Corner Record Shop in Grandville. "Everybody's jumping back into it," store owner Steve Williamson told me, noting he has made used and new vinyl record sales the backbone of his shop since it opened nine years ago.

"There's a lot of people who never quit playing vinyl. They were obstinate about it. It's not a novelty here. It's more the meat and potatoes of this place."

Big names on board

But Williamson also concedes younger customers -- teens and 20-somethings -- have helped boost sales. They have embraced records in recent years, buoyed by certain labels and artists who have started putting out new albums on vinyl again, often weeks ahead of their release on CD. They include big names such as Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, R.E.M, Coldplay and Radiohead.

Warner Brothers has even started an online store ( with pricey reissued vinyl compilations by The Doors, Eric Clapton, Metallica and others, plus new releases. Other big record companies are following suit, like Capitol/EMI re-releasing The Beach Boys' classic "Pet Sounds" on vinyl.

The numbers don't lie: Vinyl LP and EP shipments jumped nearly 37 percent from 2006 to 2007, up to 1.3 million units, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, and 2008's final stats will top that.

Herm Baker, store manager for Grand Rapids' Vertigo Music, 129 S. Division Ave., said he has had trouble getting enough shipments of new vinyl releases from manufacturers because vinyl-pressing plants around the company are running at capacity and cannot keep up.

Even mainstream retailers such as Best Buy are starting to test sales of vinyl records. Who could have seen that coming even 10 years ago, when about the only place you could find vinyl around Grand Rapids was at Dodd's Record Shop, an institution that has been around for 55 years?

Olson goes so far as to say CDs -- which saw a 17.5 percent drop in shipments last year -- are "kind of dead," slain mostly by digital downloading via the Internet.

So what's the attraction to vinyl records? It sure cannot be the skips, scratches and warps, though that might add to their charm. No, pretty much everybody who has discovered or rediscovered vinyl insists it sounds warmer and richer, especially if it's played through high-quality speakers and cartridges (aka needles).

John Williamson, of East Grand Rapids, looks over vinyl albums at The Corner Record Shop in Grandville. "There's something about it that just puts yourself at ease," Williamson said. "A record isn't going to be as flat (sounding). With CDs, there isn't going to be as much of the dynamic range. It sounds fuller on a record."

Of course, there's also the larger, more resplendent cover art and easier to read liner notes.

"The artwork and the presentation were almost as important as the album itself," Patterson said of records' heyday in the '70s.

Olson, who stops into Vertigo three or four times a week to browse bins or buy newer releases by artists such as Hot Chip and Godspeed You Black Emperor, even appreciates that vinyl records require a more active investment of time and energy.

Savoring the process

Rather than the simple click of a computer mouse to listen, there's the routine of searching for an LP, placing it on a turntable and putting the needle on the record.

"I like the process. It's more about the hunt. It's fun trying to find what you want," said Olson, who has also acquired part of his dad's old record collection. "I've never gotten so excited with buying CDs."

On its surface, the resurgence of vinyl "all seems so ridiculous," conceded Baker, who seeks used vinyl from anybody who's willing to part with a collection, as does Williamson. Both stores also sell turntables. "I'm surprised at some level, but I can appreciate the aesthetics of vinyl, its vastness, the sound quality. I'm just happy I've got something I can sell."

Baker estimates new and used vinyl records make up nearly 40 percent of Vertigo's overall sales; it's about 70 percent at the Corner. Even 45-rpm records have a devoted audience, said Williamson, who has a back room filled with them.

Mario Leon, owner of Grand Rapids' The Beat Goes On, 1007 E. Fulton St., doesn't sell as many vinyl LPs as Vertigo or Corner, but shoppers occasionally come in and "buy a ton" of old 45s.

So can we expect a revival in other retro-technology, perhaps a wave of interest in '70s' eight-track tapes, which could be the goofiest music format ever invented?

"If eight-tracks come back," Leon quipped, "I'm slitting my wrists."


1 comment:

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