The local vinyl revival: Don't throw those records away just yet!
It makes no sense. They're heavy to move, and tough to store. They're finicky and delicate. They warp in the heat, scratch easily, and are never the same afterward. But, if you, like many other baby boomers, have been reluctant, unwilling, or unable to part with a dusty, old, milk crate full of your beloved Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Grateful Dead albums, despite the fact that you haven't listened to them in decades, and, probably haven't even owned a working turntable since Reagan Administration, take heart. The wait may be over. Your impractical but tenacious hoarding of those 12-inch black polycarbonate vinyl love letters to your past may have been surprisingly farsighted, after all. Simply put, vinyl records are back. What goes around, comes around, and with increasing frequency is being spun around again (at 33 1/3 and 45 revolutions per minute) on turntables all around the area.
Technically speaking, vinyl records never went away completely. Even after the introduction and wide acceptance of CDs in the early '80s, there were always a few independent record stores (mostly in larger cities) that stocked records for a fringe group of devoted listeners. Some vinyl fans didn't want to, or couldn't afford, to invest in new technology which seemed to change with the season. Others simply wanted to hear to their music as it was originally issued. Ukiah record collector and audiophile Matt Eifert, 37, remembers that as late as "1986-1987-1988, all three formats (cassettes, CDs, and records) were pretty healthy." Then, he says, music companies, bowing to clear consumer preference for the lighter, tougher, compact disks, all but stopped issuing any new vinyl at all. Eifert calls this period, from the late '80s until about 1993, "the dark days." Then, in the early '90s, "grunge rock" happened and defiantly retro bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam began issuing their music in record form again, and almost like "Rocky" the beleaguered format, regarded as all but dead, began punching it's way off the ropes.
Now, vinyl is vibrant again. Michael Roumbanis, owner of Dig Music at 362 N. State St. estimates that 10 to 20 percent of his sales come from records, and the trend is up. Used albums sell better than new, but, he points out that more and more artists are putting out new product on vinyl and the average price point - now about $20 per record - is coming down. Among recently issued LPs displayed on his wall are new records from AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Amy Winehouse, and Bruce Springsteen, among others. Dig Music, has also been a long time supporter of AFI (A Fire Inside), a major punk/alternative band with Ukiah roots, a worldwide fan base, a rich catalogue of vinyl recordings to their credit. On one of his walls, Roubanis displays a framed, early (now collectable) AFI single, worth he says around $1,000.
What sort of vinyl is most popular? Classic rock sells consistently at Dig Music, but "reggae, punk, and blues go so fast, and they're hard to get - nobody gives them up, basically," says Roumbanis. For a good selection of hip hop records, though, and knowing his store can't cater to all tastes, he refers his customers to DJ Pinoy at 591 S. State St.
Dig Music also sells turntables, both basic and some with USB ports, which allow the owner to plug into a computer, and burn CDs or create digital files from records. This feature is attractive for some because much of what was put on record has never made the journey into the digital world. Others simply want to transfer their old records onto an iPod, so they so they can enjoy the music they've already collected in a more convenient form.
The store has also played host to some vinyl-supportive special events. Matt Eifert has come in and taught a gathering how to properly set up their turntables for maximum performance, and during Ukiah's monthly downtown Art Walk, Roumbanis set up a gallery-like exhibition and discussion of classic and distinctive LP cover art.
Down State Street, co-owners of Jitter Box Music, Jim Tuhtan and Mike Zarkowski, have each been toting around their personal collections of hundreds (or thousands) of records for years.
"I measure mine by the pound," says Zarkowski. The two musicians echo each other in their affection for the old vinyl. Both talk of the fidelity lost with "a chopped up" digital signal, and the fact that so much material on record simply can't be found in newer formats.
"Plus," says Tuhtan, "I've always liked vinyl records because I like the jackets. They're big enough to see."
Around Ukiah, the vinyl revival has taken many forms. Since January 2005, radio station KMEC at105.1 FM has been home of the "Vintage Vinyl" show hosted by Barry Kirkpatrick. Three nights a week, Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays from 9 p.m. to midnight, Kirkpatrick sits in the studio at 106 W. Standley St., spinning records, taking calls, and telling yarns. His personal record collection has formed the core of his playlist, but he sometimes borrows from other collectors or has friends come into the studio, sit down, and play their discs on the air with him.
Not every record he plays is in mint condition, Kirkpatrick admits "My first consideration was that for them (the listeners) the scratchiness of a record would be a distraction, and I would ask someone if that was a bother, and they would say no, that's what makes it real."
"One day," Kirkpatrick recalls with amusement, "some young people were standing right outside the door of the studio. A girl saw me set the needle down on a record, and she asked, How does he know where to set that down?' There are no lines on a CD, and she'd never seen that before. That was a totally legitimate question."
Meanwhile, at the Ukiah Brewing Company, out on their patio, there is a turntable and stereo system set up, a new canvas canopy overhead, and a stack of mostly well-worn albums inside for anyone who wants to play DJ for awhile. Or, people can bring their own collections and spin them for the generally appreciative crowd gathered outside at any given time. The idea for the do-it-yourself human jukebox came from Redwood Valley resident Titus Sanborn, who, in the fall of 2007,was working his way through the death of his wife, and eating at the Brewing Company every day. He spotted an old single speaker wooden hi-fi unit at the Goodwill store, bought it, set it up on the patio, brought in some records and soon found himself presiding over a nightly "scene."
"It was an immediate sensation," says Titus. "This music is a delight to people."
The set-up on the patio has evolved since then. The original vintage, wooden, plug-and-play unit has given way to a more contemporary component system, and Titus now adds a professional light show on some nights, but the "patio scene" is still cathartic for him and others. Some nights he likens it a "beach party," and at other times it's more like a gentle bonding among friends. Records, he says, are aptly named.
"They're records of a place, a time, and a circumstance, and without those records, the memories are lost."
On the other end of the spectrum, technologically speaking, is Ukiah schoolteacher Matt Eifert. Music has always been a big part of his life, and like most in their late 30s, his musical journey started with cassette tapes. From there, he got into CDs in a big way. In fact, he owned what he describes as "the best CD player in the world at that time" and possessed only one record album, when he bought his first turntable for $70. On playing a vinyl for the first time, Eifert said, he became "slack jawed" at the difference. Records, to his ear, sounded richer, fuller, warmer, and more true to life, leaving his CDs sounding, "flat, two dimensional, and small." Soon, he was hooked, and 20,000 records accumulated later, Eifert says, "I like everything about the format - it's more compelling to me."
But, even that may understate Eifert's love affair with vinyl records. Because in order to maximize his listening pleasure, the Ukiah resident undertook the building of a special acoustically designed room-within-a-store, filled it with top notch audio equipment - just the turntable, cartridge and tone arm, alone are worth $20,000 - and now invites friends over for some of what surely must be some of the most sublime vinyl listening sessions in anywhere.
So don't throw those old vinyl records away, quite yet. If you've held on to them this long, retrieve them, dust them off, and enjoy them again. They may not sound as good as new, but maybe that's a good thing.
[Ukiah Daily Journal]
Sunday, November 16, 2008
The local vinyl revival: Don't throw those records away just yet!