A new spin on vinyl
Medium’s revival proves albums have staying power
Vinyl is spinning out the doors faster than you can say “old is new again,” says Gene Berger, owner of Greenville’s Horizon Records.
To welcome the faithful and the curious, Berger is throwing open the door to his Stone Avenue store on Dec. 6 for a giant, all-day record fair.
Opened in 1975, Horizon once knew a time when vinyl ruled. It also experienced the medium’s decline as customers took to cassette tapes and, later, to CDs and a variety of download options.
But even as his business became a purveyor of newer technologies, it also continued to be a record store. Berger says he felt vinyl was “always the touchstone and the grail of the music business.”
To this day, vinyl remains Horizon Records’ moniker.
Berger says he considered getting out of the vinyl business in the early 1990s when album sales hit a low point in the Upstate. Yet, he held on to his inventory, hopeful that small pockets of interest around the country and in Europe might lead to a vinyl renaissance.
Then in the late ’90s, he noticed that young people and some boomer-era collectors were showing interest in albums again. “I thought maybe something is going on here,” he says.
A man of action, Berger put together a dollar-an-album section from his inventory, combined with boxes of old, unwanted albums people left at his store.
A story he loves to tell is how 15 years ago, a young collector came in and began to flip through the albums asking what each cost. Berger and his manager exchanged glances and, just for the heck of it, Berger said they were $1 apiece. That nearly floored the happy collector, who bought “stacks of them,” Berger laughs.
His $1 album section continues to be a draw and an entry point for collectors, he says. “It gives people an option to shop cheaply and immerse themselves in the vinyl world, spinning through the past,” he says. “It’s crazy and it’s fun.”
It’s all that and more for 22-year-old Shelley Curtis, a collector since she was a high school freshman.
Her first purchase? The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” “with the patches and everything,” she says. “I thought it was super cool because you can’t get all those little perks with a CD.”
But what she loves best is that vinyl means active listening.
“You have to make an effort to play the album,” she says. “It’s kind of like when you’re a kid and making mud pies, you get your hands dirty. With a CD, you stick it in the player and probably don’t even listen because at the same time you’re doing 80 different things.” Not so with a record that requires working the turntable.
“I put my heart and soul into taking care of my albums,” she says.
She grows her collection by routinely checking the classified ads.
Inheriting your uncle’s old album collection as Neil Collins did in 1998 is yet another way to get bitten by the vinyl bug. The 30-year-old Collins says his uncle had a “pretty decent collection of rock” that included Elvis Costello’s 1977 “My Aim Is True,” which “turned me on to Costello.”
While Collins purchased mostly CDs in the past, he returned to vinyl about three years ago and says today “probably three quarters of the new material that I purchased is on vinyl.”
His reasons? “The physicality of an album collection and a more faithful sound reproduction.”
Berger offers a number of reasons for vinyl’s resurgence, even as CD sales have dropped. Leading his list is the fact that audio reproductions have become a commodity.
“Music became devalued,” he says, “as it turned into only a file on a hard drive and nothing else.” People wanted more than that. They wanted the tangible connection they could have with vinyl. “I think people yearn for that, and that becomes part of the album allure.”
Concurrent to the vinyl revival was the 1980s-and-forward “turntableism, sampling and beat making,” Berger says. For example, hip-hop artist DJ Shadow’s debut studio album, “Endtroducing” (1996, by Mo’ Wax Records), was created entirely from samples of other records. Even the cover photo is a plug to vinyl a huge record store with aisles and aisles of albums.
That culture brought more collectors digging for nostalgia. At the same time, the young, hip crowd began wanting its new Tortoise or Silver Jews recordings on vinyl instead of CD, or on both formats. Also, collectors in Europe were wanting to purchase American recordings of old R&B, hard to find jazz and early folk and blues albums.
“I get guys coming through here that are broker/collectors out of New York or Detroit and from other places buying up album collections,” says Berger. “I’ve sold to Dutch, Japanese and English collectors who were rolling through the South looking to buy.”
The vinyl renaissance proved to be good news for the surviving independent record stores, says Berger, naming as successes, Waterloo Records in Austin, the California-based Amoeba Records, Denver’s Twist and Shout and Asheville’s Harvest Records.
The latter’s Matt Schnabel, 27, says he and his business partner, Mark Capone, 28, started noticing about a year ago “a big increase” in vinyl sales, especially in new vinyl, he says. “A lot of people don’t think that recording companies are still pressing LPs for new bands, but in fact they are. Small labels such as Sub Pop, Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey, Merge and Secretly Canadian never stopped doing vinyl and actively promoting their releases offered in multiple formats.”
Schnabel, who bought the store with Capone four years ago, says today’s big trend is to enhance new albums with a download code for a two-format kick. The plus is perfect for today’s buyer who prefers listening to vinyl at home, but likes the portability of the iPod and versatility of computer files.
A collector since college days, Schnabel calls CDs “a fleeting thing.” Not so with vinyl albums, which not only have heft but also come with artsy jacket covers and require involved listening. “For me, vinyl is a lifelong thing,” he says.
YOU CAN GO
What: Greenville Record Fair
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Dec. 6
Where: Horizon Records, 2-A Stone Ave.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
A new spin on vinyl