Sunday, November 16, 2008

Warm sound, artistic covers fuel record sales

The day Dr. Wax shuts its doors for the last time will be a sad one. The iconic music shop’s closure is a sign of the end of the CD era, but there is still a record store in Evanston that’s doing quite well.

“Business is great,” said Steve Kay, manager of Vintage Vinyl in Evanston near the intersection of Davis and Maple. “Always good here.”

The posters, t-shirts and other memorabilia that hang on the pink walls of Kay’s shop frame its centerpiece and main attraction: racks upon racks of vinyl records encased in plastic sleeves. A lanky, bespectacled man with long, gray hair, Kay seems to complete the scene. “I’ve never actually even bought a CD. It’s not the way I would prefer to listen to music,” said the store owner, sorting through a stack of new arrivals. “I never bought a cassette in my life, so when they introduced the cassette format that wasn’t interesting for me, either. So, for me, music is not about the convenience factor; it’s a very different experience.”

Vintage Vinyl has developed a reputation, even at an international level, for providing high-quality records (they owe at least some of their notoriety to a name-drop in the 2000 John Cusack film High Fidelity). “People know that the quality that we deal with is always going to be top-notch… we’ve developed a reputation for that in terms of the world market,” Kay said.

While Dr. Wax, whose revenue came almost exclusively from CD sales according to manager Jason Hoffman, was beset by hard financial times, Vintage thrives on the sale of an even more seemingly outdated form of media. Even though vinyl is one of the methods of recording furthest from the digital age, it has been experiencing resurgence.

According to the RIAA’s 2007 year-end report, vinyl has seen a 36.6 percent sales increase over the past year, a complete reversal of the downward trend of the past decades. “There definitely has been a rise in vinyl sales over the past year or so,” said Erik Keldsen, Sales and Distribution Representative for Thrill Jockey Records (The Sea and Cake, The Fiery Furnaces).

iTunes and other downloading formats are also on the rise, and online music piracy is more widespread than ever. The internet is what killed Dr. Wax; the same RIAA report shows CD sales experiencing an overall downward trend since 2000. However, vinyl appeals to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, and even the ultra-portable mp3 format can’t rob the LP of its charm and potential for growth.

“The cover of a record is more of an art object than a smaller CD where it’s hard to read and seems very disposable, so that could be one way of entering into it, just an aesthetic choice,” Kay said. “And then there’s the area of collectability… certainly there are more CDs produced than records.”

What this all amounts to is that having a physical embodiment of one’s music is an important and desirable thing for some. “As music gets further and further away from something you can hold onto – people rebel,” said Nicole Yalaz, publicist from Drag City Records (Silver Jews, Joanna Newsom) in an email.

[Inside Vintage Vinyl. Photo by Tom Schroeder / North by Northwestern.]

According to Kay, there were some who “felt manipulated by the record companies in terms of being told that their vinyl was no longer valuable or worth hearing once the CD format was introduced.” As a result, some people did rebel – by simply continuing to listen to vinyl. Still, the format’s popularity continued to wane until recent times, although it kept a cult following consisting mostly of audiophiles and music collectors.

“[Records] have a warmer, more natural sound; they’re closer to what you would probably hear if you have a live experience rather than the codes that you would find on a CD. It’s a very different way of hearing things,” Kay said. “It’s audible, you can actually hear it clearly.”

A digital music file is a string of rapid “snapshots” of the recorded sound, so that “by definition, a digital recording is not capturing the complete sound wave. It is approximating it with a series of steps. Some sounds will be distorted because they change too quickly for the sample rate.”

In addition, the limitations of the LP give it a certain charm. Dropping a needle into the groove of a record and finding where a song starts is a more personal act than hitting “play” on an iPod, though it may require more effort. Due to the importability factor, listeners are forced to sit down, relax for a bit and take in an entire album at once as a musical unit.

For similar reasons, Jay-Z’s most recent release, American Gangster, has been taken off of iTunes because of the tendency of iTunes users to download only select tracks. “As movies are not sold scene by scene, this collection will not be sold as individual singles,” Shawn Carter stated in a press release. The album is still available for download through Jay-Z’s label, Roc-A-Fella, but only as a whole album.

Though much of the vinyl fan base consists of older people who were actually around in the medium’s heyday, records have recently started to appeal to younger crowds as well. “Now that there’s a resurgence in media support, I think the demographic has expanded again to include people starting in their late teens,” Kay said. “I think a lot of the kids in their late teens and early twenties have the feeling that they can sort of stand out from the pack on some level if they embrace the format whereas most of their friends are still downloading just the one song that they like by a certain artist.”

These kids aren’t just classic-rock fanatics, either. New, popular material is being released on vinyl such as Coldplay’s Viva la Vida and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.

In order to eliminate the need of vinyl buyers to purchase music twice (once each for portable and home listening) some record companies, like Thrill Jockey, have found a way to cater to those who enjoy both vinyl and mp3s. Labels are including free digital copies of albums with the purchase of their records. “From a consumer standpoint, [including a digital copy] makes it even more attractive to buy the vinyl because otherwise… you’ve got the vinyl which is great, but then some people are like ‘What am I going to do in my car, or on the train…’ so giving them the mp3s, I think, makes a lot of sense,” Keldsen said. Thrill Jockey started including the downloads about two years ago. Today many labels are following suit, but some, like Drag City, “haven’t jumped on that train yet,” as Yalaz puts it.

Old collectors, audiophiles, teenaged hipsters, nostalgia buffs and pretty much anyone else can find something to enjoy in a good record. The world is rediscovering vinyl, which was never quite forgotten in the first place. “From the first day until now, there have been no lulls in business,” Kay said. And the resurgence certainly bodes well for Mr. Kay and his shop. “[Selling new records], for me, is exciting because it’s how we started in a way, so the fact that people are interested in supporting bands that are pressing their records out on vinyl is to me a very exciting proposition and I hope it continues.”

[North By Northwestern]

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