Friday, January 23, 2009

Vinyl Music Making Comeback in Digital Age

Snap, crackle, pop!

No, the radio DJ is not eating Rice Krispies on the air. He's playing music on the old format that had largely disappeared a generation ago: the analog vinyl LP. And though it occasionally hisses and crackles and pops (OK, so we exaggerated about the snapping part), it has other endearing qualities that are being rediscovered in the digital age.

"It actually sounds different," said Andy Chanley, p.m. drive-time jock at 100.3 "The Sound," as he wiped down the next vinyl album he would be spinning.

He sets aside the digital server and CD player and cranks up the station's vintage turntable during "Album Sides Wednesday" on LA radio's latest iteration of the classic rock format (KSWD calls it "best rock").

Chanley's playing mostly vintage stuff: the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour ("You say yes, I say no..."), The Stones' Sticky Fingers ("How come ya dance so good?"), Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever ("I'm fallin'"). Format, not content, the main difference from what he plays on his non-vinyl shifts, though he does get special requests from listeners he cannot initially fulfill.

"We don't have that," Chanley has had to tell more than one listener, only to be delivered a vinly album with the admonition, "Well, here it is. You should play this!"

And he does.

The likable Chanley was still in school (back home in Indiana) in the mid-80's when compact discs heralded the revolutionary switch in music recording from analog to digital. It promised the end of the surface noise created by dragging a diamond stylus through the grooves on vinyl discs. But even then there were purists (or Luddites, depending on your viewpoint), who complained that something was lost in translating music into ones and zeroes; that digital recordings lacked the "warmth" of analog recordings.

"Whether it's better or worse, that's something a lot of people argue about. It's a preference," Chanley said diplomatically. "We're interested in the experience of hearing the vinyl and hearing the warmth. There IS a difference."

Warmth or not, vinyl quickly was marginalized as music marched into the digital age. And now in the 21st century, CDs are inexorably being marginalized by digital downloads. But there's been a parallel phenomenon: the renewed interest in vinyl, with some labels repressing classic discs, and some new artists even pushing for small runs of vinyl recordings to be sold along with their digital versions.

Nearly two million vinyl albums were sold last year, most since Nielsen SoundScan began keeping records in 1991. In the post-Tower-Records economy, vinyl has been a boon to Amoeba Records and other shops tasked with remaining relevant in the download age. In fact, Chanley said his KSWD cohorts rely on Amoeba to fill in gaps in their vinyl collection.

Even Walmart, now the largest retailer of CDs, also stocks vinyl -- not just classics, but new releases as well.

Nobody sees vinyl derailing digital's dominance, but Chanley, among others, sees it staking a claim to a viable niche market.

Snap, crackle, pop!


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