Music, Play, Slide Show — November 1, 2011 5:29 pm

Vinyl Revolution

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Not long ago, vinyl records were the floppy disks of the music world: outdated and sold off thrift-store walls for pocket change. Now music fans are turning into audiophiles, obsessing over the quality of sound and eagerly snatching up vinyl LPs. What’s behind the rebirth of vinyl, and will it last?

In the age of the iPod, vinyl is making a serious comeback. Photo by Danielle Koval.

Janis Joplin’s raw, wailing voice screams, “Take it / Take another little piece of my heart now, baby” through the speakers while avid music fans flip frantically through endless crates of vinyl records at Shake It Records. It’s Record Store Day, the fourth annual national event created to “celebrate the art of music,” and people are putting their hands on any vinyl within their grasp, like kids scrounging for candy after a busted piñata. A myriad of 12-inch black varnished discs wrapped in trippy art and plastic are stuffed in wooden crates lining the two-story building in Cincinnati’s Northside neighborhood. Joplin may be crooning her manly blues, but one faint sound resonates through my ears: the crinkle and smack of plastic being fanatically pulled apart. Kids are flipping through LPs almost as fast as Hendrix could fingerpick the solo in “Voodoo Child.”

Collectors search through the never-ending rows of vinyl LPs at Shake It Records in Cincinnati. Photo by Danielle Koval.

I may be one of those people who squeal at the news of a sweet band coming to town, but my approach to this event celebrated by 700 independent record stores across the country was rather low-key compared to the serious collectors, or audiophiles, who lined up bright and early in front of the store. Chris Hall, promotions executive of Electric Fetus, a record store in Minneapolis, recalls a mob outside of his store. “Last year we had 300 people waiting for us to open; this year, we had 400,” he says. “People just kept coming.” The crowd was so massive that the store had to put a limit on how many records could be purchased per person. The “special edition” section of the store had to be roped off as though people were waiting to meet Aerosmith. “The first year [we participated in Record Store Day] we didn’t know what we were expecting, and the second year was crazy,” Hall says. “We had to pass out numbers.”

Regular patrons know the vinyl collection requires a trip to the basement. Photo by Danielle Koval.

Taking in the scene at Shake It, I notice that many of the shoppers look like they just trekked across town from a college class. I wasn’t among a horde of 50-year-old men still wearing their ’79 Led Zeppelin concert tees; I was surrounded by people in their mid-20s in Band of Horses T-shirts. As a member of this age bracket, I think to myself, we grew up with Duck Hunt and Nintendo, boom boxes and other forms of mediocre technology that are now only featured through VH1’s “I Love the ‘90s.” Now we live in a world that the late Steve Jobs revolutionized with his simple signature of “i”— iPods, iPhones, iTunes. We can download the latest track of any artist while sitting in five o’clock traffic. Now all of the sudden the Echo Generation (we kids of the ‘90s) are buying turntables. Why? We can’t put them in our pockets; we can’t even clip them to our hips while we attempt to exercise. Is this a fad? Buying turntables and birthing a record collection are way more expensive endeavors than mp3 purchases. But the appeal for analog sound is catching on: Not only is this resurfacing hobby cool, but it also could possibly save the struggling music industry.

Shake It is an independent record store in Cincinnati's Northside neighborhood. Photo by Danielle Koval.

Music label execs have been sweating bullets for a while now. When was the last time you bought a CD? Can’t remember? Neither can I—which is why the record industry, and the music industry in general, is struggling to stay afloat as a prosperous industry in the new decade. According to Rolling Stone, overall album sales dropped 13 percent in 2010. Thanks to all the free illegal music sources splattered across the Internet, only non-computer-savvy consumers are still purchasing music (which might explain why so many Susan Boyle albums were purchased last year). Many musicians have to rely on touring to try to survive in their profession, but ticket sales only cover so much.

“The music industry as a whole has been slipping,” Hall says.  “People started listening to things differently. CD buyers have stopped buying CDs.” The digital age has consumed the concept of tangible media, but the sales of vinyl records increased by 14 percent last year, even though overall album sales plummeted, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

What is vinyl’s appeal? First off, the sound is phenomenally better. “Vinyl beats any format,” Hall says. “There’s a warmth to the sound; there’s a fuller frequency.” Dropping the needle to listen to a vinyl record is the closest thing to planting oneself in the recording studio with the band. “Even a crappy [record] system will fill the room with three-dimensional sound compared to the one-dimensional, tinny, transparent bass of mp3s,” I read on classicvinylrecord.com. The 3D sound refers to the listener’s ability to actually hear the different instruments as individual contributions, making the song come alive. This allows for musical subtleties, such as the crash of a symbol, the rattle of a high-hat or the highest pitch on the smallest string of a harp, to be heard.

An in-store listen on an old-school turntable could clinch the sale. Photo by Danielle Koval.

The joy of listening to vinyl records is only half the excitement of being an audiophile. The search for vinyl has become an epic quest.  Many artists release special-edition albums with only a few hundred copies made. My friend with a bionic ear for the specifics of sound accompanied me on this ‘70s flashback holiday. He talked about his hope in finding a Garaj Mahal album during our entire drive to Shake It Records, making me contemplate how many of these vinyl fanatics will actually find what they’re looking for. “Some people that work here have to have the limited edition of something,” Hall says. “They will search forever for a record that only has 300 copies, or even 50; it’s part of being a collector.”

I, apparently, had yet to understand that being a true collector, also means thinking like a vinyl pirate. After flipping through so many albums in the alternative rock, indie and punk sections of Shake It, my friend grew weary of trying to find what he was looking for. I tried to sound encouraging.

“Can’t you just order the album online?” I asked.

“I can’t just order it,” he said, exasperated. “Do you know the feeling of when you find the record and it’s just waiting for you? That’s the best feeling.”

Shake It has about 8,000 albums in stock. Photo by Danielle Koval.

Meanwhile, the nostalgia associated with record collecting is endless. Honing in on vinyl aficionados’ love of all things nostalgic is the genius behind former bass-less sensation, Jack White of White Stripes. White recently created Third Man Records, a recording-studio-slash-record-store in Nashville. White has popped out such vinyl avant-garde goodies as glow-in-the-dark records, scratch-and-sniff 7-inchers and the infamous “double-decker LP.” Perhaps everyone doesn’t think of their White Stripes record as their post-apocalyptic power-outage source, or have the desire for their record to smell like blueberries—but there is a market for this stuff.  Plus, the double-decker features a single from his bluesy quartet The Dead Weather, which includes a “hidden” 7-inch inside the 12-inch LP. That’s gnarly.

The response from White’s experimental endeavors has been warm, giving him the go-ahead to try more quirky additions to the industry, while signaling a broader trend with labels around the country. “You have to find ways to get your customers interested in your product,” says Sean Willis of Goner Records in Memphis. “Especially when they can get on a computer and find a download of the same record for free in a matter of minutes.”

Is vinyl forever? Hard to tell, but these days albums are spinning off the shelves. Photo by Danielle Koval.

The question remains, though: Will vinyl stick around? “There’s a ceiling to the vinyl expansion,” Hall predicts. “It’s still a tiny part of the market. Even if it continues to expand, it’s going to be a niche market. That’s fine if the [independent record] store will be able to adapt, maintain a community, and you discover unexpected and new music through record stores.”

Back at Shake It, I grow tired of looking through the crates of LPs when I notice two 15-year-old boys standing behind me, patiently waiting to take a peek at what lies inside the “B” section of the alternative rock section. They probably heard of vinyl records for the first time in their seventh-grade history class, yet they’re two of the most excited people I’ve seen all day. One of them, a pudgy fellow in a white T-shirt with a cluster of brown curls piled on the top of his head, politely asks if he could flip through the very stack I was about to rummage through.

“Go right ahead,” I told him. “It gives my fingers some rest.”

He eagerly steps forward and rises up on his tiptoes to look at every album title in the crate. “I really hope I find a Grateful Dead album today,” he says.

Even if he doesn’t, odds are he’ll be back for more vinyl again. 

 

 

 

 

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