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Thomas Nassiff 08/11/11 04:59 PM

Don't Call It A Comeback: The Resurgence of the Vinyl Record
 
Don't Call It A Comeback: The Resurgence of the Vinyl Record
By Thomas Nassiff
Gainesville, Fla.


Note: Some of the sources in this article have chosen to have their real-life names remain anonymous.

Nick Lê listens to a lot of music. It’s hard for him to estimate exactly how often he’s wearing his headphones, but there’s one number that might apply.

24,874. That’s how many songs Lê has in his iTunes music library. It’s a hefty number, for sure – but in this day and age of digital music, when virtually anything can be found anywhere for free, it’s not a ridiculous number.

Despite that huge number, though, his computer is not where Lê turns when he wants to set some time aside and listen to music. When one of his favorite bands releases a new record, Lê doesn’t turn to iTunes or other digital distributors to get the music.

“There are few music listening experiences that can match up with throwing a record on your turntable,” Lê said. “I don't always have the time, but I love sitting down and having the liner notes and lyrics in front of me as I listen.”

A fourth-year sociology major at the University of California, Irvine, Lê is one of an increasing number of music fans that have helped contribute to the return of the vinyl record.

Sales of vinyl records have been steadily climbing over the last five years, a lone bright spot in the crippling music industry. While towering major record labels have struggled and crumpled due to depleted sales, independent and underground labels have found a new niche in the business by selling vinyl.

In 2006, vinyl record sales totaled 858,000, according to Billboard. In 2010, the last full year of data, vinyl sales came out to 2.8 million – an increase of 326 percent over four years. The numbers from 2011 are set to shatter the 2010 counts, as the figure for the first six months of this year weighed in at a bulky 1.9 million – a 41 percent growth from the same time last year.

The rise in sales of vinyl is a stark contrast to the rest of the business. In 2000, the music industry had one of its most lucrative years with album sales totaling 943 million units. In 2010, a decade later, sales totaled less than half that figure with a balmy 326.2 million albums sold.

At the core of the movement is a simple question: why vinyl? Why is a noticeable portion of the music-listening population opting for bookshelves full of wax instead of a pocket-sized mp3 player filled with thousands of songs?

“There are two main reasons why vinyl has become more popular,” said Michael Kurtz, co-founder of Record Store Day. “A whole new generation is discovering the sound and experience of vinyl, and it has value so when people buy it, they’re learning you can trade and collect it with friends.”

Kurtz is something of an expert when it comes to vinyl. He helped found Record Store Day, a holiday among vinyl devotees. Record Store Day is an annual “celebration of the unique culture surrounding over 700 independently owned record stores in the USA,” according to its website. Every year, artists and independent record stores team up to release limited products to music fans that can only be purchased in record stores.

According to Kurtz, who owns about 1,000 pieces of vinyl himself, the comeback of the vinyl record kicked in right when the first Record Store Day was launched four years ago – and it’s not a coincidence.

“If you look at the arc [of vinyl sales], it starts right around that first Record Store Day,” Kurtz said. “There was a lot of negative press about indie record stores at that time, but when Record Store Day started everyone came right back and loved them again.”

While the medium’s popularity did begin to increase around that time, not all music fans that purchase vinyl got on the bandwagon at once.

“I had never heard about Record Store Day until this year,” said Lauren Remenick, a fourth year environmental sciences major at Elon University in North Carolina. “But I’ve been buying records from my favorite bands for probably two and a half years or so now.”

In today’s digital music landscape, most young music lovers have never had the experience of going into a concrete music store and flipping through records, wrestling with which ones they can afford to buy. The physical aspect of vinyl is what most experts claim to be the reason for its recent rise in popularity.

“Listening to vinyl is an experience by itself,” Kurtz said. “It’s almost like watching a movie. You get the bigger artwork, you get to place it on the turntable; it’s an entirely different experience from listening to music digitally.”

For the audiophiles out there, the warm and expanded sound of vinyl is as appreciated than any other aspect of the medium. Unlike digital music files, which can produce a “cramped” sound when they aren’t in high quality, vinyl records are more likely to present the music with its production quality at full potential. Listeners like Lê and Remenick are even taking in the snaps, crackles and pops characteristic of the medium as a part of the experience.

“The difference in sound is definitely a big part of why I buy [vinyl],” Remenick said. “It’s more of a hassle to listen to it, but I think it’s worth it for the sound. It’s not that digital files sound bad – it’s just the whole deal, including everything like the snaps and crackles. It makes for a big difference when you have time to take it all in.”

With so many fans clamoring for vinyl, it makes sense for the industry to ride the wave of popularity as long as it can. Even though the 1.9 million pieces of vinyl sold this year make up less than 1 percent of total music sales, the business is in no position to ignore any possible means of revenue.

Anamericangod Joe is the owner of independent record label American Dream Records. Joe started the label for a simple reason – there were records that he wanted to own that hadn’t yet been pressed on vinyl. Instead of hoping for albums to be pressed on vinyl by someone else, Joe has begun acquiring licensing rights and pressing records himself.

“For me, and for a lot of [people who buy vinyl], having a record on vinyl is the opportunity to preserve something you love in a long-lasting format,” Joe said. “It’s not just a record, it’s a memento. It’s a keepsake. It’s a part of who you have become since music has meant so much to you. You can’t get that with a digital download.”

Just as important as the physical experience and potentially enhanced audio experience is that all corners of the industry have motioned in support of the vinyl medium. According to Kurtz, both underground and mainstream artists have begun supporting vinyl in a way that has helped preserve its relevancy.

“At the core of everything is the artist,” Kurtz said. “A lot of artists don’t even feel as though the record is complete until they see it pressed on vinyl. It’ll be around as long as artists want it.”

Vinnie Fiorello, owner of independent punk label Paper + Plastick Records, holds a similar opinion.

“The ritual of listening to vinyl, the actual process of pouring over art and lyrics reaches past just hearing,” Fiorello said. “It's the complete picture of how a band wants to present the record to the fan.”

Fiorello has taken the concept of unique, limited vinyl to new heights. A collector of vinyl for 25 years, he has seen how vinyl works from every perspective. First as a fan; then as a band member with ska-punk legends Less Than Jake and finally as a label owner, Fiorello knows the ins and outs of the business.

That’s why Fiorello started Paper + Plastick as a “vinyl and digital record label with a focus on excellent packaging…from up-and-coming, amazing artists and bands.” The focus on unique physical packaging has given Paper + Plastick its own niche, even among other independent labels.

“The resurgence of vinyl comes from the need to own a piece of the music that you love and respect,” Fiorello said. “It's the passion for that music, beyond just listening, beyond being happy with just the digital files, to collect actual records.”

Fiorello has blended the vision of artists with the desires of fans. He speaks extensively of giving fans a more physical product for their dollar. In an age where music can be downloaded for free at a whim, it’s essential to make music fans feel as though their money is being well-spent, and Fiorello said one way to do that is to give them limited, one-of-a-kind physical products designed by the band or label.

Not all labels match the extensive packaging that Fiorello’s label tends to produce, but they are still able to help artists deliver their music in the exact fashion they wish.

Joe’s independent startup of a label is a testament to that. With his first release, Joe was able to press a record called “Only Every Time” by a band called The Graduate. Although the band had seen moderate success with the CD version of the release, they couldn’t find a label willing to press the album on vinyl. That’s where Joe stepped in.

“It has been a slow process over the years for those people who found value in vinyl for whatever reason. Something kept them hanging on and interested when they could have easily jumped ship in favor of something more convenient and often less expensive,” Joe said.

“The optimist in me wants to say that more people are again realizing that music is much more than just an accessory, as it has been regarded for numerous years now.”

Music fans have begun to start bringing Joe’s optimistic side to a heightened level. Even though his label is a small operation, Joe was able to sell a majority of the copies of his first release.

One thing Joe, Fiorello, Kurtz, Lê and Remenick all have in common is a universal passion for the medium. It’s a dedication – some might even call it a lifestyle. And that dedication is found in collectors from all over the country.

Matthew Pryor, vocalist for adored emo/punk innovators The Get Up Kids, explained the resurgence of vinyl in his own way. In an interview with The Vinyl District, a widely followed national blog that posts news about local record stores across the nation, Pryor weaved his own picture of the movement.

“I find that there are certain points in our humanity where, as a society, we took something that was perfect in every way and ruined it in the name of convenience. We make things easier or smaller but in some sense lose the essence,” Pryor said.

“I think [vinyl is] the slow food movement of the music industry. They are bigger, more difficult to maintain, take longer and cost more to produce but they just taste (or in this case sound) [italics added] so much better. Our grandparents had it right in a lot of ways and this is no exception.”

While Pryor might be able to express it more eloquently than others, one thing is for certain – vinyl’s got its groove back.

cwhit412 08/11/11 05:25 PM

How did I know Joe would be in this.

SingleDoubt 08/11/11 05:43 PM

That was a great read. There's just something infinitely cooler about showing someone your vinyl collection as opposed to opening up your laptop and launching iTunes.

JohnR 08/11/11 05:46 PM

Great article! I have some vinyl for collection purposes, but I can see myself investing more in it.

Thomas Nassiff 08/11/11 05:47 PM

Quote:

Originally Posted by cwhit412 (Post 93242182)
How did I know Joe would be in this.

Because he's an AP.net member, owns a record label and is a perfect source to fit in with the target audience?

darkjak22 08/11/11 05:50 PM

Awesome read.

SincerelyMe 08/11/11 05:50 PM

Nice read. I think at this point I buy vinyl more than CDs.

DandonTRJ 08/11/11 06:15 PM

Quote:

Originally Posted by SincerelyMe (Post 93243062)
Nice read. I think at this point I buy vinyl more than CDs.

Same. It's basic economics; people will pay more for scarce goods that can only be produced in small quantity [wax discs] than infinite goods that can be replicated with ease [digital files]. Vinyl ownership lets you see the tangible result of a transaction, and in a way that piracy can't replicate. Arguably, CDs do the same thing, but vinyl has multiple advantages over both CDs and digital files [the warmth of the sounds, the presentation of the product, and the value in its scarcity] that make it a better draw. I have no use for a CD any longer, as it's an unimpressive middle ground between portability [MP3s] and tangibility [vinyl]. If it's good and only digital, I might buy it. If it's good and on vinyl, I'll definitely buy it.

Also, excellent piece, Thomas. A pleasure to read.

(Fun little aside: I got two of Patton Oswalt's stand-up comedy albums on vinyl yesterday. The copyright warning on one of them read: "Unauthorized duplication of this recording is highly impractical.")

xScrewed@Birthx 08/11/11 06:26 PM

Quote:

Originally Posted by DandonTRJ (Post 93243912)
Same. It's basic economics; people will pay more for scarce goods that can only be produced in small quantity [wax discs] than infinite goods that can be replicated with ease [digital files]. Vinyl ownership lets you see the tangible result of a transaction, and in a way that piracy can't replicate. Arguably, CDs do the same thing, but vinyl has multiple advantages over both CDs and digital files [the warmth of the sounds, the presentation of the product, and the value in its scarcity] that make it a better draw. I have no use for a CD any longer, as it's an unimpressive middle ground between portability [MP3s] and tangibility [vinyl]. If it's good and only digital, I might buy it. If it's good and on vinyl, I'll definitely buy it.

Also, excellent piece, Thomas. A pleasure to read.

(Fun little aside: I got two of Patton Oswalt's stand-up comedy albums on vinyl yesterday. The copyright warning on one of them read: "Unauthorized duplication of this recording is highly impractical.")


Well said.

thispartysux128 08/11/11 06:45 PM

Great Article Man, I'm stoked to be a part of the "vinyl collecting community" and am so happy that people are starting to care about the whole musical package again...

silent_platypus 08/11/11 06:46 PM

Awesome article. The groove pun at the end may have been the best part. Hope to start collecting myself once I acquire the sufficient funds.

thesinkingship 08/11/11 06:52 PM

Quote:

Originally Posted by DandonTRJ (Post 93243912)
I have no use for a CD any longer, as it's an unimpressive middle ground between portability [MP3s] and tangibility [vinyl].


CDs are tangible....

Micah511 08/11/11 07:48 PM

Quote:

Originally Posted by thesinkingship (Post 93245432)
CDs are tangible....


They are, but the bigger artwork, the color variants, and the overall just cool feeling of a vinyl just can't be beat by a cd.

munkmunk 08/11/11 07:52 PM

Quote:

Originally Posted by thesinkingship (Post 93245432)
CDs are tangible....

They are tangible, and I used to buy CDs by the boatload. The point DandonTRJ was making is that CDs are an unimpressive compromise between portability and tangibility. the music format of a CD can be the exact same as a digital file, so why settle for a smaller medium of artwork?

that being said, vinyl is way too expensive for me and I mostly just buy digital with the occasional CD (after I bought an expensive ipod. hmmmm.)

an excellent article.

Thomas Nassiff 08/11/11 08:15 PM

Quote:

Originally Posted by DandonTRJ (Post 93243912)
Same. It's basic economics; people will pay more for scarce goods that can only be produced in small quantity [wax discs] than infinite goods that can be replicated with ease [digital files]. Vinyl ownership lets you see the tangible result of a transaction, and in a way that piracy can't replicate. Arguably, CDs do the same thing, but vinyl has multiple advantages over both CDs and digital files [the warmth of the sounds, the presentation of the product, and the value in its scarcity] that make it a better draw. I have no use for a CD any longer, as it's an unimpressive middle ground between portability [MP3s] and tangibility [vinyl]. If it's good and only digital, I might buy it. If it's good and on vinyl, I'll definitely buy it.

Also, excellent piece, Thomas. A pleasure to read.

(Fun little aside: I got two of Patton Oswalt's stand-up comedy albums on vinyl yesterday. The copyright warning on one of them read: "Unauthorized duplication of this recording is highly impractical.")

This sounds basically like what I wrote haha. Vinnie said a lot of stuff like that.