When you’re unabashedly old school analog, it’s admittedly hard to be ahead of the curve on the latest, newest, trendiest technology. But sometimes, being a Luddite pays off. To mark the annual (or bi-annual)recent phenomenon known as ‘Record Store Day,’ when limited edition vinyl releases and special editions pop up in record stores around the country, here’s a feature I wrote waaay back in 2008 about what I dubbed the ‘Vinyl Revival’ for The Boston Globe (yep, before everybody and their mother began publishing pieces about the return of the LP and used this catch-phrase).
When this piece ultimately ran A1, aka on Page One ( a coup of sorts for a story originally slated for the arts section), I was in Shangri-La. For me, getting the chance to write a front page story for the Globe about the glorious return of the LP was akin to being able to pen a piece about, I dunno, the joys of guzzling Belgian beer. The only trouble was, once the powers-that-be (otherwise known as those unforgiving, ruthless beasts known as ‘editors’) decided to put the piece on Page One, I was ordered to cut it to half its originally filed length. Now it would be doing battle and vying for elbow room alongside hard news about presidents, peace talks, and which congressman was getting indicted that week.
So finally, here in my own floating slice of the cyber-space cosmos — where I get to be writer, reporter, and editor rolled into one — I present what I like to call the definitive “director’s cut” of the complete feature I wrote and gave to the Globe back in 2008. It gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling in a time where, for me at least, those sensations are considerably harder to find. What also gives me a good feeling is the fact that nearly nine years later, the so-called “vinyl revival” continues, unabated.
I’ll leave you, dear readers, with a couple of questions my “RPM” alter-ego is dying to know: WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST LP? DO YOU STILL HAVE IT, AND DO YOU STILL BUY VINYL, NEW OR USED? And as I was saying to people a few weeks ago, and I’ll say again here in a different context, don’t forget to vote (in my poll, that is)! And away we go on our flying wax saucer.
Monica Morgan, an 18-year-old high school student from Jacksonville, Fla., is taking a breather from a day spent scouting prospective colleges in and around Boston. She is standing inside Newbury Comics in Cambridge, scouring the bins of vinyl in front of her. Facing her are rows of new LP releases by artists such as Gnarls Barkley and Bjork. The colorful album covers catch her eye.
“My dad just gave me a record player so I mostly like to buy vinyl,” said Morgan, who added that she does not download music from the Internet. She does play compact discs in her computer, but her latest love is record albums, both new and old. “I have some old Beatles records with my mom’s maiden name on them. I just like the way it sounds.”
Almost any other decade – the ‘50’s, ‘60s, ‘70s, even most of the ‘80’s – this scenario would have been ordinary. But the scene – a teenager perusing stacks of cumbersome vinyl in a sleek digital age that has all but rendered the CD obsolete – was unfolding on a Friday afternoon in 2008. And it is one that is being replicated, in still-small numbers but with increasing frequency across the country, according to industry experts, music retailers, and record store owners.
“It’s unbelievable how much vinyl’s coming out,” says Josh Bizar, sales director for Music Direct, a company that specializes in analog products ranging from new and reissued vinyl to turntables and stereo equipment. “We’re seeing this explosion of young people under 25 who never even saw an LP as a child running towards a format that was pronounced dead before they were even born. But we’re seeing so much vinyl coming in our door that we’re having a hard time keeping up with it. If a title has any kind of mass appeal, it’s coming out on vinyl today.”
These days, the push for vinyl has as much to do with the musician as it does a retailer or record label. Elvis Costello, for instance, issued his new album, “Momofuku,” on vinyl two weeks before the CD and digital versions were released. And the Raconteurs, led by White Stripes frontman Jack White, recommended that listeners hear their new album, “Consolers of the Lonely,” on vinyl (it is also available on compact disc and as a digital download). Although White says he does listen both to CDs and an iPod in the car, wax is what he chooses most of the time when he’s at home.
“I prefer vinyl,” White says. “We talk about this backstage, as musicians it comes up a lot. It’s a shame the new generation is missing out on albums – not just the sound quality, but the artwork, the experience of holding something tangible in your hands, of being more a part of the band’s experience.” But droves of listeners have begun to follow White’s example.
Music Direct, which services between 250 to 300 independent record stores in the U.S. and major distributers in Europe, Asia, and South Africa, does stock more modern amenities such as CD’s and MP3 players. But it is the company’s analog-related inventory that is causing a stir: sales of albums, turntables, needle cartridges, record cleaners have jumped 300 percent in each of the last four years, according to Bizar. Sales of turntables, which can run anywhere from $150 to $24,000 – including models that can now transfer vinyl tracks to a listener’s portable player or computer – have spiked 500 percent annually during the same time span.
“They cannot make them fast enough,” says Bizar. “Now, people are burning their LPs into their computers and putting it into (their online song library) for portability.” But the old way of listening to music, it appears, has a new cache. “Owning a record album is certainly a lot cooler than owning a digital subset of zeroes and ones on a computer. And the simple act of playing an LP takes a certain single-mindedness that seems to go beyond today’s culture of sensory overload and multi-tasking. It’s not something you do while you’re playing video games or riding the bus. It’s not as easy as just pushing a button.”
Mike Dreese, founder of the New England music chain Newbury Comics, says a vinyl revival “is definitely happening.” His company’s vinyl sales, which had been increasing at an annual rate of about 20 percent over the past five years, are suddenly 80 percent higher than they were at this time last year. Meanwhile, he adds, CD sales at his stores have dropped about 15 percent since last year.
“Right now, we’re selling about $100,000 a month worth of vinyl on an overall corporate number that may be about $6 million a month, so it’s not a huge number, but it’s a non-trivial piece,” says Dreese. “It’s definitely accelerating upward.”
But why analog vinyl, and why now? Dreese blames the sterility of current technology. “I think there’s a lot of people who are looking for some kind of a throwback to something that’s tangible,” Dreese says, “Holding an album jacket is a hell of a lot more meaningful than holding a CD, let alone holding up the LED’s (light emitting diodes) on your MP3 player. The CD was a tremendous sonic package, but from a graphic standpoint, it was a disaster. People still want a connection to an artist, and vinyl connects them in a way that an erasable file doesn’t.”
Vinyl overs insist that analog records sound warmer and fuller, as opposed to the brighter yet brittle digital experience of CDs. The compressed sound of MP3s, meanwhile, sacrifices both the highest and lowest ends of the sonic spectrum.
Merge Records founder Mac McCaughan estimates that out of every 10 albums his label puts out as either a digital download or CD, eight also get a vinyl release. Still, McCaughan — who is also founder and leader of the long-running indie-rock band Superchunk — doesn’t want to make too much of what he characterizes as “a trend with a very low ceiling. It’s not going to come back and all of a sudden replace CDs or MP3’s. But if you do it right and make the vinyl heavy and make the packaging nice, it’s everything that people liked about music in the first place.”
Then there’s what Bizar calls “the collectability issue.”A deluxe, limited edition box set of Radiohead’s 2007 album, “In Rainbows,” which contained two LPs, CDs, a DVD, book and lyric sheet and retailed for about $80, sold out briskly. A recent search on the eBay auction site found the now out-of-print package selling anywhere between $150 to $300. “The minute they go out of print, the prices skyrocket,” says Bizar. “I’d like to see your Wall Street readers find a 150 percent return on their investment within six months.”
Nick Poggia, 25, owned LPs even before his parents bought him a turntable for his 16th birthday. He buys even more vinyl now. “I got into it because the music I was trying to find was only available in that format – like early ‘80s punk rock records,” says Poggia, who also runs a small Boston-based label called Painkiller Records (yes, he presses vinyl). “No one cares about CDs anymore, but someone will still buy an album because it’s got the huge artwork and is a limited pressing. That’s the biggest draw.”
New releases are typically being pressed on vinyl in quantities of about 10,000 per title, according to Bizar. But when it comes to the demand for lavish reissues by iconic artists such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, or John Coltrane, that number can double or even triple. Bizar notes that last year his company saw 35,000 advance orders for the four-LP edition of Led Zeppelin’s “Mothership,”a career-spanning collection released this spring. While that is certainly a far cry from vinyl’s heyday of the 1970s – when millions of sales, not thousands, were commonplace – Bizar calls the demand for a bulky box set that retails for about $60 a pop “astonishing.”http://www.metallica.com)
“Sure, record sales now are just a small blip on the music industry radar,” says Bizar. “But with the major labels losing so much money because of the erosion of CD sales – down 40 percent since the year 2000 – a few million dollars’ worth of LP sales is appealing to them.”
As an enticement for consumers to buy an entire record rather than a 99-cent download of a single, artists and record labels now usually include a CD version of the album with the LP package gratis, or enclose a secret code number that allows listeners to freely download the album they just bought on vinyl.
The idea represents a happy compromise for convenience-minded consumers, and artists who want their creative work to be something more substantive than a digital download. “It’s got to be a little frustrating that when the day’s done, there’s not that much tangible there,” Dreese says. “If you’re an artist, you’re like, ‘What do I have to show my grand kids?’ ”
No one artist has single-handedly released more records over the past 15 years than Robert Pollard, both solo and with his band Guided By Voices. In addition to CDs, the prolific singer-songwriter has released dozens of albums on labels large and small, as well as through his own in-house imprints. The vinyl version of his new album, “Robert Pollard Is Off To Business,” due out this month on his own label, will also include a coupon for a digital download.
“I have to have vinyl,” says Pollard who last year released two albums simultaneously on both vinyl and CD for Merge Records. “We have to do a limited pressing of vinyl because to me, it’s psychological. If it’s not on an LP it’s not real. Anybody can make a CD, but as we used to say, ‘vinyl’s final.’ ” Pollard presses between 500 and 1,000 copies of each title, which routinely sell out quickly. “It’s not to create instant collectibles – I’ve never wanted to do that,” notes Pollard. “The reason we keep it limited is, we know our target audience.”
Although he admits to not buying many new titles on vinyl anymore – Pollard’s grown accustomed to listening to compact discs, which to him sound crisper and louder than newly pressed LPs (thus continuing an audio debate that has raged since CDs became the music industry standard in the mid-1980’s) – Pollard is heartened by the renewed interest in the music-listening format he grew up with. “It revives what was exciting about walking into a record store to begin with,” says Pollard, 50. “You’d see all these album covers on the wall. You can’t do that with CD covers.”
Earlier this year, Evan Shore, singer-guitarist for the popular Boston garage band, Muck & the Mires, announced that his band’s next EP would be a “vinyl-only release.” With a European tour scheduled this summer, he says, the reasoning was simple. “First of all, we’ve got product to sell when we get to Europe – vinyl is huge in Europe, it’s never died down,” says Shore. “And vinyl really goes hand in hand with the type of music we play. People who are into sixties garage rock and roll are into vinyl.” In fact, adds Muck & the Mires drummer Linda Shore (who is married to the band’s frontman), “we couldn’t sell the CD’s we brought with us last time. But the records are gone.”
Evan Shore believes a “revolt” against mass-produced and what he insists is inferior-sounding technology is afoot. “Nothing beats vinyl,” he says. “They tried to tell us that compact discs sounded better and everybody knows they didn’t. And now, MP3’s sound worse than compact discs. I do downloads. I own CD’s. But there’s something special about vinyl that you can’t replace. And I’ll tell you, as an artist, opening up a box of records is the most exciting thing there is.”
Shore doesn’t have to convince Geoff Chase of the virtues of vinyl. Chase, of Watertown, was at Newbury Comics one recent afternoon, checking out John Lennon and Pink Floyd LP reissues. The 40-year-old self-described “classic rock guy” says he had stopped buying records for awhile because many older titles weren’t available on LP to replace his worn copies. Until now.
“What got me back into it big time,” said Chase, an audio engineer, “was that one day I found an old (stereo) receiver on the sidewalk and thought it was toast.” But he took it home, hooked the receiver up to his turntable, and put on his old copy of AC/DC’s “Back In Black.”
“I could not believe how good it sounded,” said Chase. “I was blown away.”
(Thanks to Globe staffer Joan Anderman for the nabbing me the Jack White quote)