At a time when convenience and portability rule for consumers listening to music collections on MP3 players, the stodgy old vinyl album and turntable are making an unexpected comeback.
While CD sales continue a doubledigit decline, sales of vinyl albums have doubled in the last year to 6 million and turntable sales increased 80 percent last year. The resurgence is being led not just by Baby Boomers nostalgic for gatefold album sleeves and the pops and scratches of favorite records, but by college-age consumers discovering the elaborate artwork of vinyl-album packaging for the first time, and entranced by the grittier, less-artificial sound quality.
“We’re seeing the (vinyl) resurgence in all walks of life: from 50-year-old guys who want high-quality product to match their high-end stereos to 19year-old kids who are sick of the minimalist Ikea design that has plagued dorm rooms for the last decade,” says Ken Shipley, co-owner of the Numero Group, a Chicago label that specializes in reissues of underground soul music. “Vinyl is the new books.”
This year, 40 percent of the label’s income is coming from vinyl sales.
Sundazed Music, a New York-based reissue label, has seen vinyl sales surge 500 percent in the last three years. The percentage is far lower at major labels, but still significant enough to warrant not only reissues of classic titles such as the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and Radiohead’s “OK Computer,” but new titles as well.
Warner Brothers sold 12,000 vinyl copies of the White Stripes’ 2007 release “Icky Thump” and sold out a 5,000-copy run of a $115.98 vinyl boxed set of Metallica’s latest album, “Death Magnetic.” Nonesuch’s vinyl version of Wilco’s 2007 album “Sky Blue Sky” has sold 15,000 copies.
Matador Records, home to such bands as Cat Power, Yo La Tengo and Mission of Burma, is seeing a double-digit percentage increase in vinyl sales. “We can’t press it fast enough,” says Matador General Manager Patrick Amory.
“You have to get in line now at these pressing plants, which is amazing, because vinyl was virtually non-existent two or three years ago,” adds Bill Gagnon, senior vice president of catalog marketing at EMI Music. The turnaround time at pressing plants has doubled to two months because of high demand, says Robert Griffin, who runs the Scat label out of Cleveland.
“How many commercials have you seen that involve a DJ spinning a record?” he says. “Repeat with incidences on TV shows, movies. It’s being presented as a cool thing, not anachronistic, which was the late ‘90s attitude.”
Though Gagnon says vinyl will eventually make up about 4 percent of EMI’s revenue, it’s a profitable business that will have long-lasting appeal, in part because a younger generation is getting hooked on it.
Eric Shah, a 23-year-old law student at Loyola University, says he didn’t start buying vinyl to be cool, but because “I like the sound. It’s closer to the sound you might hear in the studio when the music is being recorded. I like the idea of listening to an artist’s work on vinyl. It becomes a process. You sit down, play through a side, it becomes more singular because you’re more focused on it. It’s not portable. You have to pay attention, turn the record over when it’s done. It encourages active listening.”
Allie Samata, a 20-year-old studying architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, rhapsodizes about “the emotional connection of placing the record on the turntable, putting the needle down and sitting there with your friends to listen. It’s definitely a community experience, which I don’t get from downloading an MP3 file. It’s as close to going to a concert as you can get.”
The disadvantages of vinyl are numerous: tough to transport, bulky to store, easy to damage.
MP3 files have enabled consumers to essentially pack their entire music collection in a device the size of a cigarette box and listen to it any time, anywhere. Clearly, digital is the future of music, and the re-emergence of vinyl won’t change that. But hard-core music lovers are a demanding bunch, and they still want a tangible connection to the music that a digital file can’t provide.
“There’s an art to making a vinyl album, and it invites serious listening,” says Matador’s Amory.
“For me, vinyl is more of a personal listening experience,” says Ben Meyerson, 22, who is studying journalism at the University of Maryland. “I have my turntable in my room, and it’s hands-on - a compensation for the lack of physicality you get from a hard drive and iTunes. It’s fills a void in my musical experience.”
There are also legions of album junkies who insist that no digital format, whether compact disc or MP3, can compare to the sonic richness of a stylus penetrating the grooves of a vinyl record.
“There’s a huge difference,” says singer Sam Phillips. “It has a little grit and texture compared to digital. It’s heartbreaking not to have all that sound on an MP3 file. I love my vinyl, and I play it all the time. Nothing sounds like it.
“Who would’ve thought? In the early ‘80s, we were trying to take all the noise out by making these really precise recordings. And now, we want it all back because it sounds more real, more like the work of a human being instead of a machine.”
The new market for albums is in part directed at these audiophiles, with heavier 180-gram discs made out of so-called “virgin” vinyl (which contains no recycled plastic) more resistant to the degradation and warping that accompany cheaper materials. With fewer pressing plants and more expensive material, the packaging can get pricey: Some vinyl albums sell for double the price of a CD. The situation was reversed 25 years ago, when compact discs first came on the market and were double the price of most vinyl albums. In addition, the nuances of an audiophile vinyl album won’t be apparent unless the listener has a turntable of sufficient quality to pick them up. A handme-down turntable from an uncle or a flea-market bargain special won’t necessarily yield sonic results that satisfy any more than a low-grade MP3 download.
But the romantic pull of turntables and vinyl is strong, both for an older generation that grew up with them, and younger listeners looking for a deeper connection with the music they love.
“Everything old is new again,” says Tom Biery, general manager of Warner Brothers. “Now that iPods and MP3s have become your parents’ music, too, kids want something different. The kids in the dorm with the turntable are the cool kids now.”
CLASSICS ON VINYL
The 13th Floor Elevators, “The Psychedelic Sounds of ...” (Sundazed): The Holy Grail of psychedelia by Roky Erickson’s acid-drenched garage band, available in the original (and vastly preferred) mono for the first time in 40 years.
Beach Boys, “Pet Sounds” (Capitol Records): The limited-edition double album released in 2006 contains both mono and stereo mixes of the 1966 masterpiece.
Johnny Cash, “At Folsom Prison” (Columbia Legacy): The master in his element, in a recording that captures the palpable excitement of his 1968 performance at one of the country’s most notorious penitentiaries.
Metallica, “Master of Puppets” (Elektra): Available in both 33-rpm and pricier 45-rpm pressings, a revelatory reissue of a metal landmark.