Music

Vinyl Dependent: The Needle and the Damage Done

The independent record store lives another day. But how long can the vinyl lifeline continue to keep them afloat?

While the music industry keeps up its litigious battles in a war it has already lost, the press follows the efforts of the independent record store. Written off only a few years ago, independents now earn the sincere attention of artists, labels, and press.

The void left by the fall of the majors opened an opportunity for the little guy. Each day a budding entrepreneur promotes a new band, founds a new label, and seeks out new venues and partnerships. For the first time since the mid-'60s, the independent operators lead the industry.

I couldn't be happier. Obi-Wan's description of Tatooine as a 'wretched hive of scum and villainy' proves most apt for the creaking corporate behemoths that bought rock 'n' roll in the late '60s. Now in the Jacob Marley stage of their demise, the majors remind us that absolute greed and progress make poor bedfellows. Faced with an infant technology with limitless possibilities, they huffed and puffed and blew their own house down.

Boo f-ing hoo.

Amidst all this back-slapping for avoiding the history books, the independent stores might want to pick one up. The up-tick in their revenues stems from but one thing: the current vinyl craze. For the first time in 20 years, vinyl is a viable format. Unfortunately for the shops, all crazes, whether it be tulip bulbs, baseball cards, Beanie Babies, or bundles of over-leveraged assets, must come to an end. And when they do, they usually take the markets with them.

Most of us pop lovers over 25-years-old have a special record store in our hearts. Mine was Wind Records on 95th Street in Oak Lawn just outside of Chicago. This tiny store in a quaint old walk-up was where I built my musical tastes (not counting the perennial fleecing of Columbia House). The first album I bought there was Def Leppard's Hysteria. I could spend an hour or two easily at Wind and not get bored. Knowing this, my mom would always say,”Only five minutes, Michael.” Only five minutes, Mom? I overspent my welcome by about 20-odd years. Just ask the Rockista.

CDs dominated Wind's bins with their long cardboard boxes. The vinyl hid in a distant corner, dusty and unloved. The vinyl addicts fell into two distinct stereotypes. One was the blindly dressed Boomer desperately seeking the rare bootleg of Dylan making a ham sandwich. The other was the elitist aesthete who shopped at Vintage Vinyl in Evanston, Illinois, and paid more for his stereo cables than I'd ever earned in a week. I disliked both. There was too much fixation on the material, not on the music.

Gradually, I too began to pick up the odd vinyl. Chipmunk Punk was one of the first. It reminded me of my childhood. The only orderly parts of my brother's room were his vinyl LP crates. In a house without MTV, I first glimpsed most of the artists I grew to love the old-fashioned way -- from the LP covers. For Christmas three years ago, the Rockista bought me a Sony turntable. I reciprocated two years later when I moved in with the ever-growing stack of vinyl I'd purchased. I think I appreciate my gift more.

Childhood nostalgia does not account for the hipster embrace of vinyl. According to the popular press, the hipsters love vinyl because it is tangible, unlike the MP3s with which they were raised. I never pay much mind to such pop psychology hokum. The hipsters buy vinyl for the same reason they wear Blu-Blockers, starve themselves, and ride fixed gear bikes. Because it's cool.

Record stores love vinyl because it makes them a big boy finally in a format. For years, the majors screwed the tiny store by selling CDs to the Best Buys and Wal-Marts at cut-rate prices while charging the little guys' base. With no way to compete, the independents fell off one by one. Hell, the labels even managed to kill Tower Records! Vinyl gives the independents the edge. Best Buy will not stock vinyl anytime soon.

Bands love vinyl because it's a way out of the major's distribution monopoly and actually makes them more money than they would off a CD. Vinyl also gives them another product to sell at shows.

So what's not to love, right? Embrace the vinyl revolution!

Not quite. I smell smoke in this enchanted forest. You see, I didn't start collecting with vinyl. No, you could say I'm a bit of a degenerate collector. As a young kid, I participated in the baseball card boom. A male childhood rite of passage went mad as Boomers sought out the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantles their mothers threw away. Card producers knew a good thing when they saw it, so they began to issue more and more card lines with limited production lines. Card shops popped up in mini-malls all over the country. Soon enough, you'd hear tales of Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards going for $100 a pop. Huh?

The sports card industry consumed itself quickly. At the end all you had were vacant stores and angry middle-aged men who couldn't believe their 100 Gregg Jefferies rookie cards were more valuable as coasters than investments. The card industry never recovered.

I also collect comic books. When Marvel and DC's monopoly evaporated in the mid-'90s, the imprints who joined them issued smaller print runs because that is all they could afford. The small print runs sent the industry into fits. Soon, Marvel released The Amazing Spider-Man with seven alternate covers each month, each one rarer than the next. Again, angry middle-aged men lost their boat money. That industry only recently returned to profit, thanks to Hollywood not having any original ideas.

The vinyl fixation so far follows the script of the above examples quite closely. New record stores open monthly in major urban markets. A cursory scan of eBay will provide you with more than enough examples of boom-indicative prices. $100 for a boxed set by a band no one's heard of outside of Brooklyn? Mr. Magic Eight Ball, will this price hold in ten years? Shake, shake, shake. 'My reply is no'.

I don't think the Moderat boxed set will inspire the hipster who bought it when the band no longer exists in two years. The baseball card and comic boom mostly busted middle-aged men. The hipsters are young. The record stores could potentially lose an entire generation of consumers that won't ever return.

The other shoe which the record stores must eye warily is the hipsters themselves. They've made trend-hopping their number-one participatory activity. Remember, these are the same kids who broke the majors because they grew up with free music. How long can they sustain an expensive habit when they can get the same product for free?

Photo by Jordan Melnick / MEDILL found at Northwestern.edu

The store owners don't seem so concerned. Permanent Records co-owner Lance Barresi said during a chat, “Vinyl never stopped being cool, and never will."

But it doesn't all add up to me. I know some very smart young people in the record industry right now, and I think they are doing fantastic work. Despite this, I have yet to see any strong evidence that the return of vinyl is real.

I hope I'm wrong. Record stores provide a valuable public service. They act as curators for their customers. They support fringe artists who may otherwise be punching clocks. They offer refuge to dorks like me.

But bubbles always burst.

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