|Photo by: avclub.com|
To many, vinyl albums are relics of an era more cumbersome and less convenient. They are one of the least portable ways to play music, their use strictly confined to turntables and jukeboxes.
In order to properly play a record without dust collection or scratches, the listener has to follow a careful process that seems more like a religious ritual than an entertainment experience. The needles of record players that produce the sound have to be replaced often. And, after all of this trouble, the listener must stop to flip over the disc halfway through.
With so many difficulties, why would anyone want to go back to the musty square stacks of records in the attic for their music again?
Yet vinyl continues to keep a relatively secure niche in the shaky 21st century music business. Dave Polster has some insight into the mindset of the format's ever-growing fanbase. A junior music production major at OU and head sound engineer of the School of Music, he is a vinyl enthusiast with over 200 LPs in his collection. Though a casual record collector by his own admission, Polster is a veteran of the renewed vinyl scene.
"When I started in like seventh or eighth grade, I was, what, 13? So, all of my friends were like, 'Why are you doing that?' And now it's kind of funny because they're all like, 'Why didn't I start earlier?'" he says.
Polster is not the only new adopter of vinyl in recent years. LP record sales have grown by large percentages every year since 2007 according to The Nielsen Company, with the first half of 2011 seeing a 41 percent increase over the same period in 2010. While only accounting for around one percent of total music sales, the continued growth of this market has been one of the few bright spots in the gloom and doom of the modern music industry, which is plagued by illegal music downloads and the popularity of purchasing individual tracks instead of full albums.
In today's world of digital copying and CD duplicating, vinyl is unique in its difficulty to reproduce--a feature Polster finds appealing.
"It's not like a CD where you can just burn a copy, or MP3s where you can just move the files over," Polster says. "You can't press your own vinyl. What you have is yours, and only yours. You can let your friends borrow it, [or] you can make a tape copy of it. It's unique in the sense that what you have is what you have, and you can't devalue it by copying it."
Vinyl reissues of older albums make up a large part of the industry tally of LP sales, but original vinyl copies of these albums are regularly traded in and purchased at record stores, often at far cheaper prices than the newer reissues. Polster finds that he more often collects used copies of albums when possible.
"I just think it's more authentic, you know? It might not sound as good as the new released ones, sound quality-wise, but it's what people were actually hearing the year it came out in the first place," Polster explains. "It's not prettied up for modern listeners."
For Polster, part of the fun in record collecting comes from the unpredictability of the selection of these traded-in used releases at stores.
"If you just go online on eBay and spend like $50 on a really hard-to-find record that you've been looking for for years, you are going to be happy, obviously, but at the same time, if you're in a record shop randomly, in St. Louis or something, and you randomly come across it, that could make your trip," he says.
The roughly one-foot-square size of vinyl album jackets provide ample space for cover designs, as well as room for posters and other graphic material on the inside. Gatefold albums open up to allow for even wider album art. Many iconic images in music resulted from the kind of artistic freedom provided by record jackets--a creative opportunity that has not been adequately reproduced on subsequent music formats.
"A lot of people like the artwork," says Polster, "because, you know, it's not tiny, like a CD, or in the event of an MP3, you're lucky if you even know what the artwork looks like. It's like a lot of people kind of don't care about that in this day and age, unless it's Lady Gaga photoshopped onto a bike, then everyone cares."
Listening to music has become an increasingly personalized and individual experience with the introduction of portable music devices like the Walkman and the iPod, a far cry from the days of families huddled around a radio to listen to the latest music. The suitability of vinyl for home use hearkens back to the days of this kind of a shared experience.
"I feel record listening is more of a social event, you know?" Polster says. "[Unlike] any other form of music consumption, save going to a dance at the Union or something like that. Like, you don't gather around to listen to the newest MP3 or CD."
This social experience extends to the conventions held by vinyl collectors all over the world. Polster recounts his experience at one of these gatherings called the Rock and Roll Sideshow in Cleveland.
"There would be a bunch of independent vendors from around the state or around the country," he describes, "literally people who their entire lives were about record collecting and selling. Vinyl buffs would come and talk about different records they had, or try and sell records they had, and I always loved and dreaded going to these, because I knew I'd spend an ungodly amount of money. But I also knew I'd get some really cool stuff in the process."
Overall, Polster enjoys the fitness of the vinyl format for serious music listening, as opposed to the convenience of digital music, which is often played simply to be in the background while doing something else.
"You can obviously pay attention to the music if you have an MP3, but you have to almost work to pay attention," he asserts. "Whereas with vinyl, you have to get up, you have to flip the record over, you've got to make sure your needle is clean, mess with the EQ if you're really into it, stuff like that. I just really like that you have to take time out of your day to pay attention, you know?"
Catering to fans like Polster are the independent music shops, capturing a market of which the major retail chains have been very slow to take notice. These stores appeal to the collectors' niche as well as to less dedicated vinyl consumers by offering both new releases on the format as well as trade-ins of used albums.
Shake It Records, in the Northside district of Cincinnati, is one such business that never abandoned vinyl, even as compact discs replaced vinyl technology in the 1980s. Having started in 1978 distributing records through mail, Shake It continued to sell 7" singles throughout the 1990s, before expanding into a storefront operation in 1999. Billy (who preferred not to disclose his full name) handles and prices the hundreds of used vinyl albums traded into the store every month. He says that vinyl makes up a large part of the store's business.
"It's probably a good 40% of our sales," he explains.
While Billy sees an overall positive trend in the amount of interest in vinyl over the past few years, he has found that new vinyl sales remain more stable than those of trade-ins.
"With the used vinyl we're at the mercy of what we can get or what people bring us," he states. "We can't control the used [vinyl] that comes in. Sometimes the used is just stuffed with awesome, great stuff and sometimes it's been pillaged like crazy and there's nothing out there. The new stuff we can sort of methodically control and pick out what we choose to stock."
He has seen increased interest from labels as well, particularly from those who abandoned the format once its popularity declined in the late 1980s.
"There are many, many of the slow-to-the-party [labels] who are kind of getting their act together," he says. "Although they're doing it stupidly... they're picking stupid titles a lot."
When asked if he had any suggestions for those starting a record collection, Billy stressed the material nature of LPs as opposed to that of digital music.
"They have to realize that a vinyl LP is a physical, tangible object, and to produce the music on that record, one object must touch another object," he explains. "Their mind has to switch over from clicking a mouse or a button to handling a delicate physical object."
Stalwart labels outside the mainstream who never stopped producing LPs sell the most used vinyl, Billy says, which tend to be in particular genres of music.
"Indie rock, punk rock and underground rock has always remained a mainstay," he states, "so it's been a pretty constant thing."
One of these independent labels who offer exactly the kind of music that sells on vinyl is Misra Records, run out of Durham, North Carolina. Releasing albums from bands like The Black Swans and Great Lake Swimmers, the label offers LP and even cassette tape copies of some of their albums, along with the standard CD and digital formats.
Leo DeLuca, Misra Records Manager and drummer for indie folk-rock band Southeast Engine has perspective on the business side of vinyl releases. While DeLuca concurs with the generally accepted advantages of the vinyl format, such as more opportunities for album artwork and less compressed sound than MP3s, he is more skeptical about the future of LP sales.
"The vinyl market grew wildly for a spell and seems to have leveled off in recent years," he explains. "Honestly, I think more people are purchasing LPs because they want to appear cool to their friends."
However, there is an audience ensuring that the format is worth making available despite the comparatively high cost of manufacturing record albums.
"We cater to a lot of audiophiles who recognize the advantages of vinyl," DeLuca says. "The fanbase of a band will also determine the formats we use. If the group doesn't have a vinyl-loving fanbase at large, then it may not be worth it. I'm sure Beyoncé's fanbase could care less if they have her album on vinyl. The Black Swans' fanbase, however, is a totally different story."
One of the selling points of many newer releases on vinyl is the offer of free digital downloads of the album's tracks with the purchase of an LP copy of the album. This is intended to appeal to consumers who are on the fence about deciding between the advantages of vinyl or digital. Misra offers the free MP3 download option on some of their cassette releases.
"I think it gives people the feeling they are getting more for their money," says DeLuca. "They can listen to the album at home and get the one-of-a-kind vinyl experience. Then, they can load it onto their iPod and listen to it on the go. It's a nice little development."
According to DeLuca, artists have adjusted the layout of their albums when releasing on vinyl, such as in having greater discretion in deciding which songs end up on the final release.
"A standard full-length record has traditionally run right around 45 minutes," says DeLuca. "It's not a random number--this is due to the fact that an album's sound quality will be compromised if you run over 22.5 minutes per side. Personally, one of my favorite things about the vinyl resurgence has been to see how bands choose what goes on side A and side B."
"I think it's interesting to see artists putting more thought into the way their albums run now that vinyl is back in the game," he adds.
While vinyl's time as the dominant method of music consumption may have passed, its advantages over newer audio formats from every level of the music business cycle have confirmed its place in an increasingly uncertain industry. Don't expect LPs to put iTunes out of business anytime soon, but as long as the cracks and pops of aged vinyl define the sound of an intimate listening experience, records will remain relevant.
Everyone at some point has looked at their pals and uttered the phrase, "Dude, we should start a band!" and these tracks will give you the inspiration to do just that.
Blue Eagle Music is one heck of a success story, and owner Frank McDermott tells the insightful tail.
Athens residents may find a raging hip-hop scene is taking over the campus. One of the performers responsible for this is local rapper, DC "King of Hearts" Moore.
Imagine for a moment you were just pulled over for driving way, way too fast. This is a playlist of the songs to which you might have been listening that fateful day.
This February 14, just as Romeo did for Juliet, go ahead and pick your poisons.
A love for music is the only prerequisite for these six classes.
Breaking up is hard to do--especially when it comes to our favorite bands.
So you want to make an Oscar-winning film. Where do you start?
As 1Side Music Entertainment celebrates its four-year anniversary, DJ iShine and Jean P. reflect on the label's history.
Giving new meaning to walking the 'beat'en path