Vinyl survival


Vinyl survives in a digital world

By Brooke Bates

Jim Bishop is a hopeless nostalgic and still keeps stacks of records that he plays on his radio shows,  “Friday Night Jukebox” and “Warped Records.” He even has the first record he bought.
Jim Bishop is a hopeless nostalgic and still keeps stacks of records that he plays on his radio shows, “Friday Night Jukebox” and “Warped Records.” He even has the first record he bought.

Photo by Michael Reilly

A turntable sits in the display window at eValley, Harrisonburg’s eBay store, next to a stack of 45s. It’d be easy to compare the set to a forlorn puppy in a pet store.

“It’s been there for a while,” says Manager Rob Smith. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s been sitting there for a year.”

As brick-and-mortar music stores sing the woes of digital domination, a nostalgic few are dodging cold, hard technology to run toward the warmth of vinyl. The archaic format’s survival isn’t quite enough to be dubbed a revival. But someone, somewhere, may still be lowering the stylus to the surface and savoring the crackling static. 

Nostalgia in a new age
Jim Bishop’s favorite Christmas gift probably looked similar to eValley’s lonely phonograph.

“I can still see the thing,” the public information officer for Eastern Mennonite University says excitedly, remembering the 45 rpm record player he received in 1954. The thought stirs memories of the first 45 he bought: “The Flying Saucer” by Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman, which is still stacked in his closet with the rest of his collection.

“I’m a hopeless nostalgic,” Bishop says. “I still play them a lot. I hate to see them on the shelf.” He also plays them — or at least burned and downloaded copies of them — on his radio shows, “Friday Night Jukebox” on WEMC and “Warped Records” on WSVA.

But he’s reluctant to transfer them all to CD.

“I have a hard time dealing with change,” Bishop admits. “I would welcome a move toward vinyl coming back, but I’d be surprised.”

According to the Recording Industry Association of America’s Year-End Shipment Statistics, LP and EP sales increased by more than 36 percent between 2006 and 2007. This is the first increase in vinyl sales since 2001, which was only a 3.7 percent increase from 2000.

Jay Leavitt, the general manager of Plan 9 music stores, says vinyl makes up 15 to 20 percent of their total sales. The trend, which was dominated by used vinyl sales several years ago, has rocketed with new releases in the past year and a half.

Elvis Costello released “Momofuku” on vinyl in April; the CD came in May. Nine Inch Nail’s “The Slip” will debut in LP form in August. A flood of indie rock bands, like Built to Spill and Fleet Foxes, are also spinning old school, throwing in a code for vinyl buyers to download the songs online.

Even kids who are too young to associate needles with noise are grabbing a part of history. College students make up the majority of vinyl buyers at Plan 9, says Jason Knicely, the vinyl buyer at Plan 9 in Harrisonburg.

“It’s the first widely accessible form of recorded music,” he says. “It’s a piece of history, especially if you get a first press.”

The hunt for rare classics is part of the thrill. It’s more satisfying than the lazy, instantaneous click of a download, he says, wearing a black T-shirt with an icon on his chest that resembles the center label of Bob Dylan’s “Modern Times” single.

Plus, vinyl is more than music; it’s tangible. “LPs have wonderful cover art and extensive liner notes on the back. You can’t do that on a CD,” and certainly not on a tiny iPod screen.

“As soon as CDs are over with,” says Bruce Allen, owner of America’s New Artist record label in Lexington and Nashville, “all you’ll be collecting is titles and sounds.”

Vinyl interaction
Digital music wipes out more than just the physical album. “There’s nothing like putting the needle in the groove,” Leavitt says. “You have to be more involved; you have to flip it over.”

Though Race Ashlyn’s LPs are buried in storage, his memories of spinning vinyl at the radio station are vivid.

“I miss … the physical aspect. Cueing up songs was more involved,” says the market manager of WSIG and WBOP in Mount Crawford. “We used to be able to make magic happen in real time.” He describes the orchestration it took to transition from one record to the next, now a useless skill.

“It took me years to get over it,” he laments of the change. But there’s plenty not to miss.

“They get scratchy. They’re difficult to maneuver. They skip,” Ashlyn lists. “It’s just not a practical format.”

Digital downloads, on the other hand, are “faster, cheaper and you only pay for the songs you want.”

Even after a 36 percent boost, the 1.3 million vinyl sales in 2007 don’t come close to the 42.5 million albums or the nearly 810 million songs downloaded that year, according to the RIAA.

“MySpace and all the digital download services make it more affordable and more accessible for artists to get their product out there,” and for fans to get the product, says Benny Quinn, Allen’s mastering engineer.

With cheaper, easier digital recording, any home can be a studio. Bands don’t need to depend on labels to produce their first album. They can cater to cherry-picking audiences who download a few songs at a time.

That accessibility is also the music industry’s nightmare: quick, easy illegal downloads that don’t compensate the industry.

Even so, Allen “wouldn’t trade digital for anything” because it lets him “do everything much faster and more compact.”

The next ‘dinosaur’ format
But digital is not without its downsides, either.

“Digital is real hard,” Allen says. “Clean and crisp, but a harder sound when it goes down to record. Analog is a warmer sound, not right there in your face.”

When Allen sends his artists’ recordings to Benny Quinn Mastering in Nashville, Quinn uses a combination of old analog and new digital equipment to produce that warmth — but without the muddiness of extra noise.

Sound is mechanically reproduced from a record, Quinn explains. “The stylus actually touches the vinyl, which adds noises, the ‘snap, crackle, pop, clicks’ that happen in the process. Nothing actually touches an audio CD; it’s read with a laser. It doesn’t introduce additional noise.”

Behind the additional noise, though, the sound produced by analog processing is “more pleasing to the ear” than digital recording, he says. “We have constantly been striving to mimic the analog sound without the additional noise.”

Quinn has been a mastering engineer since the mid-’70s, putting the final sonic touches on albums by artists from Johnny Cash to Jewel before they go to the manufacturer.

In the ’80s, he turned to digital mastering and its kinks. “People were talking about how hard-sounding [original CDs] were,” he says. “They were very clean, but not quite as natural sounding as the instruments themselves.”

That quality has improved. Even Bishop admits that instruments he missed when he memorized songs on vinyl come through on CD; it’s vinyl’s thumping bass compared to a CD’s “drumstick tapping on a cymbal.”

Still, Quinn says, the distortion and resonance that sounded warm on vinyl still sound harsh on CD.

“It’s not necessarily all about audio quality,” he admits. “It’s very evident that most of the public wants something they can put their hands on quickly.”

They want compact and portable, and “you can’t play a 12-inch vinyl record in your car,” he says. “You can’t stick it in your pocket.”

Even CDs will soon go the way of archaic vinyl and clunky cassettes. People immediately upload CDs to their computers, Ashlyn says. Hard-drives — not CD racks — are the music storage of choice.

“I already see that CDs are dying,” Leavitt says, admitting that stores are struggling. “The format is a bit of a dinosaur, slowly going towards extinction.”

He predicts that CDs will one day be the vinyl of today, fighting to make a barely noticeable dent in the digital world.

“Vinyl is trying to make a comeback, but it never will,” Allen says. “Digital will always be here. As long as there are computers, it’s not going anywhere.”


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