Back to the future

September 14, 2008

Step aside, iPod users. Move over, digital downloaders (legal and otherwise). A very cool “new” form of recorded music is growing in popularity with teens, twentysomethings and even their parents: It's called . . . vinyl records?

K.C. ALFRED / Union-Tribune
Whitney McDaniel listened to vinyl records at M-Theory Music in Mission Hills.

That's right.

Against all odds in this high-tech age, vinyl albums – those round, 12-inch discs that look like thin Frisbees with a small hole in the middle – are experiencing a resurgence in popularity in San Diego County and across the nation.

Granted, vinyl albums are unlikely to regain the dominant position they held before the advent of CDs, even as CD sales continue to plunge. (CD sales in this country last year totalled 511 million, a 17.5 percent decline from 2006 and a whopping 30.5 percent drop from 2005.)

But sales of vinyl albums, which were officially pronounced dead in the mid-1980s after CDs were introduced to the buying public, jumped to 1.3 million last year. That's a 36.6 percent increase from 2006, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, a figure that is deemed dramatically low by some industry experts.

“I'd have to say there are more than 5 million new vinyl records sold in the U.S. each year. And that's not accounting for the 20 million used albums selling annually,” said Josh Bizar, sales director for Musicdirect, a Chicago company that services nearly 300 independent record and electronics stores around the world.


Metallica's new album, “Death Magnetic,” is available from Warner Bros. not only as a CD with 10 songs, but also in a five-record vinyl box set (one song per side) that goes for $115.

Other artists with upcoming vinyl albums range from such veterans as Bob Dylan, The Pretenders and former Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour to such young acts as Plain White T's, Margot and The Nuclear So & So's and Rise Against. San Diego indie bands that have recent or new vinyl releases include The Muslims, Night Marchers, Lady Dottie & The Diamonds and Pocket, whose debut album is available on CD and in a special double-album set on green vinyl. San Diego band The Creepy Creeps only releases its music on vinyl.

Eager to cash in, major record labels will soon reissue landmark albums on vinyl by such legends as the late Miles Davis (“Kind of Blue”), Jimi Hendrix (“Band of Gypsys”) and John Lennon (“Imagine”).

“Most vinyl albums are sold in independent stores, through mail-order companies and over the Internet, and none of them uses the Nielsen scanning system that tracks sales in national chain stores,” Bizar noted. “Demand for vinyl is through the roof. We had to buy a new warehouse just to store all our stock.”

For the beleaguered record industry, soaring vinyl album sales are providing rare glimmers of hope:

Amoeba Records, Los Angeles' biggest independent record store, is now selling 2,000 vinyl albums a day, up 15 percent from last year, while Best Buy stores nationwide are starting to sell vinyl.

Nationally, turntable sales climbed to nearly 500,000 last year, up from 275,000 in 2006. “We've seen a huge increase in sales, not just for turntables, but also for styluses (needles) and record-cleaning products,” Bizar said.

On Sept. 2, EMI/Capitol Records re-released multiple albums on vinyl by the top rock bands Radiohead and Coldplay, along with the Beach Boys' classic “Pet Sounds,” R.E.M.'s “Document” and The Steve Miller Band's “Greatest Hits 1974-78.”

Consumer appetite for new vinyl is creating production delays. “We're having issues with manufacturing capacity because demand has surged so quickly,” said Bill Gagnon, EMI's senior vice president of catalog marketing in Los Angeles. “We weren't releasing anything on vinyl five years ago.”


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Indie-rock favorite Beck – who performs at San Diego's Street Scene festival Saturday – went so far as to have the online MP3 version of his new album, “Modern Guilt,” taken from the vinyl pressing of the album. As a result, the first thing listeners hear on the opening track is the needle dropping onto the original vinyl.

“At this point, everything is coming out on vinyl,” said Heather Johnson, the co-owner of M-Theory, an independent record store in Mission Hills.

“For the more mainstream releases, like Radiohead's 'In Rainbows,' the price of the vinyl album is $17.99 and the CD is $14.99. For the new Calexico album, the CD is $12.99 and the vinyl is $14.99, but it includes a redemption number to get a digital download of the album. And for the new Bon Iver album, both the vinyl and CD versions are $15.99.”

Johnson estimates that new vinyl releases account for 30 percent of M-Theory's sales, while used vinyl sales account for another 30 percent to 40 percent of sales. M-Theory's best-selling new vinyl releases so far this year are by Radiohead, Nada Surf, The Hold Steady, Portishead and My Morning Jacket.

At Lou's Records in Encinitas, the largest indie music store in San Diego County, vinyl sales have grown steadily over the past year while CD sales have continued to decline. The best-selling vinyl albums at Lou's are by Radiohead and indie-rock favorites Dr. Dog and Conor Oberst, along with a recent vinyl reissue of “Pacific Ocean Blue,” the 1977 solo album by Beach Boy Dennis Wilson.

“Our Top 20 selling albums right now are all vinyl,” said Andrew Snodgrass, Lou's manager. “ is now selling vinyl, and I think you'll see other places start carrying vinyl, as well.”

This unexpected surge has been dubbed “the vinyl solution” by some. Under any name, it's clear many fans are now embracing vinyl, a medium that – until recently – had little cachet beyond turntable-manipulating DJs and hip-hop producers seeking obscure songs to sample.

In some cases, there's a growing frustration with the thin, compressed sound of MP3 files, which rarely match the warmth and audio depth of vinyl. In others, it's a desire to have a more meaningful experience with music and to be able to enjoy the art on an album sleeve and read the credits and liner notes while listening.

The vinyl payoff is palpable whether listeners are using an old turntable, which can be hooked up to their home entertainment systems, or a new turntable equipped with a USB connector, which allows music from vinyl records to be transferred to a computer. Turntables are available locally at RadioShack, Costco and other chain stores, though styluses can be harder to find outside of specialty stores, such as Stereo Unlimited, or from mail-order Web sites.

“Customers are frustrated with the sound quality of downloaded music and their MP3s are crashing,” said M-Theory's Johnson. “So the growing popularity of vinyl is a backlash to downloading and also a little bit of a generational thing, with kids who grew up on their parents' vinyl now embracing it.”

In the case of San Diego musician Ray Suen, 23, aesthetics and a deep love of music prompted his newfound passion for vinyl.

“I got into vinyl last year,” said Suen, who is now a touring member of top national rock band The Killers, with whom he'll perform on “Saturday Night Live” on Nov. 22.

“The first vinyl album I got was Elvis Costello's 'Imperial Bedroom,' and it was so much more of an engaging physical experience to sit and listen to it. When side one was done, I flipped it over. It demanded my attention; I try not to read or do anything else but listen.”

Suen used to download music from Napster and other pirate music Web sites, he said, but now finds himself buying vinyl copies of many of the same albums he had previously purloined digitally.

“I'm sort of paying penance,” Suen said. “Now that I collect vinyl, I just can't stand CDs anymore. I really think CDs are on their way out.”

So does Musicdirect sales director Bizar.

“The forecast is for the eventual demise of CDs,” Bizar said. “But 50 years from now, there will still be new vinyl albums being made. Vinyl will outlive us all.”


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