The unlikely rebirth of analog in a digital world

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Vinyl Nation
The unlikely rebirth of analog in a digital world
Story and photos by Ryan Heinsius
Published on 05/14/2009

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Brett Schenning sits cross-legged on the wood floor in his living room, a healthy grin splayed across his face. In a slightly different setting, his longish goatee, slim figure and at-peace disposition could get him confused with an enlightenment-seeking yogi as we talk about one of his most intense passions.
     The 30-year-old Flagstaff local carefully removes a record from its sleeve, methodically places it on his turntable, hits play and makes a couple runs over its grooves with a static brush. He then takes the album cover (Calexico and Iron and Wine’s In the Reins) and places it in a display stand next to the stereo. Hundreds of new and old records, each sheathed in plastic covering and stored in milk-crate shelving, line the floor of his Flagstaff apartment. Box sets, rarities, limited pressings—nearly every genre from modern to classic rock, to blues, to classical, to jazz is represented in Schenning’s impressive collection (Tom Waits’ Mule Variations, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” have all had recent spins).
     “Nothing sounds quite like it—the whole act of actually physically being involved with the music, as opposed to a CD where you kind of put it on and punch a couple buttons—you’re dropping (the needle) onto a record and it’s actual sound waves. It feels more involved to me and I really like that about vinyl,” he says.
     Schenning, a local photographer and employee in the bulk department at New Frontiers Natural Marketplace, represents a relatively small but steadily growing number of local music fans who, despite the overwhelming dominance of the Internet and digital formats, are flocking back to the same method of music listening their parents’ generation made standard.
     “I didn’t really get vinyl until a little more recently when I really started listening to music,” Schenning says. “And then once you do that and you start listening to vinyl you realize that there are all these subtleties that you’re not catching in CDs. I’ve always liked listening to music in headphones, but vinyl on headphones is a whole different world.”
     Unlike often-ridiculed cassettes and eight-track tapes, vinyl has never totally gone away. Even in the face of the industry game-changer of CDs in the early ’80s, analog music listening has always existed, after having been, in a sense, forced underground as the sexy newness of shiny discs and the techno-miracle status of mp3s made records seem out of touch, antiquated and even dull.
     But, vinyl has endured. The signature warmth and depth of records has kept vinyl pressers and turntable and needle manufacturers in business through the dark days of the ’80s, ’90s and early ’00s. For the better part of two decades, a hard core of audiophiles has remained the primary keepers of the flame, a secret knowledge-keeping Knights Templar-esque society, quietly awaiting vinyl’s second coming.
     “You’re a little more committed to sitting down and listening to the whole record spin around, and flipping it over, whereas with a CD or an mp3 you can get bored with it and skip ahead—not as much commitment,” says Schenning, who is far from merely some luddite, as he utilizes both analog and digital means of music consumption, describing iPods as “amazing.” But, there just isn’t any digital replication of the vinyl experience.
     “Maybe, it’s become such a fast culture,” says Schenning. “Everything’s fast; the Internet’s fast, fast food. Communications are fast. Maybe this is a chance for people to slow down, take a breath. You can’t take a record and go jogging, or talk on your cell phone and run around, and do this, and this, and this with your headphones on or whatever.

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This is something you have to sit down to appreciate. And people who really love music, it’s a chance for them to appreciate music instead of multitasking all the time.”
     The modern 12-inch polyvinyl chloride record represents only the tip of the iceberg after more than a century of innovation in recording and reproducing sound. Thomas Edison famously invented the phonograph in 1877 utilizing a rotating tinfoil cylinder, intending the machine’s use to be as a voice recorder for office dictation. But music quickly became an obvious and natural fit for the new technology, and by the 1890s 7-inch discs that spun at approximately 70 rpm were booming business. Wax and hard rubber were also early materials used for recordings along with shellac, which survived as a popular material until the 1950s in the form of now-heavily collected 78’s. In the early ’50s, the vinyl record—either 33 1/3 rpm (the long play format) or 45 rpm (the extended play format, or single)—became the industry standard due to its durability and relatively low surface noise level.
     And then came the musical revolution of the ’60s where the LP’s anatomy came to dictate the length, structure and often some of the artistic relevance of specific collections of songs. With just over 20 minutes available per side, producers and artists constructed their albums accordingly, shifting the recording paradigm to fit with the prevailing technology. Song order and the general dynamics of a record were now a more critical part of the art itself. The era of the album had begun.
     Abbey Road, The Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin II, Tommy—every recording that has become a classic at some level had a structure in which it had to fit, even in the case of double or triple LPs. The late’60s and early ’70s are venerated as the golden age of the album, and one that defined, until the rise of a more single-song-oriented Web culture, how music fans conceptualize recorded music. But, after years of declining sales, a reemergence of vinyl has occurred in the industry—a seeming reaction to this brave new digital world, igniting a slight return to the cherished concept of the album. So, why now?
     Since 2000, CD sales have annually decreased by percentages well into the teens. Digital downloads have largely replaced CDs, but vinyl sales account for one of the only bright spots in music industry sales, even if it’s still a small one.
     Ben Gersten, owner of Flagstaff’s sole independent record store, Rock-It-Man, has seen the music industry’s changing trends during his three decades in the business. Gersten says he took vinyl out of his stores when CDs arrived in the ’80s, and now has put it back on his racks as a new generation of music fanatics has revived the popularity of the format.
     “I think the reason (vinyl is) doing so well is a fanbase is looking for that vinyl now,” says Gersten. “Over the last few years they’ve been introduced to it. The Decemberists come out, I sell two CDs and I sell 12 records. I sit there and I laugh because five years ago it would have been the opposite.”
     Gersten has seen a marked demand increase in recent years for newer artists on vinyl. My Morning Jacket, Neko Case, Pearl Jam, Ryan Adams, M. Ward, Wilco and the Flaming Lips, among many others, put out nearly every new release on vinyl, albeit often in limited numbers (the format still remains prohibitively expensive for many smaller bands). And older artists are jumping back on the LP train—Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Depeche Mode have begun reissuing their classic albums on vinyl creating a small put powerful surge. Gersten estimates that the format represents 6 to 10 percent of the music industry’s current sales. For Rock-It-Man, vinyl accounts for 10 to 15 percent of sales, which he says is common for the 400 or so still-remaining independent retailers in the U.S.
     “It’s bringing people that lost the record store feel,” says Gersten. “I wasn’t quite sure a year ago that I was going to go in as heavy as I did. Some days I sell more records than I do CDs.”
     Another Flagstaff audiophile and vinyl junkie, Fred Wojtkielewicz, also sees listening to records as a mark of a small consciousness shift among music fans.
     “I think people want something real and tangible,” he says. “Society is so caught up in the digital age that we forgot what is important. We need to take a step back in time and realize that vinyl is a true music lover’s medium. Yes, it isn’t always convenient, but that isn’t necessarily the point. When was the last time you sat down and just listened to a record—maybe not on vinyl, definitely not a greatest hits record, or the top five tunes recommended to you on iTunes, but the whole damn album as the artist intended? We sometimes forget that this is a piece of art.”
     Wojtkielewicz, 42, co-owner and proprietor of the Wine Loft downtown, estimates that he owns about 1,200 albums, mostly in pristine condition ranging from first pressings to ultra-rare mono versions of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and Highway 61 Revisited to Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Dream and Billy Holiday’s final studio album Lady in Satin.
     “It isn’t about how many gigabytes of music you have, or how many records you have for that matter. The process of listening to vinyl is centering, and it takes us sonically and spiritually to the core of what is important: the music,” he says.
     Wojtkielewicz also hunts down and collects modern artists like Wilco (their 2007 release Sky Blue Sky is one of his favorites) on vinyl. “Sometimes we get a sense that certain artists are record collectors themselves, like Jack White of the White Stripes. His vinyl releases are beautifully packaged and highly sought after. I only buy vinyl now. CDs I consider obsolete. Everybody is releasing their stuff on vinyl now. And if not, in the end, there is always the lowly download.”
     Dwayne Conn, 44, a local who works for W.L. Gore & Associates as the company’s information specialist, spends much of his off-time obsessively researching the rich history of lost and lesser-known music.
     “It seems like the Internet has given us the ability to peer into the far corners of the world more easily than ever before,” he says, “and that has increased people’s hunger for the unusual and obscure. And of course the sample culture of hip-hop and electronic music feeds into that as well—people are always looking for a great sample that no one else has used yet. I’m sure there’s also a bit of nostalgia that draws people to vinyl as well.”
     Last summer, Conn, an amateur musicologist, produced an hour-long podcast examining the largely unknown tradition of African American string band music in honor of Southern trio the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ performance at the Pickin’ in the Pines Bluegrass and Acoustic Music Festival. But, the dusty corners of music’s vast history is only a small part of Conn’s infinitely diverse interests. He has all the classics one might expect as well as the collectibles from recorded music’s past.
     A significant portion of Conn’s Flagstaff home is stacked literally from floor to ceiling with records. “In addition to the LPs that most people know about, I also have quite few older 78-rpm records that I treasure,” he says. “I especially love the Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli with the Quintette of the Hot Club of France 78’s that I have. Lately, I’ve been collecting any Hawaiian/exotica records I can find, and have about 200 along those lines. All told, I probably have over 5,000 records at this point, and add more every week.”
     Like many modern music fanatics who keep large reserves of vinyl, Conn supplements his music listening with both analog and digital forms, but enjoys the meditative process and all-encompassing state of mind that records require of the listener.
     “I do enjoy the physicality of records—especially the oversized artwork,” he says. “I also like the feeling that I’m ‘rescuing’ music that might otherwise be lost to history. I spend a lot of time converting old records to CDs and mp3s so I can more easily enjoy listening to them. And even though most of my records are used and not in pristine condition, I find that a small amount of scratchiness kind of adds to the appeal of vinyl.”
     The increasing hunger for vinyl these days seems to be, at least on some level, a reaction to both the ease at which the Internet can serve us anything at anytime, as well as its non-tangible nature. It is rare to actually find a vinyl purest nowadays who disavows any sort of digital mingling, but the analog junkies who live in Flagstaff have found a comfortable balance between the two: digital for ease and portability, and vinyl for the type of real music listening that means more than background music in a car or a soundtrack at the gym.
     Vinyl brings the soulfulness back into music to a point where it transcends a mere product for sale, and has begun to retake its rightful place as functional art again. After all, as Gersten says, “You can’t roll a joint on a download.”
     “The digital format is great,” says Wojtkielewicz, “but I don’t get a real sense of the music’s true origins. Vinyl is the real thing. It is analog, just the way music is meant to be heard. There is something missing with the digital format—that is a fact. When I fire up my amp—which is a tube amp and the only way to really appreciate a vinyl record in all its glory—I’m still floored, every time, with how real that sound is.”
    
     —————————————————————————————-
    
     Some modern artists leading the vinyl charge
     By Ryan Heinsius

    
     Jack White
     Many music freaks see Jack White as the messiah in the drive to resurrect the vinyl format. From the White Stripes to the Raconteurs, to his new project (he plays drums) called the Dead Weather, White has stayed true to analog, just saying no to digital during the whole recording process: from laying down tracks on reel-to-reels to releasing high quality vinyl versions of his work. This guy is the true believer. Do what he does.
    
     Brandi Carlile
     Rock-It-Man’s Ben Gersten met singer-songwriter Carlile when she played in town last year at the Orpheum. He asked where he could get her vinyl albums and she said they were only available through her Web site. With the advent of the Internet, much more control can potentially stay in the artist’s hands, and as the popularity of vinyl increases, the costs will go down making it accessible to musicians both big and small. (Did I just say that the Internet was making vinyl more available?)
    
     Wilco
     2002’s epic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot put Wilco on the map of broad cultural consciousness, but it also became one of modern rock’s great, experimental records. The album’s lush complexity lends itself extremely well to the warm vinyl format and the band’s two albums since, 2004’s A Ghost is Born and 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, also provide a multilayered and exhilarating listening experience on the turntable. Their newest, Wilco (the album), is expected in June. Its vinyl release will surely sound awesome.
    
     Ryan Adams
     Yes, everything you’ve heard is true. Ryan Adams announced his retirement from music last winter and broke up his rockin’ band the Cardinals. Around the same time, he got hitched to former child star and all-around wholesome girl Mandy Moore—neither situations are expected to last. But, the unstable yet brilliant country rocker has helped helm vinyl’s resurgence, mixing and mastering his albums specifically for vinyl release, totally separate from their digital counterparts.

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