Vinyl's uptick is evident in sales of old and new records
By the numbers
57 million: Value of vinyl LP and EP shipments in 2008, the highest dollar level since 1990 and more than double the almost $23 million in 2007.
2.9 million: Vinyl LP/EPs shipped last year with an average album value of $19.55. The total was about the same number shipped in both 1996 and 1999, but the dollar values those years were $36.8 million and $31.8 million, respectively.
1 percent: Vinyl’s share of prerecorded music market. It’s doubled from 1999 to 2008.
2.9 million: Value of shipments of vinyl singles (commonly known as 45s) last year, down from $4 million in 2007, continuing a slide that began in 2002.
Source: The Recording Industry Association of America
Almost a decade into the 21st century, Scott Freeman plunked down his money at the Record Outlet register in Thousand Oaks and walked out clutching two pieces of prized, ancient booty.
It was as if the Simi Valley teen had stepped into a time warp. There in his hands were Harry Chapin’s 1974 album “Verities & Balderdash” and a Pink Floyd “Echoes” compilation album, both on vinyl. There wasn’t a cell phone, MP3 player or computer anywhere in sight.
“It’s better than digital stuff,” said the 18-year-old Freeman, who is studying film at Moorpark College. “It’s not as compressed. It’s better quality. Sure, you are sacrificing portability and convenience, but on vinyl, there’s also more of a connection to the artist. … It’s something we never grew up with; it’s something new for us.”
Vinyl, that retro darling from a few years ago, is still riding the surge, remaining popular with everyone from young people to high-end audiophiles willing to pay $300 to $800 for a pristine-sounding record. Vinyl shipments more than doubled from about $23 million in 2007 to almost $57 million last year, its highest level since 1990, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
Market players have noticed. Internet retail giant Amazon.com has had a vinyl-only music section since fall 2007. Now, when huge acts such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen or the Dave Matthews Band release new material, it also comes out on vinyl.
Vinyl, observers note, will not become king again, though its market share has doubled since 1999. But even with that doubling, RIAA figures show it is only 1 percent of the prerecorded music market.
Still, it’s quite the little phenomenon and one of the few music formats in which sales are increasing (the other being downloads).
Vinyl’s current and curious vibe lies somewhere in those albums Freeman held, the scads of Jimi Hendrix’s “Live at Woodstock” that rolled hot off the presses and onto spindles at Don MacInnis’ Record Technology Inc. pressing plant in Camarillo this month, and the customer who recently wandered into Buffalo Records in downtown Ventura.
Old technology, young fans
“I had a girl in here, maybe 12 years old, who bought a couple Beatles albums on vinyl,” owner Eric Kayser said.
It’s a tune being sung widely if not deeply. Back at Record Outlet in Thousand Oaks, owner K.C. Staples said that vinyl versions of The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” are selling “like crazy.”
“It seems like every week, there’s a mom who comes in and says, ‘My son is interested in vinyl and wants to buy a turntable,’ ” he said.
Much of Staples’ core vinyl crowd are kids from junior high, high school and college — the very people supposedly in lock step with the Information Age’s dazzling digital devices.
His 18-year-old daughter Veronica, helping out in the store one day, said her peers are “definitely” into vinyl. One reason, she said, is that the so-called classic rock from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s is popular with her age group — as is, on a lesser basis, those eras’ fashions.
“I think the styles are coming back, too,” said Veronica, who just graduated from Fillmore High School and hopes to get into art psychology.
Vinyl’s attraction runs “kind of strange,” said Jim Salzer, owner of Salzer’s Records in Ventura. New vinyl, he said, appeals to young people up to those in their 40s, while used vinyl draws young people and baby boomers.
“It’s got a cool cachet to it,” said Salzer.
It “doesn’t much make sense to me,” offered Kayser. “It also seems less corporate to some, and the indie thing to do, like somehow it’s The Man who wants them to go digital.”
MacInnis also took a stab at it, saying, “It’s hip and it’s cool. It’s different. It’s that attitude, ‘My dad played CDs, I’m going to play vinyl’ — that rebellion thing.”
Demand ramps up production
MacInnis is in the business without really being a fan. He doesn’t even own a turntable. “I hear plenty of vinyl here every day,” he said with a laugh. “I like to escape from it.”
But he knows vinyl inside and out — all his Camarillo plant does is press 12-inch phonographic records for labels. Vinyl orders grew about 20 percent from 2006 to 2008, he said. It’s leveled off some so far this year, barely a few points above last year, though MacInnis said that might be due to the overall economic slump.
“There’s a much more positive vibe about vinyl than there was 20 years ago,” he noted.
In the early ’90s, Record Technology was pressing vinyl only two or three days a week “and barely surviving,” MacInnis said.
Today, his plant presses vinyl six days a week — 14 hours a day Mondays through Fridays, and eight hours on Saturdays. He has eight presses and 38 employees, all but six devoted to production.
MacInnis has about 200 labels as clients, from big boys such as Warner Bros. and Capitol Records/EMI to indies such as Sub Pop and Matador Records.
In a given year, the Camarillo plant presses about 2 million records.
During a visit to the plant on July 1, Hendrix’s “Live at Woodstock” album was rolling off Press 2. They made 27,000 copies. “That’s a big order,” MacInnis said above the loud hum of machinery.
On Press 8, “Steamin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet,” an album first released in 1956, was issuing forth again. Over in the acoustic mastering room, engineer Kevin Gray was cutting an old Gil Evans jazz record called “Out of the Cool,” transferring it from master tape to master disc — the last artistic step before it’s manufactured into an album. At the end of the line, workers were packaging up — sleeves, jackets, wrapping plastic and boxes — Bad Company’s self-titled debut album from 1974.
Soon, MacInnis and crew will press the Woodstock soundtrack album, also being reissued for its 40th anniversary. Next spring, he said, they’ll be busy when the entire Beatles catalog comes out on vinyl.
Still, he said, “It’s not going to become the prime format for prerecorded music ever again.” Fewer than 10 U.S. plants press vinyl, and no new equipment is being made.
Sound quality debate
Vinyl devotees speak of its warmer, richer, fuller sound — the idea that you can hear a guitar pick, or someone take a breath off a horn. Salzer has spoken of being able to “feel the band in the room.”
It can be true, others said. Staples said his vinyl copy of Nirvana’s “In Utero” is “head and shoulders above my CD copy.” A well-kept record on good stereo equipment, MacInnis said, “is far superior to digital.” But they also said some things sound better on CD. It all depends on the pressing, Staples noted.
Tom Port contends that vinyl sounds better than CDs because “it’s not hard to be better than a CD.” Port runs Better-Records.com, a Thousand Oaks-based enterprise that finds, cleans and plays vinyl albums, then sells the best of the lot to clients — well-heeled ones. His core customer is willing to pay $300 to $500 for a record; sometimes demand will push it to $800.
Sales, he added, have doubled over the past three years.
“We’re selling you vintage records, way better than anything you’ve ever heard,” Port said. “This is for high-end audiophiles, the people who care about their sound. The masses like their Ford Tauruses, but some people want to drive a Ferrari.”
Port is not a fan of today’s new vinyl pressings. But, he added, it’s a crapshoot with virtually any pressing. One side of an album can sound different than the other, he added.
“There’s a lot of random variability in anything,” he said, “and with mass productions, there’s lots of variations. We can’t explain why so many records don’t sound good.”
Savoring piece of history
Vinyl has other colorful offshoots. Former financial world guru Gary Freiberg of Los Osos founded Vinyl Record Day and is now trying to get vinyl honored with a U.S. postage stamp, which is under consideration. He set up Vinyl Record Day for Aug. 12, in honor of the day in 1877 that Thomas Edison reportedly invented the phonograph, but efforts to get the day recognized nationally have fizzled.
Freiberg contends that vinyl is part of our history. Just as people wouldn’t throw out books, neither should they throw out vinyl.
“It’s part of our Americana,” he said. “At one point, everyone thought vinyl was dead and would be gone.”
Freiberg has everything from P.T. Barnum to Jimmy Swaggart on vinyl. He counts some 3,500 records, 2,000 45s and 8,000 album covers in his collection.
CDs, he said, are “so impersonal.” Yes, they are easier to use and you don’t have to get up every 15 minutes to change sides. Records skip, crackle and pop, but CDs can acquire similar sound ailments, he contends.
Care could limit appeal
MacInnis, for one, thinks the care required for vinyl — cleaning records, replacing needles, etc. — may eventually kill the vibe.
“It’s why this surge will be short-lived,” he said. “People who are getting into vinyl for the cool factor will now realize what a pain … it is. It takes dedication.”
For now though, vinyl is hot on the spindle with its needle sitting in a devoted if not popular groove. Staples estimates that 70 percent of his sales volume at Record Outlet is vinyl. Over at Buffalo Records, Kayser thinks vinyl is about 60 percent of his business.
Both also buy used vinyl, but Kayser has a bit of advice for those hoping to cash in on their dusty, neglected collections.
“A lot of people think they have a gold mine of vinyl sitting in their garage,” he said, “which is almost always not true.”
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