Interesting fact below. 10% of Subpop's sales are on vinyl. That its that much surprises me!
Jesse Ruegg is a music fan.
So much so, in fact, he runs a concert series in downtown State College (Roustabout!) and owns a venue equipped for hosting rock shows (Chronic Town).
So it should come as no surprise he has a strong opinion about his music.
"Fans who are really passionate about their music want the best they can have, they want the best sound quality," Ruegg said.
For Ruegg, that quality can only be achieved through one medium: the vinyl record.
"When you buy a vinyl record, you actually have something unique," Ruegg said. "You can't download it; it's tangible. You have a nice canvas for cover art, a sleeve with liner notes on it, and the actual physical act of playing a record is a very tactile experience. It's almost ceremonial."
Ruegg's opinion may sound like old-fashioned nostalgia, but there is growing evidence he is certainly not the only one who feels so strongly about the mystique of the vinyl LP (long-playing record). Though the CD supposedly supplanted vinyl as the musical medium of choice back in the '80s, the sale of recorded music has struggled mightily in recent years. Yet, despite the drop in CD sales, vinyl has continued to sell. In fact, record album sales have thrived. And it's not just vintage vinyl; consumers are buying new records by current bands as well.
"With music sales going down, vinyl's actually going up," Ruegg said. "It doesn't seem to make sense."
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is the trade group that represents the U.S. recording industry. Among other things, the RIAA is responsible for keeping track of recorded music sales figures as well as protecting the intellectual property of the artists it represents. The RIAA's 2007 year-end statistics show vinyl records experienced a 36.6 percent sales increase from 2006 to 2007. When compared to CD sales, which dropped 17.6 percent over the same period of time, it's quickly apparent something is happening in the music industry.
Liz Kennedy, deputy director of communications at the RIAA, said the group is hesitant to see the increase as a significant shift in consumer opinion.
"Our 2007 numbers do point to about a 30 percent increase over the year before," Kennedy said. "Any resurgence in sales is good news, but I don't think we'd be able to speculate on the future."
A statement the RIAA released to the media gives the group's official opinion on the matter: "The music industry offers a multitude of options to satisfy the many ways fans prefer listening to music, from classic vinyl to innovative digital services. Any way in which consumers can discover and enjoy legal music is ultimately a great thing for fans and the music community alike."
Others in the industry agree a single year's sales figures aren't enough to prove that vinyl's revival has any staying power. Richard Laing, who works in sales and marketing at Seattle-based independent label Sub Pop Records, said his company is cautiously encouraged by the increase.
"It still remains to be seen if it's a short-term trend," Laing said.
Sub Pop was the label responsible for the grunge movement of the late '80s and early '90s, when its stable of bands included Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. It continues to be one of the most influential indie labels with bands like The Postal Service and The Shins. Though RIAA's 2008 figures have not yet been released, Laing said Sub Pop has seen a continued increase in vinyl sales throughout the year.
Greg Gabbard, owner of State College's City Lights Records, said independent record stores like his own have benefited the most from the resurgence. He said some owners of smaller record stores who were discouraged by declining album sales decided to stay in business as a result of the sudden interest in vinyl.
"The increase was dramatic in the past couple years," Gabbard said.
Gabbard said independent stores were best prepared for the sudden interest, because the smaller stores were the ones that were still stocking vinyl records as well as buying used vinyl. Laing said the bigger outlets are catching on, with Best Buy and Amazon.com starting to stock new LPs.
There are many differing opinions on the exact reason for vinyl's success in the face of the recorded music industry's recent struggles. Ruegg is willing to suggest what the RIAA will not: The resurgence is a reaction against poor business practices by the major labels. He said the major record labels have lost the trust of consumers for a number of reasons, which has contributed to an increase in vinyl record purchases.
"It's almost like a response to the music industry being like a stick in the mud," Ruegg said. "They're totally missing the point of pop music. I'm talking about the major labels here. Eighteen dollars for a CD is ridiculous, charging that much for crappy music."
Another reason for vinyl's recent success may be sound quality. It's common knowledge that digital music formats like MP3 suffer from a significant decrease in quality, but the vinyl faithful also believe part of the music is lost in translation to CD. Audio purists have long argued over which medium is superior, with many holding the opinion that vinyl records better recreate the live music experience.
"I personally think that music mixed and mastered for vinyl and played on vinyl records is the pinnacle of analog sound," Ruegg said. "If I have the choice between listening to something on CD and listening to it on vinyl, I'll go with vinyl every time."
Ben Sneeringer, a Penn State Berks student who is a member of a vinyl appreciation group on Facebook, said vinyl is less convenient than modern portable options like the iPod, but that he still prefers the sound of vinyl.
"I like the sound of vinyl better. It's much fuller and is far less compressed than MP3s," Sneeringer said. "I just think the sound quality is better on a record, if you have the opportunity, as opposed to MP3s or even CDs."
The final theory for the renewed love of vinyl is harder to quantify, vinyl enthusiast Joseph Lacombe, Class of 2008, said.
"What I like about vinyl is its physicality," Lacombe said. "I like the process of sliding a record out of its sleeve and laying it down, then placing the needle and hearing that first little audible crackle as it begins to spin."
Nostalgia, album art, liner notes and the actual act of playing the record all factor into the power of the vinyl record. Laing compared the phenomenon to the desire to actually own something one enjoys, such as a favorite book or, in this case, a record.
"A lot of people are buying records because they like the sound," Laing said. "But they also like to have the actual piece, the physical artifact."
Chronic Town, the hookah bar and concert venue Ruegg co-owns with Jeff Van Fossan, has begun buying and selling used and new records. The store is joining several other places to buy records in State College, including Gabbard's City Lights Records on College Avenue and Josh Ferko's Stax of Trax, a record store contained within Webster's Bookstore Café on Allen Street.
Ruegg said the decision to sell records was influenced by his own appreciation for vinyl as well as the wants of his establishment's patrons. He's a vinyl fan and he realized many of the patrons of his store were also vinyl fans, so it made sense.
"Sixty to 75 percent of our collection is vintage stuff, used vinyl," Ruegg said. "Stuff that's not in print anymore and stuff you can't buy anymore."
Selling records originally started as a way for Ruegg and Van Fossan to supplement the musical aspect of Chronic Town. They started by buying a few copies of LPs from bands that played Roustabout! and selling them in the store, but it has since grown beyond their expectations.
"We've actually sold more records than I ever thought we would," Ruegg said.
Even so, vinyl records won't be dethroning CDs just yet. Laing said vinyl records are more expensive to produce than CDs, which means Sub Pop and other record companies must gauge how well a record will sell before deciding to release it on vinyl.
"People still have their listening environments based around the CD," Laing said. "It's a different group of people who buy a record."
Laing said his company has begun offering records packaged with coupons redeemable for a free MP3 download of the album, which stimulates traffic to Sub Pop's Web site as well as meeting the demands of consumers in the digital age.
"The fact that we include a download eliminates some of the shortcomings of vinyl," Laing said. "It's relatively cost effective to do. Plus, to redeem the coupon, you have to come to our Web site."
Despite the innovations, vinyl records still account for only about 10 percent of Sub Pop's total sales. For now, it looks like vinyl will continue to flourish but still maintain a sort of counterculture status to the dominant music media.
And for Ruegg, part of vinyl's attraction is its separation from the ordinary.
"I don't need to hear any more Jessica Simpson. I don't want to hear any more American Idol bands. I want to hear something real," Ruegg said. "The bands that are doing that sort of thing are putting their stuff on vinyl."