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Vinyl Revolution: In a Digital Age,
The LP Record Makes a Comeback
September 12, 2008
A group of 20-something tourists from Istanbul are wandering along London's Portobello Road when one of them, Surhan Gebologlu, walks into Intoxica, a bamboo-covered record shop with an inviting array of LPs displayed on its walls -- everything from Sly and the Family Stone's "A Whole New Thing" to "Scientist at the Controls of Dub."
"I just got a record player," he says, inspecting a mint-condition copy of "The Queen Is Dead" by the Smiths. "My girlfriend bought it for me and I want to use it."
He's not alone. The 12-inch vinyl LP record -- in decline for the past two decades, clung to only by DJs, audiophile nerds and collectors -- is back. Sales of new LPs are on the rise -- the only segment of the market for physical-format recorded music (CDs, tapes and records) to expand during the digital revolution -- and more groups are releasing albums on vinyl, often creatively packaged in combination with digital formats. For young people just discovering vinyl and older listeners indulging in a bit of sonic nostalgia, a record player is suddenly a trendy new piece of audio equipment. Sales of turntables increased more than 80% from 2006 to 2007 and are continuing to rise this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
While LPs remain a niche product -- the sales figures are minuscule compared with the amount of music sold digitally -- their resurgence is notable. World-wide sales of LP records doubled in 2007 (from three million to six million units) after hitting an all-time low in 2006, according to figures from IFPI, the international recording industry trade association. Global sales of CDs dropped 12% in the same period, after having fallen 10% the previous year. In the U.S., sales of vinyl records increased 36% from 2006-2007 while CD sales dropped nearly 18%. Those figures are just for new purchases; they don't include the vast secondary market for LPs online and in used record shops.
"Last year and this year have been our busiest ever," says Kris Jones of London's Sounds of the Universe record shop, which sells more music on vinyl than on CD. "It's really crazy."
Why the sudden interest in a bulky, old-fashioned format that costs more than downloading and requires equipment most people banished to the basement long ago? Some of it is due to increased visibility in a changing marketplace. Record companies are looking for innovative ways to make people pay for music -- often music they already have in another format -- rather than get it free or at a reduced price over the Internet. Vinyl is one way to attract buyers with something more tangible than a computer file.
"There's a reaction against the commoditization of music" that downloading represents, says Mike Allen, a music-industry consultant and former vice president of international marketing for record company EMI Group. "With vinyl there's something that has innate value -- a physical object."
LPs hitting the market in recent months have run the gamut from major acts like Coldplay and Madonna to hip new groups like Black Kids and the Hold Steady and even to indie bands who press a few thousand LPs and sell them at gigs. There's also a boom in vinyl editions of old albums. U2 just rereleased deluxe remastered LP versions of its classics "War" and "October." Earlier this year, Michael Jackson's 25th anniversary edition of "Thriller" hit the shelves in a vinyl edition with extra tracks.
Some artists are even rewarding buyers of their new LPs with digital versions of the music, effectively selling them the best of both worlds for one price. Major acts like Beck, Tom Petty and Wilco -- as well as newer indie sensations like Fleet Foxes -- have recently released albums on vinyl with free CDs or MP3 downloads included.
|Sounds of the Universe record shop in London's SoHo|
Radiohead's release late last year of "In Rainbows" was a watershed for the new sales strategy of value-added vinyl. The band made its new album available online and asked people to pay whatever they wanted to for it. But they also released the music in a £40 "discbox" edition, with two vinyl records, two CDs and a thick souvenir booklet. (Like the five LPs in the special edition of Metallica's new album, "Death Magnetic," the "In Rainbows" records are made to play at 45 rpm rather than 33 1/3, allowing for higher-quality sound.) Even with the music available digitally for free, Radiohead has sold more than 60,000 discboxes.
"People want to hold something," says Mr. Jones. "They like the pictures, the artwork."
So do older listeners, who remember the days when buying a new record was something special. "You forget how gigantic the artwork was, how much more interesting the albums are than CDs or downloads," says Mr. Allen. "It's a bit of a lost joy."
Sound quality also plays a role. Vinyl fanatics have always maintained that LPs sound warmer and richer than digital formats. "There has been a resurgence of vinyl among people who believe that with CDs and downloads the sound quality is not there," says IFPI's Francine Cunningham.
That was especially the case in the early days of CDs, when methods of transferring master tapes to digital formats failed to satisfy audiophiles. CD sound quality has improved greatly since then, says Mr. Allen, but there have always been people "who found digital music harsh and cold." The same is true with MP3s, which typically are saved onto players as compressed files, much smaller than the data on CDs, that sacrifice some audio quality.
There's also a novelty aspect. To a young buyer, a record is something unusual -- even something you listen to from start to finish as an artistic whole rather than on shuffle play. "People have gotten tired of downloading all of a sudden," says Chris Summers, manager of London's Rough Trade Records. "Young listeners crave something new. To them, vinyl is new."
London's Best Vinyl
The Internet has made it easy to find almost any record anywhere. Amazon's U.S. and U.K. sites have beefed up their vinyl sections in response to increasing demand (recent top sellers include the new Metallica and classics like Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon"). EBay and the online Gemm network have created a huge virtual market for vinyl records by allowing small shops around the world to sell to anyone. Retail giants such as Best Buy, HMV and Britain's Fopp! have vinyl sections.
But the most rewarding way to shop for LPs is by flipping through the racks in a great record store, perhaps one specializing in your favorite kind of music. Plenty of small record shops have closed in recent years, but most cities still have a few. Collectors and experts favor places like Croc-o-Disc in Paris, Hard Wax in Berlin, Second Life Music in Amsterdam and Runtrunt in Stockholm.
For the best shopping, though, they head to London, where around 20 record stores are still in business, concentrated mainly in two areas, Soho and Notting Hill. Collectors go crazy in these shops, which cater to every taste from acid jazz and soulful house to punk to Afro-beat. But even casual buyers can while away hours looking through the racks.
Here, a look at a few of the city's best shops selling new releases and vintage LPs.
Side One: Soho
Today's London may seem like a city of cookie-cutter pubs and Starbucks-quaffing hedge-funders, but Berwick Street, in the heart of Soho, retains a bit of what people like to think of as swinging '60s vibe. It's the kind of place where students strike artistic poses as they sketch interesting storefronts -- as several were doing on a recent morning -- and Cockney fruit-and-veg men shout out friendly hellos.
It's also the kind of place that still is home to record shops, a half dozen or so of them clustered on or near Berwick Street. A few of the area's shops have closed in recent years, but the remaining ones claim business is picking up as demand for vinyl increases. They all do business over the Internet and a few also sell CDs and DVDs.
Start at the southern end, where Music & Video Exchange and the appropriately named Vinyl Junkies are right next to each other. Music & Video Exchange is worth a brief stop -- a real grab bag, with racks of used records in all genres. Vinyl Junkies (www.vinyl-junkies.com) has a more attractively arranged selection, including new releases, especially in house, disco and funk; vintage classic rock; and a wall full of 45s, perfect for DJs seeking unusual beats.
"We try to sell a bit of everything," says store clerk Dave James, "from drum-and-bass to African funk, Latin, reggae."
Like many of the shops in the area, Vinyl Junkies has several turntable-and-headphone listening stations, so you can check out potential purchases. Store employees report an uptick in business recently -- especially with sales over the Internet. "A lot of people are only listening to MP3s," Mr. James says, "but there are still a lot of people who want to hold something in their hands."
Just around the corner, on Broadwick Street, is Sounds of the Universe (www.soundsoftheuniverse.com). This airy, sunlit shop features several albums from its own label, Soul Jazz records: mainly new compilations of classic funk and world beat tracks from around the world.
The store also sells CDs but is doing more business in vinyl. Mr. Jones points out that with some types of music, like dubstep (a bass-heavy dance genre popular in London, in which tracks are sometimes mixed and arranged on the fly by DJs), many groups release their albums on vinyl only. "Over the last five years vinyl has done nothing but go up," says Mr. Jones. "I really do think there is a future for vinyl."
Back on Berwick Street are two other shops worth visiting. Revival Records (www.revivalrecords.uk.com) buys and sells rock and pop classics. It's strictly a used-record shop, with everything from dusty obscurities for around £2 to hard-to-find classics for £50 and up. You can also find the occasional new release. A mint-condition copy of The Hold Steady's "Stay Positive" was recently on sale for £12, compared with £16 at HMV.
Like most of the record shops in the area, Revival stocks its racks with empty album covers; the records themselves are kept behind the counter. It's like a library with a colorful card catalog: Ask a clerk to bring you the music, which you can inspect for scratches or even spin on one of the turntables before buying. Revival's selection is nicely eclectic. On a recent visit, I picked up Ry Cooder's self-titled solo debut, and Kraftwerk's "The Man-Machine."
For more new releases, head a few doors up the street to Sister Ray Records (www.sisterray.co.uk), which has a more modern record-shop feel -- with CDs and DVDs on sale as you enter and thumping music on the stereo. But the selection of vinyl in the back of the store is extensive and fun to browse: everything from classic jazz (Miles Davis, "Kind of Blue") to pop (new releases from Madonna and Paul Weller) to dubstep (The Bug, "London Zoo").
Side Two: Notting Hill
Portobello Road in Notting Hill is one of London's most popular shopping areas, a mecca for people looking to buy everything from vintage clothing to antique jewelry. It's also a target-rich environment for vinyl lovers, with a half dozen record shops all within a few blocks of each other in addition to the several used-record vendors who set up shop along the street market held every Saturday.
Rough Trade (www.roughtrade.com), located on a side street, is usually the first stop in the area for record collectors. Originally affiliated with the record label of the same name, which in the 1980s released albums by the Smiths, Aztec Camera and a host of postpunk bands, the shop is now a separate entity but has a reputation for a good selection and knowledgeable staff.
New vinyl releases and CDs are upstairs, and used records -- everything from junk to collectible rarities -- are in the basement. The records are organized in clever categories. Some groups, like the Beatles and the Stones, get their own shelves, but other albums are grouped by interest: "UK Seventies Prog," "Celtic Folk," "Texas New Country." There are a lot of rarities and dance remixes, "things you just can't find on a download," says Mr. Summers.
Browsing the racks one recent morning is Swedish musician Idris Aly Omar, 27 years old, who is visiting London with his parents and hitting all the record shops in Notting Hill. "It started in the '90s, with hip hop," says Mr. Omar, who has amassed about 4,000 records since he started buying vinyl as a teenager. "I was looking for samples. But then you get interested in different types of music. I like the rarity of it. There are a lot of records that aren't available on CD or digital."
(Rough Trade's new store just off Brick Lane in London's East End supersizes the indie-record-shop concept, with books and CDs and a long row of turntable listening stations. It also adds such contemporary touches as a coffee-and-juice bar, lounge seating and free Wi-Fi. There are near daily in-store performances by bands.)
Tucked away on Blenheim Crescent, a few steps off Portobello Road, Minus Zero Records (www.minuszerorecords.com) is two shops in one: Minus Zero owner Bill Forsyth is on the left as you enter; Stand Out records owner Bill Allerton is on the right. They both stock an amusingly bizarro mishmash of 1960s and '70s psychedelia, folk oddities and old-school British punk -- everything from classic Dylan and Stones to really weird stuff, such as a recording of Kurt Vonnegut reading "Breakfast of Champions." Even more fun to browse than the records are the old magazines, postcards and concert posters.
Further up Portobello Road, Honest Jon's (www.honestjons.com) specializes in soul, world beats and jazz. The shop has joined with rock musician Damon Albarn to found the record label of the same name, which releases eclectic African and Asian music and archival compilations, such as the newly issued "Give Me Love: Songs Of The Brokenhearted -- Baghdad, 1925-1929," a collection of early 78-rpm recordings of Middle Eastern music.
Another shop, Sounds, on the main Portobello drag, has a cramped back room with used LPs but is worth poking your head into if you're looking for something special in the classic-rock genre.
Back at Intoxica Records (www.intoxica.co.uk) on Portobello Road, Mr. Gebologlu has paid for the Smiths record and is heading out. It's music he already has, but he wants it on vinyl, too. "I downloaded it, but I also want to buy it," he says. Downloading without paying "is not good for the artists. It's stealing."
Intoxica sales associate Debbie Smith says the shop has struggled to stay in business in the digital era but is doing better now. "Vinyl, as an artifact, is coming back. Young people have never known vinyl -- they have no concept of it -- so it's a cool thing for them. They're discovering that it sounds so much better than downloads. You can't collect MP3s."