The Vinyl Record is back as a mainstream music delivery medium and it’s just as easy to download as an MP3. After celebrating Record Store Day this past weekend, the world has awoken to the fact: that as CD sales continue to decline, with consumers turning to “on demand” digital downloads, vinyl, in its analog curiosity, is growing back in dramatic numbers.
In fact, 2008 was the best sales year for vinyl since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking data in 1991, moving close to 1.9 million copies sold, two-thirds of which were bought at independent retailers. That’s up 87% –nearly double what it was selling in 2007!
Turns out its not just audiophiles and DJ’s, for whom vinyl never left, who are bringing it all back. But a wide range of music loving individuals who want to have something they can hold in their hands, pour over the liner notes and see, actually SEE the album artwork as a piece of well… artwork –not just a smattering of pixels on a tiny screen. And perhaps experience a phenomenon called “analog warmth”.
But how does vinyl have a future in this digital landscape we’ve been weaned onto, perhaps even rammed down our throats without question? Where does it have its financial rewards for the music-recording artists themselves? It seems we’ve all been holding our breath in the digital downloads war as music-selling empires continue to crumble, get whittled down to size, and retrofitted to how people actually love to share, and listen to, music. Queue the LP record.
IT’S VINYL 2.0 TIME
So how can you download a vinyl album purchase? A couple of ways –you don’t. What you’ll notice on the shrink-wrapping of most new records is a sticker that let’s you know that there’s a coupon inside to download the album +for free+ directly from the record label itself, thereby getting over the piracy issue real quick and giving you the music you want in multiple formats. Call it a “value added” experience.
The second way is through the record player itself. How? By holding a microphone up to it? Nope. There’s a new record player in town and she’s packing a USB 2.0 output jack! Now you can plug the record player into you stereo hi-fi equipment through the usual audio output jacks, or directly into your computer setup through a USB cord.
These new wild hybrid turntables also come with software that will assist you in importing or digitizing the record into any format you want (aiff, wav, mp3, etc.) and automatically chop up the tracks by recognizing the silences between songs on the LP. Pretty much one-click go. If you don’t like the proprietary software your turntable came with, Roxio puts out a reliable version (Toast 10) to digitize your new collection.
Aside from the excellence of the music production, do you know what makes a quality pressing? No format could survive in this economy if it wasn’t made to current consumer demands of lasting value. The physical quality of a record is primarily determined in weight, measured in grams, that adds to its thickness. Most new releases in the 20th century were stamped on 120gram vinyl. 180gram vinyl is considered audiophile grade and most new releases and re-releases available today come out in this format. With a thicker record, warping is less likely and some claim there is better stereo imaging, less noise and a wider bandwidth.
But with all this value comes a cost, which is nowhere near the price of digital downloads –the ones you actually pay for! On average, you’re looking at at least $15 for a full-length album if not $20 – $30 for all these classic re-issues or 2 LP (long play) versions of new releases.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
So if vinyl is back, where’s all this money going? Part of the joy of the digital economy has been watching the music industry dinosaurs sweat over losing their profits when it’s been about us enjoying the music all along.
Is this vinyl resurgence another case of the record companies just inventing, or re-inventing a format, so that you feel emotionally compelled to rebuild your music collection in pristine 180gram vinyl while lining their pockets?
And in this age of transparent conscious consumerism, we want to know –when does the money get back to the artist? Is the royalty system working when we buy a record, as it’s not so much the case when you buy a track from itunes? Perhaps there’s another way we could just put money right into musicians hands, other than through their PayPal account.
One place we can put cash back into this circle is through the local economy. If you live anywhere near a major urban hub, alongside your mega chain stores there’s going to be an independent record seller –yes, your local record shop.
Your neighborhood record shop can be a place of magic and community. More than likely the people who work there live nearby and are in the bands you see in the local venues. These people aren’t random user suggestions and playlists from iTunes; they’re the fabric of your city’s music scene.
Right where I live in Echo Park, we’ve been blessed with a new vinyl only (yes only!) shop called Origami Vinyl. Origami opened their doors as of only two weeks ago in this crazy economy on April 3, 2009 –which is saying a lot! You can read about their amazing serendipitous journey here. This place is definitely the inspiration for this entire article. They have become the midwife to my journey of analog listening and vinyl rebirth.
What I find most exciting and wild about the current local record shop is that time no longer exists. In the late 80’s it was hard to find repressing of even early 80’s records. Things were already rare, expensive and collector level if you missed out on the first release. Not much fun for a kid with just a paper route income. But now your local vinyl store is packing a serious assortment of all the classics, from 60’s Rock to 70’s Metal to 80’s British Alternative. Plus all the current releases in brand new, consistently priced, 180-gram vinyl plus digital download copy. Yeah!
If your curious as to where your local record store is, the kind folks at Record Store Day have compiled a list of independent record dealers who participated in their annual event. Go Indy Record Stores!
TIME TO GET PHYSICAL
Have you forgotten what it is to discover music? I did. Finding albums themselves is a whole other trip unparalleled in the digital landscape. First, you have to leave the house (What!) and arrive at your local record shop. As you enter this temple archive of sound you will feel the frenzied acidic rush of those around you who are activating the most primal of human senses –that of the hunter-gatherer. Then, isle-by-isle, you will discover your treasures, your audio manna, through “digging” through record bins for hours. In fact, last weekend I started to get “diggers thumb” until I switched up my technique.
Then it hits you, you find a 12inch you didn’t even know that you were looking for, an unexpected serendipitous moment when you have an “A-ha, no way, oh my god, nobody found this but me – I Scored!” moment. It gets you high for a little while and that blows your mind. I don’t think I’ve ever had that with an mp3 download. But this is just the first half of the game.
Playing a record is a ritual. There is no “shuffle” button. It’s about the walking up to the record player, an instrument in its own right, hand selecting an album from the library (the spell book), setting it down on the platter, placing the needle to the record to initiate its spiral journey down the canyon of the groove, and lighting up the room with analog aliveness. Then, every 30 minutes, go on over and help flip the disc to make another selection. There really is a dance going on here –an interactive ceremony that might make you break a sweat.
Now this is not vinyl you’re going to take outside of the house to slay crowds as a DJ. This is active alchemy, an audio landscape that you will select in your living lab to activate your friends with. You won’t just play records; you will initiate experiences and audio journeys. And if we believe the technology, it will be with analog warmth and organic presence.
I’M GOING BACK
Why has the vinyl record and turntable still survived to warm its way back into our audio hearts? Maybe it’s like an old lover who had the wisdom to let us go for a while and have us find our own way back to analog quality after tasting the pixilated algorithms of 0’s and 1’s attempting to copy a compression of a copy.
Perhaps one reason for every album being made available again on vinyl is that the Long Tail of MP3 sales showed the music selling industry that people want it all -all the time, and not just the new stuff. Just swim around on Wax.fm to see what I’m talking about. Look for anything you want, new or old; it’s probably getting repressed right now.
So after all this inspiration, it’s time for me to get that paper route again and score a new turntable and perhaps an actual stereo system. I suggest to you, get a group of friends together some weekend soon and create a vinyl hunting party. Paint your faces, put feathers in your hair and rediscover the power of listening together as an audio band of warriors. But I warn you –bring snacks!