The New York Times says vinyl is hot again. Not only old-fashioned record sales but also turntables sales are up. (The 35 percent lift in LP sales still doesn’t put vinyl above 1 percent of the music market, but it’s exciting nonetheless.)
They talk to J&R Music, which normally sells CDs, and whose co-owner tells them “New customers are discovering the quality of the sound,” and to Best Buy, where a sales rep suggests “video games deserved some credit,” as hands-on experience of “classic rock and pop artists like the Beatles and Metallica” [!] makes folks want to “try their hands at mixing music for real.”
We decided to ask someone who hasn’t just re-discovered vinyl — namely, downtown record store owners — about this. Chris Vanderloo, co-owner of Other Music, was the only one who was answering the phone at this hour.
He sees a jump too — from vinyl as 10 percent of his business three years ago, to “on a good day 25 percent” — and is mainly enthusiastic. But he has concerns about some aspects of the platter-peddling.
“For years vinyl was 10 percent of our busienss, pretty consitently,” says Vanderloo. “Mostly older guys, and diehards, who still bought it for audio quality, and DJs, even though we don’t sell a ton of dance music. In the past three years it’s been picking up — and it’s a younger crowd, buying for aesthetic reasons.”
What sort of aesthetic reasons? “I think the object itself, there’s soemthing very appealing about it,” he says. “A lot of times when new bands put out vinyl, they include a coupon for mp3s, so you can get that for free. And with that you also get the object itself to look at and read the liner notes and smell it… You can get anything digital for free these days, but people choose to have something special, something to hold onto.”
Sometimes the vinyl version outsells the CD version at Other Music. For example, with a recent record by Girls, a band from San Francisco, “we sold more vinyl than CDs in the first week or two,” say Vanderloo.
He has some concerns about the new vinyl market, though: For one thing, “It’s so expensive. Vinyl used to be the cheap version. The CD was always 15 bucks, and the vinyl was eight!”
Before the major music companies “kiled vinyl,” he says, shutting down their pressing plants and starting the domino effect that turned pressing vinyl records into a horse-and-buggy remnant industry, “a vinyl record was $10.98 list, tops. Now it’s the opposite — way more expensive than CDs.” He says the average new vinyl release runs between 14 to 30 dollars, and “14 is on the low side.”
Vanderloo finds it “ironic” that the majors and reissuing vinyl and touting it as the new big thing. “It’s a little crazy,” he says. “This week Elektra is reissuing some Joni Mitchell records. They’re $20 or $25 list. But you can buy them in any used record bin for six dollars. Those records are around, they’re not rare or obscure.” (Still, he admits, the new version will be “clean.”)
Like many audiophiles, Venderloo appreciates the warmer and fuller sound of vinyl — but he’s not sure how many new buyers are getting that. “I don’t know whether it matters to that many people anymore,” he says. “I mean, lots of people don’t even have a stereo anymore, or real speakers.”
There’s also the issue of mastering — what medium the music was originally recorded and mixed to be played on. If, say, Capitol reissues Radiohead’s music on vinyl — even on premium 18-gram vinyl — how much audio benefit does that give you, if the music was designed to be played on digital media? Vanderloo isn’t sure that he labels always go back to the analog masters when they offer new vinyl pressings of back catalogue. “People have told us there’s a real difference” between remastered versions of old records and the original LPs, he says.
In the main, though, Vanderloo is grateful — for the added business, of course, but also for the possibility that even as a fad, vinyl could be a lure that brings young music lovers into another, higher level of musical experience.
He recalls a day about a year ago when a 17-year-old kid came in to Other Music and told the clerk, “I just got a turntable, and I need the real stuff!” They sold him Captain Beefheart, Love, and other vintage mind-blowers. “He was so excited about buying vinyl,” says Vanderloo. “We may have atered his consciousness, for good or for ill.”