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Vinyl revival - What goes around comes around

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Just two short decades ago, the future of vinyl records appeared dire. CD sales eclipsed record sales for the first time, five years after cassettes did the same thing.

But thanks to longtime fans who never lost faith in the medium, as well as younger fans intrigued by the notion of owning their music in a tangible format, vinyl has seen an incredible boom in recent years; a worldwide trend. 

Seriously - in 2017, vinyl album sales were stronger than any previous year since Nielsen began tracking music sales in 1991. 14.32 million vinyl units were sold in the United States between December of 2016 and December of 2017, a nine percent increase over the previous year and a continuation of vinyl’s 12th consecutive year of growth.

According to Nielsen, the top five best-selling vinyl titles in 2017 were from The Beatles (“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” at #1, “Abbey Road” at #2), “Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1” soundtrack at #3, Ed Sheeran’s “÷” (Divide) at #4, and Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” at #5.

When digital downloads became the dominant music delivery format in 2011, outstripping sales of all physical media for the first time, the music industry in general was in turmoil. The boom stemming from compact disc sales (a period stretching from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s) became a bust; industry revenue (sales of all recorded media) dropped from $14.6 billion in 1999 to about $9 billion in 2008. While those numbers continued to drop in subsequent years, the direction has now reversed course. During the first half of 2017, the RIAA reported a 17 percent increase in revenue over the same period the previous year.

Vinyl sales are at their most vigorous in nearly three decades, but on-demand music streaming continues to grow, accounting for about $2.5 billion in annual revenue for the music industry and representing about 62 percent of total sales. The lion’s share comes from subscriptions to digital streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.

Another good sign for vinyl lovers arrived last year when Sony Music Japan announced construction of a new vinyl pressing plant, due to open in March 2018. Sony stepped up when Japan’s sole vinyl factory was unable to keep up with the demand from labels.

It all begs the question: to what do we owe the vinyl record’s comeback?

There are numerous factors at play, including the number of new and classic title being issued on vinyl. In 2017, 77 different vinyl titles each sold more than 20,000 copies. In 2016, only 58 titles achieved that number.

Retailers (especially indie record stores) have continued to offer innovative and fun promotions connected to vinyl, the most visible being Record Store Day. The now-annual event was born in 2007 when Chris Brown, head of marketing for nine Bull Moose stores in Maine and three in New Hampshire, outlined some potential ideas for an event highlighting indie music stores in an email to Michael Kurtz, president of America’s largest coalition of independently owned record stores.

Record Store Day now involves more than 1,400 indie stores in the United States and thousands more all around the globe. This year’s 11th annual event is set for Saturday, April 21.

Brown says that Bull Moose continues to see an increase in vinyl sales in their stores.

“Our vinyl growth is making up for a slight decline in CD sales,” Brown wrote in an email. “That’s not true across the industry. The difference is the attention to the medium and the medium-small releases. The big releases (Brown cites albums from Beck, Beyonce, and Radiohead as examples), sell as long as we don’t run out.”

He went on to add that selling some smaller releases involves work and that Bull Moose pays close attention to artists “bubbling up from nowhere,” citing singer-songwriter SZA’s appearance at #7 (“Ctrl”) and two Twin Peaks soundtracks (#6, #8).

Brown credits two Maine-born artists - Zach Jones and The Toughcats – with being ahead of the curve in recognizing vinyl’s revival. Both released vinyl titles in tandem with their CD counterparts at a time when few realized the medium’s viability.

Brown kindly included a chart outlining Bull Moose’s 100 best-selling vinyl titles between July and December 2017. The top-selling title for the group of stores was Radiohead’s vinyl box set “OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997-2017,” an expanded reissue of the English alternative band’s third album first issued in 1997. Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now” (Night Version) was #2. Brand New’s final album “Science Fiction” was #3. “Colors” by Beck was #4. “Damn” by rapper Kendrick Lamar was #5.

Catalog titles and reissues with strong showings include Pink Floyd’s perennial seller “Dark Side of The Moon” at #16, “A Live One” from Phish at #19 (released on vinyl in October) and “Are You Experienced?” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience at #24. 

Brown noticed some interesting placements on the Bull Moose chart, including Catherine Wheel’s appearance at #20 with a reissue of the album “Chrome.”

“It’s unlikely that record charted so high for any other store. I’m a little surprised to see it here. White Zombie at #33 is a little surprising too,” Brown says of that band’s 1992 title “La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1.”

According to Brown, vinyl’s growth has been a blessing for smaller artists “who never get enough streams to pay their bills,” he wrote. “And it’s great for their fans too because they have more and more records to choose from. Artists and pressing plants have gotten super creative with new mixtures of colored vinyl and very cool packaging.”

He cited a 3 LP vinyl box set, “Voyager Golden Record,” containing sounds and images chosen to portray life and culture on Earth included onboard both Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. The box includes a 96-page hardcover book.

According to Freeman Saunders, manager of Bull Moose’s Bangor location, the store sees a range of vinyl fans, from seasoned veterans looking to replace a worn-out copy of The Who’s classic “Live at Leeds” album to young kids who received a record player for Christmas and are wondering where to begin.

“I don’t know how many times during the Christmas season I heard someone say ‘I got my kid a turntable,’” said Saunders. “You know they didn’t go out and buy a Dual turntable with a Harmon Karden head. They’re buying entry-level stuff for the most part. But the kids are really into it. There’s a real vinyl buzz among kids between 10 and 15 years of age.”

In addition to new vinyl (and reissues of classic titles), Bull Moose sells used vinyl, including some titles priced under one dollar.

“Used vinyl sales are increasing in the sense that some people buy it because it’s old and intriguing if they’re new to it,” Saunders said. “When there are good used pieces, they sell fast because of the price.”

Occasionally, lucky buyers will find a bonus stashed inside the album sleeve.

“Back in the day, it was common for some artists to include posters folded and tucked inside the album,” Saunders explained. “Most people hung them up on the wall but we still see them stashed inside some albums. In most cases, they look brand new. We had one recently where someone brought in an early pressing of “Let It Bleed” by The Rolling Stones with the original poster still inside. Once in a while, a copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends” will come in with the poster still inside. It’s always fun to see that.”

Jordan Verge is a 20-year-old student at Husson University’s New England School of Communications in Bangor. Majoring in mass communication with an emphasis on radio broadcasting, Verge has a twice-weekly radio show on WHSN 89.3 FM (6-9 p.m. each Tuesday and 4-7 p.m. each Thursday). A Brewer resident, Verge was introduced to vinyl by his father.

“Vinyl was always around me when I was growing up,” Verge said. “I remember scratching his copy of Survivor’s “Eye of The Tiger” and not being too happy with his reaction. There is a record player in every single room of my house.”

Verge admits that he tried to get into listening to music on CD when in high school, but says he prefers the sound quality of vinyl, not to mention the tactile nature of the medium, as well as the fact that the vinyl listener needs to be engaged in the listening experience. 

“Seeing the needle hit the groove and knowing that’s what is causing you to hear the music has something to do with it,” Verge said. “Personally, I prefer the sound quality of vinyl over CD or mp3. I also love having a collection of music and seeing all of the records in my library.”

Verge estimates that he has about 115 vinyl albums in his personal library, including four different pressings of Toto’s 1982 album “Toto IV,” which contains the hits “Rosanna” and “Africa” – Verge’s favorite song.

“My girlfriend bought me the first copy and from there my collection just kind of snowballed,” he said. Among his prized possessions is the “Africa” die-cut picture disc, released in limited quantities for Record Store Day in 2017.

“I waited in line for Bull Moose to open that day, but they were all gone by the time I got in there. My girlfriend came through again when she found it for me somewhere else.”

When he feels the urge to add to his record collection, Verge usually visits Bull Moose first. “It’s definitely my go-to place for vinyl,” he said. “Even their clearance stuff is fun to look through.”

Verge’s focus is primarily on adding to his collection; he prefers to let his father concentrate on the hardware.

“My dad is much more knowledgeable about turntables and speakers,” said Verge. “Whenever he gets new equipment or a new needle, he always wants me to test it out with him. We have a bunch of different turntables, but our JVC model sees the most play.”

When Gary Robinson opened Summit Sound in Bangor in 1996, the vinyl record had all been pronounced dead by the music industry. Robinson moved his store to its current location at 341 Ohio Street in 2004, where he caters to people who seek high-quality audio and video systems, including turntables, speakers, amplifiers, headphones and complete home audio and home theater systems.

Robinson has seen a steady increase in the sale of turntables and related accessories - including phonograph cartridges and audiophile vinyl titles from companies like Mobile Fidelity - from both longtime customers and those new to the field.

“We see a mix of different ages from the new user to people who’ve been listening to vinyl all of their lives,” Robinson explained. “The most difficult thing is that some new vinyl users don’t have a frame of reference. They’ve seen these very inexpensive Crosleys (a manufacturer of cheap turntables often sold in brick and mortar stores or online) which are basically a disposable product with a short lifespan.”

A vinyl user can actually get a much better product for the money today than they would have 30 or even 40+ years ago, according to Robinson. He said they should expect to pay a minimum of $400 for a quality entry-level turntable, citing the fact that a higher quality product can be had for less money now than in 1972, when adjusted for inflation.

“A Dual turntable from 1972, with a cartridge on it, would have cost about $95. That’s over $500 in today’s market,” he said. “The same goes with loudspeakers. You get a far superior product today because of the engineering and material used to make speakers now. A $400 to $500 speaker today just kills a $2,000 speaker from the 1980s. Big advancements have been made in both those categories.”

Robinson first noticed a reset in the vinyl movement about a decade ago. “It kind of refreshed at that time and you could see the growth from that point,” he said.

Classic rock and pop albums continue to sell well in Robinson’s store, in addition to jazz reissues.

“That’s kind of my customer base. “The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East” sells along with Dave Brubeck. That Brubeck customer might also buy the reissue of “Led Zeppelin II.” A lot of audiophiles have broad and eclectic taste.”

While Robinson keeps stocking new vinyl titles for sale, he maintains a private vinyl collection in excess of 1,500 titles. “I continue to use them and I can’t picture myself getting rid of them. I loaded all of my CDs onto a hard drive and then boxed them up,” he said.

Many serious vinyl lovers go to great lengths to care for their collection. A variety of record cleaning products are on the market, and vary widely both in price and results.

Sitting on a counter in Robinson’s shop is a Klaudio Ultrasonic record cleaner, which removes dust, dirt and oils from an LP’s grooves using distilled water. The washing and drying process can be adjusted from three to nine minutes, depending on the album’s condition.

“It’s incredible,” Robinson said of the machine. “It makes an enormous difference. I’ve seen albums that looked to be in fairly rough shape come out looking almost new.” Audiophile website Analog Planet calls the Klaudio record cleaner “nothing short of miraculous.”

Bill Lepack, 60, of Livermore has been collecting vinyl albums since about 1970; he cleans every record before and after playing it. Primarily a collector of vintage classic rock titles, Lepack favors several Maine stores for vinyl hunting, including The Record Connection in Waterville and Everyday Music in Farmington, where he buys mostly pre-owned vinyl to add to his collection numbering more than 3,000 titles.

“Frank Zappa tops my list of favorites,” Lepack said. He currently owns 70 Zappa titles on vinyl (and about 30 on CD), in addition to titles from a wide variety of artists including The Kinks, Grateful Dead, Jethro Tull and Canned Heat.

And for 45 years, Lepack has been rocking the same stereo system.

“I bought it new in 1973,” he said. “A Pioneer 50 watt per channel receiver, Technics turntable, Realistic graphic equalizer and Sansui speakers.” 

According to Lepack, his sound system has needed very few repairs over the years. “It still cranks,” he said.

He also prefers to patronize local independent record stores instead of taking chances with buying vinyl online. “The internet, and especially eBay, have overinflated prices to the point that it has become discouraging to buy them anymore. I still do, but not online.”

With the strongest vinyl sales in nearly 30 years, the format is projected to achieve double-digit growth in 2018, thanks to a mix of new users, former users returning to the format and seasoned vets whose faith has never wavered.

“Vinyl continues to grow, partially because it’s a cultural thing,” Brown said. “And also because some really creative and awesome things are being done.” 

Last modified on Tuesday, 23 January 2018 17:42

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