There was a time when listening to your favorite music required an appointment. There were no mobile devices, no car stereos and certainly no music recommendation services streaming directly to your Wi-Fi-enabled living room stereo. Music sharing meant you and your friends gathered around your turntable or you managed to convince a friend to lend you an album, which you may, or may not, have returned to them someday. Those precious record albums required maintenance and gentle handling. You didn’t just listen to one song; you listened to the entire album, or at least the entire side.
So what happened? If you ask most people, they’ll tell you that the digital age killed the 33 1/3 LP, first with the introduction of the cassette tape, then the compact disc, with the final blows being dealt by the digital download. But that’s not entirely true. Somehow through these decades of technological advancement and format changes, vinyl has always managed to hold onto a small group of loyal fans. Now those beautiful spinning disks with their groovy tracks and large artwork jackets are seeing their popularity grow once again.
photo by Erin Pihlaja
Last Vestige Music Shop in Albany recently condensed its CD offerings to make room for more vinyl. “Overall, vinyl sales have overtaken CDs in the store,” says owner Jim Furlong. “We still carry them, and have a nice selection, but we’ve dropped prices on them. My vinyl sales have increased online and in the shop. Dramatically.”
Furlong knows the popularity and trends of vinyl records better than almost anyone, having opened Last Vestige on Quail Street in 1989 after his mail-order business flourished and he decided to establish a storefront. He’s weathered every sales trend since. “In about 1993 or so I would say the CD sales in the store comprised 70 to 80 percent of the business and vinyl was 20 to 30 percent. Now that’s more than reversed.”
Vinyl sales nationwide have exploded in recent years, jumping from numbers in the mere hundreds of thousands pre-2007 to 4.2 million units in 2012, and more than 6 million sold in 2013, according to billboard.com and the music tracking service Nielsen Soundscan. However, vinyl’s numbers might be even stronger than that.
“No way. Soundscan’s numbers are 100 percent wrong, says Michael Kurtz, co-founder of the annual Record Store Day. “They’re off by at least 100 percent. Most of the 1,300 independent record stores we deal with don’t report to Soundscan, a lot of online retailer’s numbers aren’t in Soundscan. That number is at least doubled.” Record Store Day, which is observed internationally by record shops, celebrates the culture of independent record stores bringing recording artists, store owners and vinyl enthusiasts together and has become a considerable force in boosting vinyl sales.
“We started in April 2008 with the first Record Store Day and a Metallica promotion and reissues, and got all the stores behind it. The upward sales trend began around that same time, and I have no doubt in my mind we positively impacted sales and have since. It gets better every year,” Kurtz says, adding that record labels have seen vinyl sales skyrocket, which has increased both confidence and manufacturing.
Since 2008, Record Store Day has melded with the artist community now releasing specialty pressings of 400 titles (roughly 2 million units) each year from artists like Paul McCartney, Wilco and Iggy Pop to create excitement around the annual event.
Despite this surging popularity, vinyl still represents only a tiny portion of total album sales nationwide. As of 2013, vinyl accounts for 2 percent of total album sales, paltry in comparison to digital downloads, which account for 40 percent, and CDs, which still account for roughly 57 percent. But vinyl sales have been steadily rising, while CD sales, digital music sales and total album sales have all decreased in the past year. Digital track sales fell 6 percent, and digital album sales fell 0.1 percent from 2012, making 2013 the first year since iTunes came online in 2001 that digital music sales have fallen from the previous year. Total album sales across all formats declined 8 percent.
So how is it possible, in an environment where music sales seem to be shrinking, that vinyl record sales are growing year after year? Furlong says it’s a consistent base of college students, collectors and newcomers. “My business has always relied on the people who come in every week, or a few times a week. More so than the people that might just come out for Record Store Day, for the novelty of it. At Last Vestige we’re here every day, and every day is Record Store Day.”
Furlong says Last Vestige’s wide variety also helps. “I try to keep titles in every department. Rock and jazz are the big, big sellers, and then R&B and blues are a close three and four. I still sell good folk music, and country does alright.”
Regardless of their taste in music, vinyl collectors are passionate. “You can’t be thoughtless. It requires intention,” says Sam Dorrance, a record collector in his 20s. “People say, ‘Vinyl sounds better,’ but I don’t think that’s it, it’s more. Records allow for a lot more connection to the music. It’s the act of listening; you have to take the time.”
Dorrance began collecting records just after college when his musical interests began to wander outside of what was available digitally. “I downloaded digital music for a long time and then I found myself looking for weirder and weirder stuff. That was harder to find online, and it was getting expensive.” He began seeking out record albums because they were a low cost way to explore new types of music.
When asked what’s currently spinning on his turntable, Dorrance’s answer shows his eclectic tastes. “The new Wild Flag album, Hot Hot Heat, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. I’ve almost completed my Ventures and Donovan collections, and lately I’ve been listening to a lot of percussion ensembles. Never thought I’d get so into those, but I like listening to them, I put them on when I’m hanging around the house.”
But wait a minute, Last Vestige and a lot of these independent record stores carry mostly used records. How does that factor into all of this? It doesn’t. Whether you believe the Nielsen Soundscan numbers or listen to Michael Kurtz, neither of those numbers account for the buying and selling of used records.
“The numbers are only based on new and reissued albums” says Seth Frank, CEO of SoundStage Direct (www.soundstagedirect.com), one of the largest online independent record stores. “We only sell new and re-issued vinyl.” Frank’s story is strangely similar to Furlong’s. “I started out of an extra bedroom at my house, selling online only, that was 10 years ago,” he says.
Now Frank’s Doylestown, Pa., operation has 15 employees, a warehouse with inventory of more than 30,000 titles, and even a listening lounge where visitors can come in and test out high-end stereo equipment while perusing artwork by Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones. “We wanted this to be like someone’s living room. Take a tour, grab a beer, relax.”
Frank says booming vinyl sales numbers are due to another factor: “Its people re-buying. You bought that Rockpile album when it came out in the early ’80’s, traded it in and bought the CD in the ’90’s, and now it’s been reissued on vinyl and you’re buying it again because it’s a great album. Part of that helps the used [record stores], and most of that is where those Soundscan numbers come from, along with new releases.”
He agrees that the official numbers are far too low, pointing out that his company does not report to Nielsen Soundscan and they sell thousands of titles each month.
Around the Capital Region, those seeking vinyl have several destinations. Beyond Last Vestige Music Shop, collectors cite Troy’s River Street Beat Shop, Lark Street’s Fuzz Records and Blue Note Records on Central Avenue as being the best spots for new or used albums. Each store offers their own mix of titles and caters to a diverse clientele.
“Blue Note is all new stuff, Fuzz is new stuff for the younger crowd, River Street and Vestige carry new and used,” says Jim Tyler of Colonie. “I go to most of them when I can, and if I can’t find something I’m looking for then I will go online—eBay usually.” Tyler is in his 50s, and has been collecting vinyl records for more than 35 years. “I never stopped buying records. Now I’m glad because with the way my vision is going pretty soon I won’t be able to read the back of a CD case!”
So what’s next in this vinyl resurgence? “We’ve started a Facebook campaign to get the record album inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland,” says Franks. “We’re taking that to South by Southwest [the annual Austin, Texas, music festival] in March and we’re pushing to get thousands of people on board with it, artists and fans. It’s a concept—without the record album we wouldn’t have rock & roll.”
Meanwhile, Kurtz is growing Record Store Day on an international level. “I’m travelling to France with [Doors drummer] John Densmore to launch his new book which we helped get published. This experience has made me realize there are a lot of artists like John that can benefit, and the record stores can benefit, if we get involved in getting their stories published.”
Kurtz also has his eye on impacting record sales in specific musical genres. “Jazz is dead,” he says. “I’m sorry, Frank Zappa, but jazz is dead. That should not be the case, so we’re going to work really hard this year on bringing a focus to jazz music on vinyl.”
Furlong vows to follow the trends like he has always done. “If it’s popular and selling then I make the floor space for it. It’s always been a challenge to keep the store fresh with inventory, but the vinyl has really overtaken sales on a daily basis.”