Acquiring music used to be a bit of an adventure. You’d hear a song you liked on the radio and you’d save up to buy the album, or maybe just the 45 if you weren’t feeling especially flush. You’d study the cover art, check out the liner notes and the lyrics (oh—is that what he was saying?), hang the poster if one was included, and then it was the magic moment. You’d drop the stylus, hear that distinctive scratch, and the spinning disc would come to life.
No download or streaming service can quite equal that experience.
A lot of people are realizing that’s the case. Nielsen, the folks who survey our television and radio habits, reported vinyl sales in 2016 at $13 million. Another statistic guesstimates the sale of vinyl records and accessories will be a one billion dollar industry in 2017. That’s one billion.
That’s many, many records. Sony, in fact, announced in early July that it would start producing vinyl records again for the first time in almost thirty years. And they’re not the only ones jumping back on the turntable. Jack White, of The White Stripes and Recontours fame, is a fan of analog technology and has opened Third Man Press in Detroit, a state-of-the-art vinyl production facility.
“Almost every major artist is now putting out something on vinyl,” says Mike Stanzione, of Rock’s Vintage Vinyl on Washington Boulevard in Williamsport (570-447-4377).
And then there are all of those other artists, the ones whose albums have been languishing in dusty attics and dark closets. Not so much anymore.
Lee Ash, owner and operator of Sonic Ascension Records at 128 Broad Street in Montoursville (570-360-3486), has been open a little over a year and says business has been great.
“The store’s getting great reviews,” he says. “People are excited about a store based on records.”
After spates of closures, due in large part to the ease and transportability of tapes and then CDs, and the instant availability of downloads, record stores are cropping up again and vinyl is hot. Nostalgia is great, but it doesn’t pay the bills. Clearly, something else is happening.
“The competition was brutal with CDs,” says Rob Tingey, who, with his wife, Amie, owns CD Café on 10 W. Market Street in Corning (607-973-2790). Their focus has shifted to vinyl for a number of reasons: health, personal, financial, and—oh, yeah—sound.
“Vinyl is the reason I decided to return to retail,” Rob says. “CDs provided consistency—consistently mediocre. Hi-def doesn’t exist with downloading.”
Mike Stanzione, who was athletic director at Pennsylvania College of Technology in his previous life, concurs. There are those people who were college- age in the ’70s who still have a record collection, he says, and what they and others have discovered is that the sound is different with today’s music options.
“You lose a lot of the depth and warmth [with CDs, downloads, etc.],” he believes. “Music [on vinyl] sounds a whole lot more like it was intended to sound.”
He admits he never got rid of his albums, and that while his clientele includes millennials who are newly enamored of vinyl, there are those “older folks trying to replace the collections they gave away twenty years ago.” His niche at Rock’s Vintage Vinyl includes a co-operative retail arrangement with the store next door—The Stereo Shop.
“I benefit from their customers, and they benefit from mine,” he says, as music lovers are looking not only for a turntable for their golden oldies, but for a sound system to recover “all the stuff that’s lost by compressing music.” And, yes, he says, it is a little more cumbersome to carry around a record player than an MP3 player, but once people are able to “hear all the instrumentation lost in the digital world... they’re sold.”
“People appreciate the sound,” says Lee Ash.
“We've always known it sounds better on the right equipment,” Rob Tingey says, adding that the right equipment and the analog recording may be the best combo, from a sound perspective. “We had to learn a lot more about vinyl.”
Analog recording, by the way, copies (is analogous to) sound as a continuous electronic signal; it replicates the original sound wave. Digital recording takes samples of the original waves at a specified rate, kind of the way a series of dots looks solid but isn’t, or the way our eyes see a movie as continuous movement when it is, really, a series of individual rapidly moving pictures.
As for what’s selling and who’s buying it, it’s kind of a mix. Rob says his customers at CD Café include the eighteen-to-thirty crowd who “discovered their uncle’s record player and records,” and the forty-to-sixty folks who might be going through some life changes and have decided “I want a big stereo.” His own tastes are “pretty broad,” from Queen to Bill Munroe. At Rock’s Vintage Vinyl, Mike says classic rock always sells. Lee, at Sonic Ascension Records, says his customers are of no particular demographic, and that his own musical likes include punk, garage band, rock-a-billy, and new wave (think Devo or Blondie).
There is also the question of whether your downloaded music actually belongs to you the way records do, as well as the very human desire for a physical rather than virtual representation of your favorite cut from, say, Sticky Fingers.
You can’t download a zipper.