More than one hundred years after the invention of the gramophone, twenty years after major labels tried to kill records with compact discs, and ten years after Napster incited the age of digital music, vinyl is making a comeback. Seemingly impervious to the widespread decline of physical formats, records are selling better today than they have in more than a decade.
"A record is always going to be a more interesting artifact than a download," reasoned Mike Schulman of Slumberland Records, which opened its doors during the "golden age" of independent vinyl in 1989. "Plus, there's just the general idea that vinyl is cooler." Running the small label out of his Oakland home, Schulman continues to focus on vinyl, particularly seven-inch 45s, which only fit one song per side. "I've always loved the format," he said. "It's such a perfect outlet for pop songs."
Slumberland is one of many local players in vinyl's resurgence. Bands, labels, and record stores are focusing increased attention on the format, while fans are using their wallets to ensure more new music gets released on vinyl. There has always been a small yet devoted base of vinyl enthusiasts, but record collecting has spread to a wider population — even as albums lose ground to singles and digital music is enshrined as the new industry standard.
Schulman's Slumberland Records has enjoyed a virtual renaissance since 2006. While he doesn't expect sales to rebound to pre-digital levels, they've certainly jumped. In response, he released more records last year than ever before: ten seven-inches and four albums. October's full-length debut from Brooklyn psychedelic rock band Crystal Stilts has sold an impressive 2,300 copies so far.
According to Nielsen SoundScan, US vinyl sales nearly doubled from 990,000 in 2007 to 1.88 million in 2008, with Radiohead's In Rainbows leading the way. Although representing less than half a percent of total album sales, that's the highest figure for vinyl sales ever recorded in SoundScan's eighteen-year history.
Vinyl's precipitous rise contradicts the trend toward ever smaller, sleeker devices. Yet it's due at least in part to a consumer-driven backlash against digital music. Many consumers now see CDs as nothing more than disposable carriers for MP3 files, which are beloved for their transportability and decried for their poor sound quality and lack of physical presence. Records, however, are an aesthetic, sensory experience: the feel of the cardboard sleeve and grooved vinyl surface; the look of the jacket artwork; and the warm, full, analog sound they produce.
San Francisco media manufacturer Pirates Press has become one of the biggest players in the international vinyl scene, largely by harnessing records' visual appeal. "We're definitely making something that people look at as an art form," said Eric Mueller, 28, who founded the company four years ago with an eye toward customer service and innovation. "It's a visual thing that gives people a reason to buy something." Packaging and artwork are important, but even more than that, advances in vinyl coloring have sparked a flurry of new interest.
Working with both independent and major bands and labels around the world, Pirates Press originates about 70 percent of the orders that go through the world's largest vinyl pressing plant, the Czech Republic's GZ Vinyl, where employees concoct original color compounds and press records by hand. This means customers have access to just about anything they can dream up, from orange marble to translucent red; solid white to half-purple and half-green; even glitter and glow-in-the-dark. For Pirates Press, the creative approach has paid off: sales have doubled each of the last three years, reaching nearly $6 million in 2008.
One of Pirates Press' many Bay Area clients is Berkeley label Gold Robot Records, which, since its first release in March of 2007, has survived by selling vinyl alone. Founder Hunter Mack bundles his records with download cards that give customers access to digital tracks at no extra cost, but vinyl remains the selling point.
What would compel a bright UC Berkeley engineering student to stake the success of a fledging label on records, especially given a profit margin at least 25 percent smaller than CDs? In part, it was a desire to allow independent artists to create something archival. Mack's instincts were right: in July, all 450 copies of a limited-edition Bonnie "Prince" Billy single disappeared in two days.
Thanks to their renewed status as objects d'art, records can transcend the music medium altogether and take on new life as band merchandise. "Sometimes people buy them as an excuse to support the band" — even if they don't own a record player, said Tyler Corelitz, drummer of Oakland indie-rock group Man/Miracle and proud analog aficiando.
Of course, many fans still prefer CDs for the immediacy and convenience they provide. Recognizing the value of both formats, Man/Miracle, who has been working with Gold Robot on an upcoming release, tries to keep an even number of records and CDs on hand at every show. "You have to offer as many options as possible and cater to as many different people as possible," Corelitz added.
That's wise, because according to local record stores, the demographics of vinyl shoppers are changing. Baby Boomers and crate diggers are still out in force, but fewer DJs are picking up dance records as the practical benefits of digital music become harder to ignore. Metal and punk records have always been reliable sellers, but now indie-rock and indie-pop are making a stronger showing. In addition, teens are inheriting their parents' old turntables and discovering that a fifty-cent Led Zeppelin album sounds better than anything coming through their iPod's earbuds.
But the biggest irony is that major labels are getting back into the game. "They have kinda reversed how they talk about vinyl," said Naomi Diamond, owner of El Cerrito record store Mod Lang. "For a long time, they tried to poo-poo the fact that vinyl exists. And then, I guess they suddenly realized that they can't control how people buy things." So the majors began reissuing their back-catalogs and giving contemporary artists a chance on vinyl. Diamond said she has sold as many copies of the new Killers album on vinyl as she has on CD, a sign that the craze has spread even to mainstream pop bands.
In the end this could be just that, a craze — a momentary blip on the inevitable decline of a dying format. Or it could be the onset of an extended revival that will see the record outlive its arch-nemesis the CD. No one knows, and the tumult of the last decade in the music industry makes many wary to even guess. Slumberland Records' Mike Schulman, for his part, won't be turning his back on the format anytime soon. "Vinyl is a big part of what I love about doing the label," he said. "I'll still be doing singles right up until the last pressing plant closes." The way things are going now, that's a day he may never have to face.
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