Coming around again; Once considered ‘dead’, vinyl LPs making a comeback



Last modified: Wednesday, August 06, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — If Bill Chamberlain had told you five years ago he was going to open a music store specializing in vinyl LPs, you might have told him he was nuts.

Now, you might want to ask him if you can invest.

Chamberlain, owner of Wild Mutations in Florence, which opened earlier this year, is the latest entrepreneur to re-embrace the once-dominant music format in the digital age.

LPs were considered all but dead following the advent of compact discs and digital music beginning in the early to mid-1980s.

Since 1993, however, LPs have been making a steady comeback in sales from fewer than 500,000 units in 1993 to 6 million last year, according to Nielsen Soundscan, which tracks music sales.

“The sale of vinyl records has gone up for four years in a row now — a 30-to-40-percent gain each year,” said Chamberlain, 51, who sells used as well as new vinyl at his store in addition to some CDs.

The demand has increased so much that Nashville-based United Record Pressing, the plant that presses most LPs, is expanding and will be able to nearly double its output, according to a May 2014 Billboard Magazine interview.

Chamberlain said the reasons for the jump in sales are varied.

First, there is the sound quality, which Chamberlain insists is superior on vinyl.

“There’s something to be said for putting on a record,” he said. “It just sounds like it breathes, it sounds alive compared to a digital thing which is kind of harsh-sounding to me.”

The reason for that, he says is that the compression used to make digital files smaller, whether on a CD or on a computer or mobile device stored as an MP3 file, eliminates much of the high and low-end frequencies in order to save space.

“With a record, that doesn’t happen, so it sounds better,” Chamberlain said.

Not everyone is convinced the sound quality is superior, though.

Therrian Dolby, manager at Newbury Comics in Northampton, which sells CDs and vinyl LPs, said the difference in sound quality is “arguably” better, and Dave Witthaus, owner of Platterpus Records in Easthampton said he’s in his 50s and he’s just glad he can hear anything, never mind the subtle differences in quality between a CD and record.

Simply put, there isn’t a quick explanation for the rise in LP sales, Dolby said.

“I couldn’t pick out a single common thread except vinyl is a very cool thing to have right now,” said Dolby.

One thing that seems to be driving that “cool factor,” beyond a supposed superior audio experience, is the experience of purchasing, playing and collecting these tangible objects, wrapped in sometimes elaborate covers and artwork.

“It’s a 12-by-12 canvas,” Witthaus said of LP album covers.

CDs, by contrast, come with a 5 by 5 booklet and digital music comes with a tiny photo on a small screen, if that, said Witthaus.

“What’s cooler, having a nice record or having this?” Chamberlain asked, pointing to a small MP3 player with a grainy postage-sized photo of an album cover displayed on it.

Some artists, like Jack White, have also embraced the inherent collectability of the format by releasing their work on LPs made from vinyl of different colors and in limited batches.

Glenn Siegel, administrative adviser at WMUA in Amherst, boasts a collection of about 2,000 vinyl LPs he started collecting in the mid-1970s, he said.

For Siegel, the biggest advantage to LPs is their historic value.

“A good part of my jazz education came from reading the back of album covers,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Siegel noted that digital music doesn’t come with the same liner notes and information about the construction of the album and the people who performed on it the way LPs did in their liner notes.

It bears noting that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awards a Grammy each year for best album notes.

Siegel said that many of his older LPs don’t necessarily sound as good as CDs, simply because they’re older and have been played often and have some “hiss” and “crackle”, but modern LPs tend to be made from higher-grade, thicker vinyl, making a new LP sound just as good, if not better than most CDs.

Another driver for the vinyl market is a rejection by music fans of digital formats in general, some because of the disputed sound quality, others because they’ve never had the LP experience, Dolby said.

Still others find themselves rifling through bins of new and used LPs to replace records they got rid of when CDs were dominant or to find rare albums that weren’t released on CD at all or were released in inferior versions on CD.

“Most people look at the used things first,” Chamberlain said. “There’s often something really special in there.”

Or, something you can’t get on CD at all.

For example, Witthaus said, Little Feat’s classic “Waiting for Columbus” was originally released on CD with key tracks missing from the LP version because they couldn’t fit on a CD.

He said he can’t remember the last time he sold a Little Feat CD, but he sells LP copies of their work often.

It’s not just used LPs or re-issues that are driving the market, either.

According to Digital Music News, the top-selling LP of 2013 was Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories,” followed by Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires of the City,” and Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor.”

Having a more permanent version of a cherished album may also be important to those who have their entire collections saved as digital files, Dolby said.

One thing many people who switched to digital may not have considered, Dolby said, is the format isn’t as permanent as some may think.

In many cases, digital music is only available to the consumer as long as their computer’s hard drive is working.

A catastrophic crash can erase an entire collection and, in some cases, it can’t be retrieved without re-purchasing everything.

And, as vinyl gains in popularity, more and more people have lost interest in CDs altogether.

Witthaus estimates that he sells about 10 LPs for every one CD and Dolby said many younger music fans have never purchased a CD at all.

“They’ve never even thought about it,” he said.

Where digital formats have the upper hand against vinyl is in their portability.

Witthaus said the problem with LPs is the same one it has always been — you can’t listen to one in your car.

And, as much of a vinyl fan as Chamberlain is, he does have to resort to listening to MP3s when on his bike, he said.

Ryan Clark, 18, who was searching through the vinyl bin at Newbury Comics on Wednesday, said he thinks it’s that portability that drew people away from LPs in the first place.

“With that, people have lost the true sound of music and gone for what’s easy and quick,” he said.

But, once you’ve gone and picked up a bunch of new or used vinyl, what can you play it on?

Chamberlain said savvy shoppers can check out thrift stores and flea markets for used equipment, including turntables, amplifiers and speakers.

Witthaus said a meager investment in hardware can produce really satisfying results, but he does recommend being prepared to spend $100-$200 for a good-quality needle and cartridge to get the most sound per spin.

Regardless of the type of turntable or size of the speakers, what doesn’t change is the ritual of bringing an album home, opening it up, examining the album artwork, reading the liner notes and lyrics sheet and settling in for an hour or so of analog music, Dolby said.

“It’s more of an experience than shuffling on your iPod,” Dolby said.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.


 


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