Why Vinyl is Today’s Most Dynamic Music Medium

Paste Magazine asked twenty record store owners to give them feedback on LPs and whether vinyl is making a comeback in their stores. The stores were all over the US–Nashville, Portland (ME and Oregon), LA, SF, Chicago, Ann Arbor and Dearborn (MI), Boston, Fayetteville (AR), Denver, Tempe (AZ), Wilmington (DE), Decatur (GA). By my count, nineteen of them observed more or less emphatically that vinyl has made a big comeback, and that it is the area of their business with the most growth over the past several years.

Consider this remark from Dave W. of Wax Tracks Records in Denver:

“I have noticed that at least two or three times a week some father or mother comes in saying that their kid asked for a turntable for their birthday or Christmas present. So it’s not a case of the older generation just giving their turntables to their kids and saying ‘Here’s what we used to play music on,’ but rather the kids saying ‘This is what’s cool and happening right now and I want in on it.'”

Or this from John Conrad of Johnny’s Records in Darien, CT:

“It was probably around 2005 when requests became so numerous that I began bringing vinyl back to the store. By the Christmas of 2006, a large number of high school kids began showing up in the store and perusing the record racks. When I asked them what was up, to a one they’d turn with a big smile and say, ‘I’m getting a turntable for Christmas.’  Since that time we’ve doubled the amount of vinyl we carry every few months. I mean, music lovers, and that includes me, we’re kind of a geeky lot and as such we like to collect real physical items.”

And, finally, this from Tony Grandischnig of Jackpot Records in Portland, OR:

“It has been interesting to watch the compact disc rise up and nearly destroy vinyl, but with the rise in vinyl sales and production, along with the oft included download code, it now seems that vinyl is having it’s sweet revenge on the compact disc.”

Notice that all three use the word “Records” in their store name. Still other commenters in the Paste feature spoke of the fact that superior liner notes and packaging were driving many more customers than ever to choose LPs when they had a choose of vinyl or CD. Most revealing to me is that lots of young people are actively choosing to buy and listen to LPs, for what they consider to be superior sound quality, and the enjoyable rituals of handling and owning a full-size LP.

I bet if they’d polled any Canadian record store owners, the responses would have been equally emphatic. For a recent CBC Radio 3 podcast titled “Will Vinyl Save Music?,” host Lisa Christiansen asks, “What factors have led to the return of vinyl? Has it become just a part of a growing hipster cottage industry? Is it purely nostalgia that has made people care again?” To explore these questions she interviews Daniel Fazio, of the Tiki Bar in Vancouver, B.C.’s Waldorf Hotel, who has designed and programmed the bar to cater to musiclovers’ hunger for a tactile listening experience. They power a massive set of JBL speakers manufactured in 1948 with an analog tube amp purpose-built for them. Fazio insisted the recent embrace of vinyl isn’t nostalgia, and observes that with so much music being driven up into the cloud, and with listeners really owning nothing when they buy an MP3 file, actually owning an LP is an antidote to the merely virtual.  At the bar, they hold a regular “sellers night,” where owners and collectors of vinyl come to spin, sell, and swap their albums. Later, on the podcast, she visits Jack White’s Third Man Records, an all-in-one recording studio and vinyl pressing plant, where they are doing more business every year. Third Man also houses The Vault, the music site.

Speaking personally, I reconditioned an old turntable this year and have recently bought LPs by bands Wintersleep, Wilderness of ManitobaCuff the DukeElliot Brood, and Hey Rosetta!.

Working in the book business, I urge wags in my industry to not be too hasty in dismissing printed books as a desirable object for purchase. Yes, surely ebooks and digital downloading are going to continue gaining an increasing share of the market, but just as vinyl still has its place among music fans, so will printed books continue to have a role for booklovers. I believe there’s a lot the book biz that we can and should learn from the music industry, particularly about the world of digital downloading which music insiders have been dealing with for close to a decade, while bookpeople can also learn from the sturdy persistence, and reemergence, of vinyl.

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