Monday, July 21, 2008

Going for a spin

By Steve Clark


The truth is, vinyl never completely went away.

Underground punk music and various obscure independent releases have continued to be pressed into vinyl records ever since the supposed death of the medium as the mainstream commercial standard for music delivery in the late 1980s.

Nevertheless, vinyl is enjoying a mainstream comeback—not that music lovers are tossing their CD collections and iPods into dumpsters across America and scooping up turntables to spin the venerable 33 1/3. Still, it appears to be more than a passing fad, says Taylor Sullivan, music buyer for the Compact Disc Store, which has several boxes of newly released vinyl LPs in addition to its stock-in-trade CDs.

“I don’t think it’s going away,” he says. “I don’t think it’s just a fluke.”

Sullivan, 32, spun records as a kid and never stopped collecting the obscure underground stuff. A few years ago he tried ordering a few for the store to see if they would sell. They did. Like crazy. Eventually, less esoteric offerings began to be issued again on LP, and the Compact Disc Store, despite its name, is carrying it.

REM’s newest album, Accelerator, is available in LP format, for instance, as is the new one from Coldplay, Viva la Vida. Even Best Buy has jumped on the vinyl wagon—gingerly: An employee at a Baton Rouge Best Buy reported all five copies—yes, five—of the Coldplay album had sold out.

Also, more and more old music is being reissued on vinyl—the Beatles and Pink Floyd, for instance, though for now it’s just a trickle. Sullivan says look out for a wave of new old releases on LP in the next few months as the trend gains steam. Sullivan says the people buying his LPs are a mix of young and old.

“I would say that just in the last six or nine months it’s doubled, but then again so has the availability of stock,” he says. “I’ve noticed a lot recently. Right now the demand is outrunning the supply. There’s a lot of big indie records that are coming out on LP. The pressing plants are backed up where things are not getting out on time.”

Sullivan, who guesses he’s “killed four turntables” during his record-listening career, says the renewed interest in vinyl could be in part because of a backlash against the relatively low sound quality of downloadable MP3s compared to other formats.

Brad Pope, owner of the Compact Disc Store, acknowledges the irony of selling LPs at a store founded on the notion that LPs were history.

“I had doubters at the time,” he says. “They were wrong for about 20 years.”

Pope says today’s vinyl is heavier and higher quality—at least for the time being—than records used to be. The prices aren’t terrible. Flipping through the stacks, he finds a John Coltrane LP re-issue for $12.99, John Prine’s Fair & Square at $15.99 and a limited edition of Viva la Vida for $28.99.

“Lately sometimes our days are made by our LP sales—where it’s made the difference between a so-so day and a good day,” Pope says. “It’s a for-real phenomenon. Whether it’s just a flash in the pan remains to be seen.”

The Recording Industry Association of America reports that manufacturers’ shipments of LPs rose 1.3 million between 2006 and 2007—a 36% jump—while CD shipments dropped 17% during the same period, largely because of downloading.

None of this means Pope is ready to change his mind in the debate over LPs versus CDs. The LP school maintains that vinyl, recorded using analog technology, has a warmer sound than CDs, which are recorded digitally. He doesn’t buy it. Pope, a classical music aficionado, says CDs are superior in sound quality and a lot more convenient. He has no plans to get caught up in the vinyl frenzy.

“It really doesn’t have any fascination for me, but I’m a million years old,” he says.

Records do have a fascination for Clarke Gernon Jr., a local architect. While he’s mostly into collecting out-of-print blues and country LPs, he did recently splurge on a new vinyl release of bluesman R.L. Burnside’s music from the late 1960s. Gernon, who isn’t averse to downloading music onto his iPod, says records seem somehow more alive than CDs or digital formats.

He guesses the resurgence of vinyl is partly from young people in the age of iTunes and MP3s yearning to “actually have something to hold in your hands.”

“While it’s pretty easy to get the songs, the thing that you miss is the opportunity to shop for it, or at the end of it all to have a thing: something you can put on the wall and display,” Gernon says. “It actually is like a piece of art. I do try and sort of display my top four or five [LP covers] at any given moment.”

If you’re going to play a record, you need something to play it on. Believe it not, turntables are still around, and not just the equipment used by hip-hop DJs. Guitar Center and sell low- to mid-range turntables. Or you can spend thousands of dollars on a designer turntable available—though not necessarily in stock—from Valentino Home Entertainment in Perkins Rowe.

Troy Semons, the store’s installation manager, says the turntable market isn’t what it used to be. With major audio equipment makers having long since ditched the market, the high-end stuff now comes small, esoteric designer-builders. The Reference Super Scoutmaster Signature, for instance, winner of the 2008 Absolute Sound Golden Ear Award, retails for $7,400 on

Semons says the few customers who buy turntables tend to be older people replacing their worn-out equipment. Why? Because LPs—on a high-end turntable—sound better than CDs. While he may not have a turntable himself, he does have an opinion: As long as the master recording is high-caliber, vinyl sounds better—noticeably better—on a high-end record player.

“What you’ll have is frequency extension above a certain point,” Semons says. “Supposedly we’re not capable of hearing it, but it is there and you notice when you listen.”

1 comment:

b1xx1b said...

I totally agree. even though i own an ipod, I still collect vinyl. I actually like to hear the needle sound from my ipod... i love it!

anyway, i ran across a pretty solid private mp3 site and i have an extra invite code. the site is:
the invite code is: plumpyjazz
I hope that one still works.