Saturday, December 5, 2009

Back in rotation: vinyl sales set for record year

Ian Munroe, News Staff

Carlin Nicholson is itching to get his hands on the test pressing, or vinyl prototype, of his band's debut album. It's currently being mastered in Los Angeles and should arrive next week, he said.

In a few months, the 12-track LP by Zeus, Nicholson's Toronto-based rock band, will be released in North America, Japan and Europe through indie music label Arts & Crafts.

In keeping with the band's preferred medium, the vinyl LP will hit store shelves two weeks ahead of the compact disc. And the downloadable version of the album will be recorded from vinyl master, making the tracks sound more like a good old fashioned record.

"Really, we've been looking forward to vinyl the whole time," Nicholson said by phone from a recording studio in the city's east end. "If it's about listening to music, then it's got to be about music that sounds as good as it can."

Thanks to devoted fans of vinyl LPs in the indie music scene, and to DJs who have been spinning electronic music or hip hop on their turntables, the record has survived on the fringes of the music industry for years.

But that may be changing as artists, listeners, technology companies and record labels come back around to the music format that dominated the 20th century.

Yearly vinyl sales are on course to surpass 2008's total by 37 per cent, according to Nielsen Soundscan, which tracks music sales at 14,000 vendors across Canada and the U.S.

Last month, Soundscan announced that vinyl LP sales broke the two million mark for the first time since the company started keeping tabs in 1991.

The market may be significantly larger, however, because Soundscan excludes many independently owned retailers that stock vinyl, as well as second-hand sales.

'Obsessive' listeners

Brian Zirk has been listening to records for decades. About three years ago he decided to beef up his collection, now 3,000 strong, by searching his Vancouver Island community, and the Internet, for anyone selling used rock, jazz and blues records.

"It's quite obsessive. Always looking for that perfect sound I guess," Zirk said in a phone interview from Campbell River, B.C., where he runs an audio-video equipment store.  The 50-year-old owns several turntables and eschews the MP3 format, describing it as "the scourge of the world" because it offers inferior sound.

"There's more colourations to the vinyl," he added. "It's a better way of listening, it's more personal."

Catering to the small but growing base of consumers with Zirk's tastes, manufacturers are bringing new turntables to market.

"Certainly in recent years there's been an upswing in sales," said

Simon Wilson, the manager at Audio Ark, an Edmonton store that sells audio and video systems. "Quite possibly we stock a greater variety of turntables than we did back in vinyl's heyday."

To stand out from the competition, some newer models come with USB ports, allowing vinyl fans to connect the turntable to their computer and digitize their collection.

"There seems to be a growing number of younger people who are getting interested in the format," Wilson wrote in an email. "It's almost as if they're content with the iPod for digital but, at least presently, make a stronger connection with the whole ritual of playing a record."

Turning the tables

When the compact disc was introduced in 1982, it seemed like the writing on the beginning of the end for vinyl LPs. And as recently as 2006, vinyl sales were dropping steadily.

Canada lost its only remaining commercial record press two years later, when the long-time operator of a plant in Pickering, Ont., retired.

"We were having trouble finding someone to take over physically running the operation," said Lindsay Gillespie, president of Music Manufacturing Service, which owned the factory.

Then vinyl sales started to rebound, and a new vinyl press called Rip-V opened in the Montreal suburb of St. Lambert, Que. It's currently pressing a new live album by Tom Waits.

Meanwhile, CD sales dropped more than 20 per cent in Canada last year, according to the Canadian Recording Industry Association.

Even though vinyl still makes up a tiny fraction of the overall market for music, devotees are asking whether their beloved analog medium will outlive, or even help bring down the CD.

Staff at Rotate This, a music store in downtown Toronto that arguably has the largest vinyl selection in the city, estimates they now move at least 10 records for every compact disc.

Vinyl sales at Vancouver's Zulu records are up at least 30 per cent compared to a few years ago, and are now on par with CD sales, the store's general manager, Nicholas Bragg, told CTV.

"A lot of record labels are thinking, 'well, we've got to make up these losses that we're incurring with CD sales,' and I think that they've looked to the niche market of records," Bragg said.

"In some ways (records) are going to become the most vital part of the market, because it's analog and because it represents something different than the MP3 format," he added. "I've got to be frank -- it's cool, too."


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