Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The vinyl album is getting its groove back

by Glenn Gamboa

NEW YORK - Don't bury the album just yet.

Yes, it's struggling, with album sales down by half since the historical high it set in 2000 - sales dropped another 8.5 percent in 2009 to 489.8 million, even as overall music sales climbed 2.1 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Album-buying havens, such as the Virgin Megastores and the Tower Records chains, vanished, and music industry and technology leaders have been trumpeting what they see as the more attractive profit margins of single sales and $1.29-a-pop downloading for years.

That death knell sure is getting pretty loud. Or maybe it's just a wake-up call.

Britt Daniel - whose band, the indie-rockers Spoon, recently enjoyed commercial success with its first Top 5 album "Transference" - says, regardless of industry hype, the album will continue to validate both artists and music fans.

"It's certainly the test of a band's mettle," says Daniel, whose critical success was cemented when Spoon was named Artist of the Decade by Metacritic for the Austin, Texas, band's consistently praised albums in the 2000s. "It's hard to make an album's worth of songs and do it well. The ones that do occupy a higher place in mind and in psyche. ... Live shows can be wild and fun, life-changing if done really well. But a great album has always meant the most to me.

"Albums are what fans get into when they really get serious about a band," Daniel continues. "That's when they are finding something that means something to them, something that they feel is worth spending time with, that they will get to know what an album really is by listening the whole way through. Until they do that, they're just a casual listener, not the most passionate fan."

Daniel isn't alone in his vocal defense of the album. More and more artists and fans are banding together to support the album as an art form and as a way to distribute music. Independent record stores around the country have united to create Record Store Day, which takes place April 17, to "celebrate the art of music." Digital retailer eMusic has launched an "Embrace the Album" campaign on Facebook and Twitter, as a "place to highlight records that are best consumed whole."

"I do think there's still value in 11 great songs packaged together, flowing from start to finish," says J. Edward Keyes, eMusic's editor-in-chief (and an occasional Newsday contributor). "I think that's a testament to an artist's time and vision, and those are the kinds of things that will be a longer relationship. Marvin Gaye had a string of great pop singles, but What's Goin' On,' the album, is what people respond to. The Beach Boys had a string of unbeatable pop singles, but Pet Sounds' is what set them apart."

These campaigns may be having some effect. Though it's still a small fraction of the overall market, vinyl album sales were up 33 percent last year, to 2.5 million, the highest sales level since SoundScan started keeping records in 1991. And eMusic reports that about 72 percent of its sales are now full albums.

For more concrete proof, look no further than Long Island Vinyl Exchange in East Northport, N.Y. There under one roof, in all their touchable vinyl glory, are 250,000 albums - some vintage and some freshly pressed last week. Owner John DeSimone happily gives newcomers a tour of the store, which opened in November, and its treasures, before pointing out the recent shift in the album's fortunes.

"This is something I haven't been able to do for 20 years," says DeSimone, who is planning to open three more record stores this year. "Things are really changing."

Among the old standbys - Beatles classics, Michael Jackson's "Thriller," a shelf-full of Billy Joel albums - are the newcomers, Lady Gaga picture discs, and new releases from Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective. "I can't keep enough Animal Collective albums in the store," he says. "I order all I can, and they're gone just as fast."

All those Animal Collective sales are a sign that a new generation has "embraced the album," especially now that turntables are once again easy to find, including stand-alone models that will convert vinyl albums to MP3s that can be played on iPods and computers. "What the kids know today is that they get a piece of art when they buy an album - it's a tangible thing, it sounds better, it's different than downloading something," DeSimone says. "They own a piece of music."

Spoon's Daniel says artists get energized by crafting albums for that kind of audience. Even after completing the recording, artists are once again taking a great deal of care in sequencing, deciding what order works best for the songs. "Sequencing is always open for vigorous debate," Daniel says. "A song or two generally stands out as a good opener or a good closer. For Gimme Fiction,' The Beast and the Dragon, Adored' was a pretty obvious opener. On the last record, 'Black Like Me' was a pretty obvious closer."

All of it was in mind when Daniel was working on "Transference." "I just wanted it to feel like something like all of our records and have it take some left turns that you weren't expecting," he says. "What I hope you will find is that it hangs together."

Keyes says that kind of care is a road to long-term success. "How many people are going to keep going to see a band live if they only have three good songs?" he says. "Especially with indie bands, I feel like it's about a whole body of work that they are now selling out shows, that they are so in-demand."

Not everyone is sold, though.

Parts of the music industry are experimenting with configurations that are somewhere between the single track and the full-fledged 17-track album. In March, instead of releasing a full album, Blake Shelton will release a "six pak" on Warner Music Nashville, a six-song collection called "Hillbilly Bone" that will be followed by another six-song grouping scheduled for August.

"I talk to my fans every day, and the first question they ask me is, When are you going to release a new record?' " Shelton said in a statement. "I want to give my fans new music more often, and at a lower price. The fact that people will be able to get the new music for less money is a gift to my fans who have been behind me every step of the way."

Though much of the industry will always be focused on building flashy new acts like Ke$ha or Justin Bieber, Keyes says music fans may stop trying to follow all those twists and turns.

"I have to believe there is a point at which people are going to get tired of having to keep up with a new artist every 15 minutes," Keyes says. "I think they're going to want someone who's going to be around a little bit longer, with a little more substance to it."

"I think you can still make new music fans, who want albums," Keyes continues. "I think a big part of the industry's problem is people aren't hearing music that resonates with them."

Tracking The Top 10 Albums And Artists Of 09

According to Nielsen SoundScan, 2009 was the biggest year for vinyl album sales since they started keeping records in 1991.

Here are the vinyl albums and artists that topped their charts last year:

Top Albums

1. "Abbey Road," The Beatles
2. "Thriller," Michael Jackson
3. "Merriweather Post Pavilion," Animal Collective
4. "Wilco," Wilco
5. "Fleet Foxes," Fleet Foxes
6. "Backspacer," Pearl Jam
7. "Veckatimest," Grizzly Bear
8. "Appetite for Destruction," Guns N' Roses
9. "Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King," Dave Matthews Band
10. "In Rainbows," Radiohead

Top Artists

1. Radiohead
2. The Beatles
3. Michael Jackson
4. Metallica
5. Wilco
6. Bob Dylan
7. Animal Collective
8. Pearl Jam
9. Bon Iver
10. Iron & Wine


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