Friday, June 27, 2008

Vinyl Returns in the Age of MP3

LP and turntable sales grow as fans find warmer sound in classic format



For his 19th birthday, Simon Hamburg wanted only one present: a turntable for his dorm room at the University of Southern Mississippi. His father bought him a portable $69 model, and Hamburg's older brother chipped in LPs by Simon and Garfunkel and the Who. "Listening to 'Baba O'Riley' on vinyl is always better than listening to 'Baba O'Riley' on anything else," Hamburg says. "You can hear every instrument. It sounds stupid, but it's like you're feeling the music. You're part of it."

As CD sales continue to decline and MP3s are traded without thought, the left-for-dead LP is staging a comeback. In 2007, according to Nielsen SoundScan, nearly 1 million LPs were bought, up from 858,000 in 2006. Based on to-date sales for 2008, that figure could jump to 1.6 million by year's end. (According to the Recording Industry Association of America, CD shipments dropped 17.5 percent during the same 2006-07 period.) Sales of turntables — which tumbled from 1.8 million in 1989 to a paltry 275,000 in 2006, according to the Consumer Electronics Association — rebounded sharply last year, when nearly half a million were sold.

From Bruce Springsteen's Magic and the Raconteurs' Consolers of the Lonely to Cat Power's Jukebox and Portishead's Third, it's now possible to buy vinyl versions of many major new releases at retailers like Best Buy, Amazon and indie record stores. And artists are making their preferences for vinyl known. Before releasing Consolers, the Raconteurs announced that they "recommend hearing it on vinyl." In April, Elvis Costello and the Imposters' Momofuku arrived first on LP, though it included a coupon for a free digital download (the CD version arrived weeks later). "Is it a revolution?" says Luke Lewis, president of Costello's label, Lost Highway. "Fuck, no. But our beliefs have been validated a little bit — not to mention we're making a couple more bucks. It's hard to do that now in the record business, you know."

"Everybody feels last year was a watershed year," says Cris Ashworth, owner of United Record Pressing, the Nashville plant that's one of the country's largest and few remaining. (Around a dozen exist now, down from more than twice that in the Eighties.) When he took over the business in 1989, Ashworth made only a little over $1 million in profit and barely had 10 employees. Today, he employs over 50 and profits have more than quadrupled, thanks to a surge in jobs that included Costello's LP along with pressings of Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero, Ryan Adams' Easy Tiger and independent-label products. "My son was very worried for 10 years," Ashworth says. "He kind of looked at me and shook his head and said, 'Dad, you just ain't livin'.' Now he says, 'Well, maybe Dad's a little bit smarter than I thought he was.'"

Despite the uptick, vinyl remains a niche market. Most new releases, indie or major, sell between 2,000 and 10,000 copies; recent bestsellers include Radiohead's In Rainbows (13,000) and Bob Dylan's 2004 Blonde on Blonde reissue (25,000). The possibilities of future growth are limited: As Matador general manager Patrick Amory says, "There's definitely a ceiling." And thanks to higher fuel prices (oil is used to manufacture plastic vinyl, and LPs are shipped by truck) and the scarcity of pressing plants, an LP can cost as much as $4.50 per unit to manufacture, compared to roughly a dollar for a CD. "There are still reasons not to do vinyl," says Mac McCaughan of Merge Records, which has seen an increase in sales of vinyl releases by Arcade Fire and Spoon. "It's more expensive, it's more complicated, it takes longer. We try not to lose money, but we probably are."

Although technological advances (like the CD) seriously wounded the LP, new technology is now playing a part in its resurgence. Old LPs can be converted to MP3s thanks to a new breed of turntables equipped with a USB port. Numark, one of the leading manufacturers of these models, produced them for club DJs and was surprised when the model took off; the company recently shipped its millionth unit.

Also abetting vinyl's homecoming is a growing disillusionment with CD and MP3 sound. The CD has long been known for its clean but overly bright (sometimes grating) audio. "With vinyl, the range is from accurate to warmer" when it comes to reproducing the original source material, says renowned mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, who has worked with everyone from Springsteen to Nirvana. "With digital, it's totally the opposite: accurate to brighter. The brightness in the digital domain is a sound our ears don't seem to like that much, whereas people don't seem to be bothered by the slight loss of top-end you might get with vinyl." (Ludwig, like others, does separate mastering sessions for CDs and LPs.) The compressed audio heard in MP3s has only exacerbated the trend in audio degradation. "It's taking 90 percent of the music and basically throwing it out," says Ludwig. "It takes the bad part of digital and makes it even worse."

Assuming a record is pressed under optimum conditions and played on a high-end system, vinyl can restore some of those missing sonic properties. When the Doors' Ray Manzarek listened to recent high-grade reissues of the band's original studio albums, he was stunned. "On 'Light My Fire,' the guitar and organ solos are like, 'Yeah, that's it — that's the way they're supposed to sound,'" Manzarek says. "Vinyl has a warmth and crispness without the edginess of CD."

There's also something less technical lurking behind vinyl's mini-renaissance. Whether it's inspecting a needle for dust or flipping the record over at the end of a side, LPs demand attention. And for a small but growing group, those demands aren't a nuisance. "There's nothing like putting the needle into the groove of a record," says country singer Shelby Lynne. "It's about as real as you can get. You got your vinyl, your weed, your friends, and while you're rollin', they're pickin' out another record. We're all taking music for granted because it's so easy to push a button. I mean, come on — music should be fun."

[From Issue 1054 — June 12, 2008]

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