Is there some vinyl in your future

Published: MEA

Is there some vinyl in your future

Only recently it was regarded as the province of the DJ and the purist, but vinyl has recently restated its case as a mainstream music medium. Dan Daley writes

Until a year or so ago, vinyl albums had long been curiosities – relics of another era. Exceptions, perhaps, were the dwindling number of DJs who hadn’t yet moved on to CD-based or hard drive digital turntables, or the tiny but avid group of audiophiles that regard analogue as the ‘true’ medium for music. But for most people globally, the vinyl record was a remnant of the past, made even more antique by the six-year decline in CD sales globally – the dead format that preceded the dying format.

 So it was surprising, even in this year of massive fraud, to see vinyl at the centre of yet another financial hoax: In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania earlier this year, a winning bid of US$3m for a huge record collection offered on eBay tuned out to be a scam. A bidder had claimed he would shell out US$3,002,150 for the collection of nearly 3m vinyl albums, singles and CDs being sold by a record shoppe owner who was closing his store down. Within days, eBay had informed him that the ‘winning’ bid was disqualified and the bidder’s account closed down. Don’t be too disappointed, however: the seller told the Associated Press that he had at least nine other apparently legitimate bids still on the table, all in the same US$3m range.

 For any number of reasons, vinyl has come back from the scrap heap to join the commodities markets. Whether vinyl’s recent resurgence is what some are calling a cry for sonic help in the age of digital music, or what others regard as a mere nostalgic blip on the radar of cool, it can’t be denied that the LP is an icon for the philosophy, ‘never say never’.

The compact disc eclipsed vinyl records as the primary carrier for music in 1992, and vinyl album sales continued to slip steadily, to fewer than a million units shipped in 2006, according to the Record Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) statistics. The LP appeared ready to join the Edison cylinder and the 8-track cassette as museum pieces. In 2007, however, in a startling turnabout, the RIAA reported that vinyl LP shipments to retail increased to 1.3m units, followed by a leap to 2.9m in 2008, matching LP sales from back in 1999. That same year, CD sales fell almost 25 per cent.

 The trend towards vinyl has become clear in a very short amount of time. For instance, UK-based Capitol/EMI launched its ‘From The Capitol Vaults’ campaign late last year, with 13 classic titles, all previously out-of-print on vinyl. Included in the series’ debut were The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Coldplay’s Parachutes, A Rush of Blood to the Head, and X&Y, Radiohead’s Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief, as well as REM’s, and Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits 1974-78. Another three dozen titles on vinyl quickly followed, including classics by Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney & Wings, John Lennon, Megadeth, Roxy Music and Stray Cats. Many of these are on expensive, high-quality 180g and 140g vinyl discs.

 Why did consumers spend at least US$40m on vinyl LPs last year? Audiophiles, the hard-core enthusiasts who along with a portion of the DJ community had supported the faltering LP market for decades, would assert that the harshness of digital sound is partly to blame for declining music sales. The LP represents a longing for the voluptuous sonics of analogue.

‘When you put on a CD, even dogs leave the room,’ growled Chad Kassem, president of Acoustic Sounds Records, a Kansas City-based all-vinyl label that licenses original masters from blues and jazz imprints like Blue Note and Impulse and releases them as high-end, 180-gram vinyl LPs.

 Many within the professional audio community take a more pragmatic view of vinyl’s return, enjoying the analogue revival but acknowledging that LPs aren’t making a comeback so much as perhaps a farewell tour. ‘It’s not going to overtake the CD, even as CD sales keep slipping, but the sound is so wonderful – and you can read the liner notes,’ observes 20-time Grammy Award winner Al Schmitt (who coincidentally had just bought his first turntable in decades). But Schmitt, who won some of those Grammys as engineer for Diana Krall’s recordings, also notes the LP’s limitations: on the singer’s most recent album, Quiet Nights, as on other titles of hers also released on vinyl, one of the 11 tracks on the CD had to be cut from the LP due to the 20 minutes-or-so-per-side capacity of the LP versus the 60-plus minutes the CD can hold.

But that hasn’t stopped major labels from embracing vinyl again. Tom Biery, Warner Bros. Records’ general manager and a vinyl aficionado himself, started the label’s vinyl initiative three years ago. He told me that vinyl can work with any type of artist or genre, although the dominant demographic characteristic has become clear: youth. ‘It’s like they’re discovering the sound for the first time – the cool factor is very high,’ he says. It’s also profitable, Biery acknowledges, but adds that the costs of making and packaging an LP ‘are significantly higher than for a CD’.

The number of vinyl pressing plants remains small, though the few left are well distributed. They include Eldorado in Mainhausen, Germany; Independent Pressing in the UK; Mobineko in Taiwan; Zenith Records in Melbourne, Australia; and GZ Media in the Czech Republic.

Rainbo Records, in Canoga Park, California and United Record Pressing in Nashville are the two largest of the nine remaining record pressing plants in the US. During vinyl’s heyday – from the 1950s through the 1980s – there were dozens of plants around the country. But those that are left still have enormous capacity. Steve Sheldon, owner of Rainbo Records, says he is producing upwards of 130,000 140g-weight LPs per five-day week, much of it driven by major-label catalogue reissues, new artists riding vinyl’s cool wave, and the indie and niche labels that have been vinyl stalwarts for decades. In fact, so many LPs are sold through non-Nielsen SoundScan-reporting portals like community record stores and out of the boots of cars by touring independent artists, Sheldon estimates that the real number of LPs pressed in the US annually is closer to 25m.

The manufacturing process has not changed in nearly 60 years, and the last record-pressing machine was manufactured 32 years ago. Sheldon says maintenance and finding or making his own spare parts is the biggest challenge in making LPs, as is developing talent. ‘Record-making is craft,’ he says. ‘I can teach a technician to run a CD or DVD line in week or so; it takes at least six months to teach someone to make vinyl records.’

Even if vinyl’s return is fleeting, it’s nonetheless stimulating some significant related activity. Turntables are proliferating, ranging from a US$229 deck from Audio-Technica with a USB port and software that can convert the analogue audio to MP3, WAV or Windows Media files for transfer to a PC (one version of the software can also remove some of the clicks and pops caused by scratched vinyl) to the US$112,000 Continuum Caliburn turntable that uses a magnetically levitated magnesium platter suspended in a vacuum to eliminate vibrations.

Best Buy – the third-largest music retailer in the US after iTunes and Wal-Mart – has recently devoted eight square feet of space in all of its 1,020 stores to vinyl after a test in 100 of its stores around the country proved successful. Vinyl now represents about five per cent of the chain’s music sales, reports the New York Post, helped, no doubt, by an average LP price that’s more than US$25 – about double than that of the average US$13.99 CD.

Some see vinyl’s renaissance as a pleasant but ultimately passing fad. Others, like Sheldon, who moved his plant to larger quarters three years ago and brought additional pressing machines out of storage, believe vinyl is here to stay. But few would disagree that vinyl’s newly revitalised appeal represents a deep-seated longing by many for the soulful sonics of the analogue sound, whose ability to withstand nicks and cuts along the way reminds us of our own human capability to endure. As Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds Records puts it: ‘I never cried listening to a CD’.


Published in PAA November-December 2009