Back in Record Time

Vinyl release sales spike, and it's not just for nostalgia's sake

It hasn’t happened yet, but Shake It Records co-owner Darren Blase expects it to start occurring soon.

“The next big thing will be people trading in their CDs to buy vinyl,” he jokes.

Actually, half-jokes. As Record Store Day — the national celebration of independent record stores — approaches on Saturday, new and used vinyl has become a booming growth area at two Cincinnati stores observing the event. Shake It has converted its entire basement to vinyl. Jim Blase, Darren’s brother and store co-owner of the Northside store, says vinyl now represents 40 percent of all units sold, double from five years ago.

And at Everybody’s Records in Pleasant Ridge, employees have been crowding the growing number of new vinyl LP (12-inch long-player) releases into the store’s back room, previously for used CDs and records.

“We’re puzzled over how to get more bins for them into the store,” says Michael Shuter, a vinyl buyer for the store.

(The used shop Mole’s Record Exchange near UC — likewise stocked with vinyl — is also observing Record Store Day.)

For those who think CDs killed the vinyl era, Shake It’s basement (pictured) might look like a museum exhibit devoted to the glory days of Album Rock. There are LPs in the bins and on the walls for such acts as Crosby, Stills & Nash, Captain Beefheart, the Groundhogs, Holy Modal Rounders, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Terry Riley and more.

While there are many used LPs, there are also brand new reissues. And there are also vinyl copies of new records by such hot contemporary acts as Wilco, Frightened Rabbit, Hot Chip and Butch Walker. Seventeen bins are devoted just to new releases by Indie, Alternative and Punk acts.

Prices vary from roughly the cost of a CD to the mid- and high-$20 range, depending on numerous factors: artwork, packaging, press run and the weight of the vinyl, with some releases boasting of being a higher-quality 180 grams.

Browsing on a recent day was Scott Simpson, a singer/guitarist with the band Beneath Oblivion, whose EPs (10-inch extended-play discs) are released on vinyl by local label The Mylene Sheath. He’s a devoted fan of the form.

“In my opinion, that’s how music is supposed to be experienced,” he says. “You open it up and there’s a big picture — the artwork is big. Then you take out the vinyl and listen to Side One in its entirety and then you listen to Side Two. If you want to truly experience music the way a band intended for you to hear it, vinyl is the way to go.”

Nationally, vinyl is the one highlight of the declining market for physical (as opposed to digital) new-music sales. From 2007 to 2008, units of LPs and EPs climbed 124 percent and the dollar value of those transactions skyrocketed 148 percent, according to Recording Industry Association of America. And while official results for 2009 haven’t yet been released, the RIAA says there was another 11 percent increase in units shipped (3.2 million versus 2.9 million) and another 6 percent increase in value year-over-year. (Vinyl singles, a much smaller market, showed a slight decline.)

Record Store Day itself has, in many ways, become a crucial promoter of vinyl — many musicians and labels issue vinyl-only records, often in collectible limited editions, on that day. As of press time, had a list of well over 100 different titles: 7-inch singles, EPs, single and double LPs and even boxed sets. Shake It's record label is releasing a limited-edition 7-inch single by locals The Seedy Seeds, with three new tracks.

There are already Cincinnati bands that release music (physically) only on vinyl. Jason Snell’s The Chocolate Horse has two out, for instance, and Saw Fist Tree — a Rock trio featuring Peterson Goodwyn, David Tarbell and Matthew Walker — did its first EP last year as a limited-edition black vinyl release. (In both cases, digital downloads also are available.)

“As long as there was going to be a physical version, it’s a lot more gratifying to have vinyl since CDs seem on their way out,” Tarbell says. “People believe vinyl has a warmer sound and dropping the needle on a record — or just holding it — is such a sensual experience.”

Vinyl, of course, was declared dead when digital CDs — with their convenient features — came along in the late 1980s. Boomer record collectors started selling their vinyl en masse at indie record stores. In some ways, that helped prime today’s renewed interest, as a younger generation discovered a lot of great music at used record stores for a fraction of the cost of new CDs.

But the main thing that seems to have spurred the vinyl revival is the same thing that's hurt the CD business: digital downloads. In a brilliant marketing move, record companies started releasing vinyl versions of new releases with cards or codes that allow buyers to also get a downloaded version. Thus, for about the same price as a CD, customers can get an LP and access to the album for their iPods. That became cool.

“Kids who used to just burn their music — they had no interest in owning CDs — now have to have it on vinyl,” Jim Blase says. “The new White Stripes has sold more on vinyl than CD. For the most part, this is younger record buyers — the older ones are still buying CDs.”

There were always holdouts to the CD conversion of the late '80s/early '90s. Most notably, art-conscious Indie Rock musicians/labels insisted on releasing limited-edition vinyl pressings of new digital albums. Those have become valuable. A label called Plain Recordings specializes in reissuing now-classic ones by acts like Cat Power, My Bloody Valentine, Flaming Lips and Mazzy Star.

Vinyl needs care and protection, as they can scratch and warp. Everybody Records’ Shuter says some vinyl purchasers connect their new-model turntables to computers and download the music.

“And then they shelve and preserve the LP like an artwork,” he says.

RECORD STORE DAY is April 17. Get details here on the day's activities at three prominent area independent record stores: Everybody's, Mole's and Shake It.

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