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Still Spinning

The popularity of vinyl, a music format once left for dead, continues to rise

By Mike Breen · April 16th, 2014 · Cover Story
10154377_10152347931199938_4366374057407212764_nThe Vinyl Issue
If you set a Google alert for “vinyl sales,” be prepared — you’re going to get dinged a few times a day. The music (and other) press often can’t seem to make heads or tails of the “vinyl resurgence,” but they sure like to try, pumping out stories about the increasing popularity of buying music on physical vinyl platters like it was some kind of airplane that mysteriously vanished. (OK, no one is covering anything that hard, but you get the point.)

Though the vinyl format has taken hits over the years from new technology and other formats — from 8-tracks and cassettes to CDs to today’s MP3s and digital streaming — it has never fully gone away. All of the longer-running, independent record stores in Greater Cincinnati have always stocked vinyl, and many of the enduring indie record labels in the area (like Phratry and Shake It) have made the format a part of their discographies since inception.

But there is no denying that the cult of vinyl fans has grown immensely in just the past few years. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, revenue from worldwide vinyl sales began sinking at the turn of the century, reaching their low point in the mid-’00s, largely as a result of digital sales (iTunes debuted its store in 2003). Since then, sales have gradually climbed; worldwide sales numbers of vinyl more than doubled between 2006 and 2012, when things really started taking off again. According to sales tracker Nielsen SoundScan, vinyl sales in the U.S. grew 32 percent from 2012 to 2013, when six million units were sold. And some say those figures are probably low-ball. According to a New York Times story from last year, there are many smaller shops that don’t report to SoundScan and not all vinyl products carry a bar code, the method the company uses to track sales.

However you slice the numbers, it’s clear that, while still a fraction of overall album sales (only about 2 percent), vinyl is the format that has seen the most growth (outside of streaming) in the past couple of years.

Digital sales were down in 2013 for the first time since the iTunes Store debuted, while CD sales continue to plummet. 

Vinyl is no longer just for record geeks and nostalgic oldsters. A few years ago, it seemed like a no-brainer that — as chain stores like Tower Records were going bankrupt and closing their stores — big-box stores like Target and Best Buy would stop selling music altogether. Today, you can pick up vinyl albums at both. 

Though some of the reasons for vinyl’s rebirth come down to its trendiness, most listeners still cite the same reasons that have long kept the format alive. Saying that music simply sounds better — or “warmer” — on vinyl has become a cliché but there is some truth to the statement. Digital music, particularly the stuff that’s aimed at MP3 and streaming listeners, is compressed for the format and your tiny ear buds, which causes a loss in the sound dynamic, where “quiet” parts of songs are often just as loud as every other part. Perhaps the most vocal anti-digital music pundit is legendary rocker Neil Young, who was so annoyed by the sound of music available to download/stream, he helped to develop Pono Music, a higher resolution digital music service (and accompanying music player) that more accurately captures the sound the musicians and producers envisioned when they made their recordings. 

Vinyl also brings back the tactile experience that many got used to over the decades. Vinyl releases often have expanded artwork and creative packaging. They even have a smell. When you buy an MP3, you don’t hold anything in your hands; when you buy an album, you can hold it, open it and explore it before even hearing a note. It’s hard not to think that losing that fuller sensory experience and ritual (along with the rise of “stealing” music online) cheapens the overall experience and makes recorded music less impactful. How many times do you hear someone say, “You should come over sometime and check out my MP3 collection,” or “Just built a new shelf for my Spotify playlists”?

As you’ll read in the rest of CityBeat’s The Vinyl Issue, the Cincinnati area is a good place to be if you are a vinyl junkie. We have several great independent record stores that stock wax, including the all-vinyl Northside shop Black Plastic. We have numerous “vinyl nights,” where people gather to share their vinyl collections at various venues across the area. And we have many behind-the-scenes people working to keep the vinyl craze surging, like the folks at QCA (which plates vinyl for one of the few vinyl pressing companies left in the U.S.) and record label owners like Melvin Dillon of the all-vinyl imprint Soul Step Records. 

If you’d like to see what this vinyl revival looks like up close and personal — or you want to add to your own burgeoning collection — this Saturday is your day. The annual Record Store Day, which began in 2008, is an international day of recognition (and sales and exclusives from hundreds of artists, big and small) in celebration of the independent record retailer. Though Record Store Day isn’t solely about vinyl sales, it is a big part of it since it has been those smaller record sellers who never let the format die. Visit recordstoreday.com for more on the special day. 



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