Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Sam Smith - Some weeks back, I stumbled into a trend I had missed entirely. I order the latest disc (or so I thought) of the fine protest punk band Blowback and was stunned to open the package and find a 45 rpm. So I wrote to Franklin Stein of said ensemble:

"I ordered a CD and got a 45 rpm. . .Have I missed out on something. . . . Or was I expelled backwards from the current age by the forces that be?"

In due course, the band's 45 rpm explicator, Senor, replied:

One big problem with MP3s and even CDs has been that packaging got kicked to the curb. At its best, music is an immersive experience -- nothing beats listening to new music while poring over the artwork and liner notes. This has been lost. CDs gave us technical gains in fidelity, but shrunk the packaging down to a glorified postage stamp and unpleasant plastic case. MP3s and iTunes make it even worse - the tangibility is non-existent and all music basically looks the same. So, people got used to not paying as much attention to their music. No wonder the business tanked.

But, there's a lot of people out there who still like having something tangible or collectible to go with their music. We've found a few of these people when we take 7"s to our shows -- people's eyes light up over vinyl with a passion you don't find for CDs. Actually, vinyl has never completely gone away in the punk scene. If you put out your own music on a shoestring, it's way cheaper than pressing a bunch of CDs . . . And now that music is easily found for free on the web, there's not much reason for people to pay for music unless you get something extra with it.

I also think music sounds warmer and little more human when it's analog. There's a distinct EQ curve to vinyl playback, also when recording to analog tape. . .

Most of the stores I go to have gradually been reducing their floor space for CDs, but in many cases are increasing the space they have for vinyl. New releases from major and independent labels alike are often coming out on vinyl now (sometimes with a code included to download the MP3s -- the best of both worlds).

But, more pragmatically -- if you go back a few years and then a few more years, you'll see a bunch of news stories similar to [those below]. I think it's more "real" this time but it's still a niche thing for sure. Vinyl sales are just a rounding error for what's left of the music business and most people can't relate to it at all. We don't have any ideas that putting out a 45 will boost our sales or make a bunch of money (really quite the opposite). It's more just that we wanted to make a great looking and sounding thing that we were proud of. I get pretty fired up about vinyl and the other guys are kind enough to indulge that. We didn't do a CD version for these songs but when we put out the full album it'll be on CD.

You can order the 45 here or listen to the MP3 version here

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, manufacturers' shipments of LPs jumped more than 36 percent from 2006 to 2007 to more than 1.3 million. Shipments of CDs dropped more than 17 percent during the same period to 511 million, as they lost some ground to digital formats.

The resurgence of vinyl centers on a long-standing debate over analog versus digital sound. Digital recordings capture samples of sound and place them very close together as a complete package that sounds nearly identical to continuous sound to many people.

Analog recordings on most LPs are continuous, which produces a truer sound -- though, paradoxically, some new LP releases are being recorded and mixed digitally but delivered analog. . .

But it's not just about the sound. Audiophiles say they also want the format's overall experience -- the sensory experience of putting the needle on the record, the feeling of side A and side B and the joy of lingering over the liner notes. . .

Nearly 450 million CDs were sold last year, versus just under 1 million LPs, according to Nielsen Sound Scan. Based on the first three months of this year, Nielsen says vinyl album sales could reach 1.6 million in 2008.

"I don't think vinyl is for everyone; it's for the die-hard music consumer," said Jay Millar, director of marketing at United Record Pressing, a Nashville based company that is the nation's largest record pressing plant. . .

"Once I got my first iPod . . . I'm looking at my wall of CDs and trying to justify it," Millar said. "The things I like -- the artwork, the liner notes, the sound quality -- it dawns on me, those are things I like better on vinyl." He welcomed back the pops and clicks, even some of the scratches.

"I like that fact that it's imperfect in a lot of ways, live music is imperfect too," Millar said.

Independent music stores, which have been the primary source of LPs in recent years, say many fans never left the medium.

"People have been buying vinyl all along," said Cathy Hagen, manager at 2nd Avenue Records in Portland. "There was a fairly good supply from independent labels on vinyl all these years. As far as a resurgence, the major labels are just pressing more now."

Time From college dorm rooms to high school sleepovers, an all-but-extinct music medium has been showing up lately. And we don't mean CDs. Vinyl records, especially the full-length LPs that helped define the golden era of rock in the 1960s and '70s, are suddenly cool again. Some of the new fans are baby boomers nostalgic for their youth. But to the surprise and delight of music executives, increasing numbers of the iPod generation are also purchasing turntables (or dusting off Dad's), buying long-playing vinyl records and giving them a spin. . .

Contemporary artists like the Killers and Ryan Adams have begun issuing their new releases on vinyl in addition to the CD and MP3 formats. As an extra lure, many labels are including coupons for free audio downloads with their vinyl albums so that Generation Y music fans can get the best of both worlds: high-quality sound at home and iPod portability for the road. Also, vinyl's different shapes (hearts, triangles) and eye-catching designs (bright colors, sparkles) are created to appeal to a younger audience. While new records sell for about $14, used LPs go for as little as a penny--perfect for a teenager's budget--or as much as $2,400 for a collectible, autographed copy of Beck's Steve Threw Up.

Vinyl records are just a small scratch on the surface when it comes to total album sales--only about 0.2%, compared to 10% for digital downloads and 89.7% for CDs, according to Nielsen SoundScan--but these numbers may underrepresent the vinyl trend since they don't always include sales at smaller indie shops where vinyl does best. . .

In October, introduced a vinyl-only store and increased its selection to 150,000 titles across 20 genres. Its biggest sellers? Alternative rock, followed by classic rock albums. "I'm not saying vinyl will become a mainstream format, just like gourmet eating is not going to take over from McDonald's," says Michael Fremer, senior contributing editor at Stereophile. "But there is a growing group of people who are going back to a high-resolution format." Here are some of the reasons they're doing it and why you might want to consider it:

David Browne, Rolling Stone - 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.'"

Claudine Zap, Buzzlog - Before MP3 players, DVR, and Blu-Ray. Before live streaming and downloads, there were cassette tapes, an analog magnetic tape system for recording, listening, and mixing together your favorite tracks to share and play in your Walkman or boombox. . .

According to Splice Today, for underground bands, cassettes are the new, cool vinyl: "They perfectly suit thrifty DIY labels and musicians trying to maintain a lo-fi aesthetic, as well as the more artistically inclined."

While audio went digital, the lowly cassette was down but not out. In fact, we checked to see the buzz on tapes and found a bump in searches in the last week for "music cassette tapes" (+110%), "blank cassette tapes" (+210%), "books on cassette tapes" (+900%), and the sad but definitely true "cassette tapes problems damage" (+400%).

CBS News Report On Vinyl Resurgence


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