The trend is to go smaller, become more portable, value instant accessibility above all other concerns.
The vinyl record defies all of this. It’s too big to fit in your pocket, it can’t be played in your car, and you can’t carry your collection in the palm of your hand.
Yet vinyl sales continue to trend upward, as new generations of music lovers flock to independent record stores, perusing stacks of used vinyl for rare and precious finds, or scouring an ever-increasing volume of new vinyl releases from contemporary artists.
According to Nielsen Soundscan, vinyl sales were up 32 percent in 2013 over 2012. They’ve been trending upward for the past several years, a time that found CD sales figures in rapid free-fall as listeners fled in droves for the relative ease and lack of financial burden inherent to digital streaming.
Today, independent record stores across the world – including four popular locally owned operations – will celebrate the return of vinyl, as well as the determined survival of “mom and pop” music storefronts, with Record Store Day. The four locally owned operations participating are: Record Theatre at Main and Lafayette and in the University Plaza, plus Spiral Scratch Records, 291 Bryant St., and Black Dots, 223 Lafayette Ave.
Hatched in 2008 in San Francisco as a way of offering a boost to the greatly beleaguered independent music retailer in the midst of the “big box” retailer boom, Record Store Day is now celebrated on just about every continent on the globe and is a particularly big deal in the U.S. and the U.K.
Record Store Day seems to have commanded the attention of both old-school record collectors and younger consumers. The collectors are the sort that grew up with the stuff, and despite the changes in modes of music dissemination, clung stubbornly to their vinyl collections throughout the years. Most of the younger crowd were born after vinyl had already been deemed archaic by an industry eager to find a faster and cheaper avenue toward profit. Though they might not agree on much else, members of both of these groups join hands over one notion – that vinyl sounds better, richer, warmer and offers a much more immersive experience for the listener.
But is the resurgence in vinyl sales simply an issue of sound quality, or are there other factors – rebellion against the digital age, the desire to have a cool artifact and album artwork, the need for some sense of community and social interaction?
“I’d agree that it’s a combination of things, including all that you have mentioned,” said Brandon Delmont, head buyer with Buffalo’s Record Theatre, whose Main and Lafayette and University Plaza stores will participate in Record Store Day.
“I’d add that, in my opinion, an album is a complete piece of art,” Delmont continued. “There’s such an empty feeling when someone emails you digital files with no artwork. I think of how those images on album art should complement the whole artistic vision. I can remember holding and studying my album covers as I listened to them as a kid. Double gatefolds were the best, and a booklet like the one in the Who’s ‘The Kids Are Alright’ soundtrack were the visual aid to the music. I think people still want that physical connection.”
Musician, producer, journalist and label executive Bruce Duff of Knitting Factory Entertainment said that the “coolness” factor is the tipping point for younger converts to the glories of vinyl. (Duff will reissue “Fun at the Funeral,” an album by his former band the Jesters of Destiny, as limited-edition vinyl today.)
“It’s about much more than sound, for everyone who isn’t a hardcore audiophile,” said Duff in a telephone interview with The News. “It’s about rebelling, about the desire to not be led around by the forces insisting that digital music is the only way to go. Consumers tend to be most concerned with coolness and convenience, much less so with sound quality. Many of these kids were born into a world where music is just a line-item on a menu, something that lives only in a cloud, and is not tangible. With vinyl, there is more of a connection with the music, with the art surrounding the music, and with the physical act of listening to the music. Record-playing is a proactive endeavor.”
The inaugural Record Store Day featured 10 exclusive releases, mostly from established alternative artists like R.E.M. This year, there will be more than 400 exclusive releases running the full gamut from alternative rock icons like the Velvet Underground, to a host of contemporary indie-rock outfits, and even legends, such as Bruce Springsteen and the Allman Brothers.
The four participating Buffalo stores will have exclusive releases offered on a first-come, first-served basis and various ancillary events. Record Theatre on Main Street also will have food trucks on site and an in-store Easter egg hunt. Record Theatre at University Plaza, Spiral Scratch and Black Dots also will feature rosters of local indie bands and artists performing throughout the day.
All of this activity brings to light the notion that music consumers are craving some of the social interactivity, community engagement and sense of direct involvement with music that has largely gone missing in the digital age.
“I think society and culture are seeking experiences that bring us back to the material world, and also, opportunities to gather with other people,” Oakland Museum of California curator Rene de Guzman recently told the San Jose Mercury News, in reference to the museum’s Record Store Day-related exhibit honoring the history and culture of vinyl records, which also opens today. “You can see this in the interest in the handmade crafts, the artisanal restaurants, the foodie culture.”
When asked if the fact that a whole generation of potential music-makers has grown up accepting hyper-compressed, artificially loud digital audio files as the norm might end up having a noticeable effect on the way that music is conceived, recorded and disseminated in the future, Duff responded with a hearty “Yes.”
“But I feel optimistic,” he continued. “I firmly believe that people are starting to wake up to the fact that there can be a much more meaningful relationship with music and culture in general, and that the way we listen to music, the where and the how, all have a significant impact on that relationship. The success of Record Store Day, and vinyl in particular, would seem to underscore this idea.”