[deck]How vinyl albums recovered from obsolescence in a digital world.[/deck]
Joey Larko’s fingers shuffle through the blue and black crates that lie at his feet under his desk. Just above them sit two turntables and a couple of two-foot-tall speakers where a college student would typically keep books. He lands on a bright yellow twelve-inch square cardboard case with italicized helvetica print on the cover and pulls out the album contained inside: Dutch Flowers by Skream. He turns the turntable on to forty-five rotations per minute and drops the needle. A base-filled beat follows the scratchy sound of the needle running across the album’s surface.
“I pretty much always choose vinyl if given a choice,” Larko says. “The bass is so much warmer, so much heavier. There’s nothing like it.”
Larko, a twenty-one year old University of Oregon student from San Francisco, has been collecting vinyl records for the past two years. In a time where compressed music formats such as Mp3s are the public’s main form of music consumption, Larko continues to add record after record to his 300-piece collection.
“I call it black crack,” Larko says. He spends roughly fifteen dollars a week on new vinyl. “I just party less so I can afford it, which is better I suppose.”
Record enthusiasts like Larko are finding their way into music stores more often. According to a study conducted by the Nielson Company, 3.6 million vinyl albums sold in the United States in 2011, a thirty-seven percent increase from the previous year, and an increase that has been steadily moving upward since 2006. This is in stark contrast to 1993, when only 300,000 vinyl albums were sold nationwide.
In a music industry dominated by digital files, vinyl growth is unexpected. Eight-tracks, an early form of cassette tape, gained popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s but was completely phased out of the market by 1982. Cassettes peaked in popularity during the late 1980s, but have now become so obsolete that last year the term was removed from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Compact discs dominated the market until recently, when Mp3s, which could be acquired almost effortlessly (and often for free from file-sharing programs like Limewire), took over.
Greg Sutherland, a record buyer at House of Records in Eugene, Oregon, says the growth and resilience of vinyl can be attributed to several factors.
“I think collecting is a huge part of it because it’s a substantial thing,” Sutherland says. “A record is a packaged piece of art that includes visuals and sound.”
He says CD cases are made of cheap plastic and are a hassle to open. He believes adhesive ribbon on the top spine of CD cases has been a source of annoyance to many since the security measure was introduced. Mp3s are simply invisible megabytes in cyberspace and in many cases do not include album artwork.
Sutherland says he feels a sense of nostalgia for vinyl records.
“It’s kind of romantic to me,” Sutherland says. “Something so ‘sci-fi’ that is the future—music on a file and as many files as you want. Instead of that being the future right now, it looks more like this older form that has been around since the late ’40s or early ’50s is going to be the future.”
Robert Bielski has collected records since 1959. During his time as a traveling salesman, he would stop at music stores and purchase records when he heard a song that he liked on the radio. “It was a hobby that got out of control,” Bielski says, acknowledging his addiction to collecting vinyl. “I’ve already sold off a lot of my collection, but I still have about ten thousand at home. I filled up my basement and half of my house.” Bielski sold a small percentage of his collection at the Eugene Record Convention this past February.
Larko is a new-age collector, as opposed to Bielski, who collects vintage records. Whereas many people believe that record collecting is restricted to older music, most of Larko’s personal collection is comprised of bands and groups that have released music in the past decade. He has to ship many of his records in from the United Kingdom because his favorite artists in his preferred genre, a type of underground dance music called dubstep, are mostly based in the UK.
“With dubstep, vinyl is so much better because you can feel the bass,” Larko says.
The compression process used with CDs and Mp3s standardizes the levels on the music tracks: the softer sections are made louder, whereas the louder sections are made quieter. Depending on the amount of compression used, a recording could lose most of its dynamic range.
“I think that a lot of kids who were born in the late ’80s or early ’90s grew up without records in a digital world,” Sutherland says. “Because kids never experienced what it’s like to listen to a record, the very first time they hear it is pretty shocking to them. Mp3s and CDs don’t sound as good as records do.”
With records, there is no compression process. What a listener hears is pure, unadulterated music.
“It sounds really organic when you’re listening to a record,” Larko says. “Sometimes it sounds like you’re in the studio with them.”
With records’ surge in popularity more and more modern bands are releasing their albums on vinyl. The Black Keys’ most recent album release, El Camino, was widely sought after. House of Records received twelve copies of the album a week after its release date—they sold out in a week and had special orders for more.
Printing fewer records allows for more exclusivity among vinyl albums. To enthusiasts like Larko, the drive to accumulate records is partially inspired by the rarity of an album. From collecting white labels—promotional vinyl discs that were handed out in limited quantity—to digging through crates to find a hidden gem, collectors will look for records few others might own.
“Exclusivity is a huge part of it for me,” Larko says. “It’s really cool to know that you’re one of a couple hundred people who have that sound in the world.”
To many vinyl enthusiasts, it’s not about collecting to resell or make a profit. Bielski believes that fewer than 25 percent of vendors who attend the Eugene Record Convention are there to make money. Most vinyl collectors are unique in that way. Albums are typically purchased with the intention of being opened, listened to and enjoyed, in contrast to something like action figures, which many collectors leave in their original packaging in order to preserve the toy’s condition.
At the Eugene Record Convention, Bielski sits back at his table and watched as people eagerly flipped through the collection that he has culminated over the course of his life.
“If I wanted to make money [from collecting], I would go back to work,” Bielski says. “It’s just a hobby. For me, it’s very hard lugging these records around. But it’s fun, so I do it.”