Remember that TV mail-order albums like Country Gold and The Best of Floyd Cramer were available on almost-obsolete eight-track cartridges well into the Eighties? Now the Nineties has its version of this phenomenon: Recent TV titles like Soft Rock of the '80s and The Best of John Denver are being offered on two long-playing records.
That's right, records. As in vinyl.
Far from going the route of the eight-track, vinyl LPs seem to be getting a second wind. And the revival is not just courtesy of hard-core collectors. What's breathing new life into the format is the growing number of young fans plunking down cash for limited editions of LPs by bands such as Dinosaur Jr, Helmet, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and, most of all, Pearl Jam.
The Seattle sons' recent single "Spin the Black Circle" screams simplistic instructions to new convertees on how to operate a turntable. But even with Eddie Vedder championing the format, young Pearl Jam fans aren't about to be weaned from CDs by something round, black and stuffed in a 12-by-12-inch sleeve, are they?
The current issue of Rolling Stone magazine cautiously calls the renewed interest in vinyl a "minor comeback." It reports that vinyl sales rose dramatically--by 80 percent--in 1993 and '94, translating into "0.2 percent of all configurations [sold]--about 900,000 units." Hardly Thriller, but enough activity to get Tower Records and Sam Goody, two of the country's largest retail music chains, to stock hefty vinyl sections again, something that seemed impossible a couple of years ago.
If trend watchers look to New York for a harbinger of things to come, things are looking good for our flat, grooved friend. "It's only a matter of time before vinyl becomes the viable format it once was," predicts Lou Cioci, an optimistic buyer for Subterranean Records, long a mainstay for vinyl collectibles and bargain prices in New York's West Village. "Major labels are moving to 7,500 to 10,000 copies pressed for many artists' releases--that's a dramatic jump from the paltry 2,500 copies pressed for Neil Young's Ragged Glory in 1990. It's only going to get bigger."
Consider Pearl Jam's current best seller, Vitalogy, which practically flew out of stores in its limited-edition-vinyl form. "During its first week of release, Soundscan registered 38,000 units sold just for the vinyl," points out Cioci. "Take into account all the mom-and-pop stores like us that specialize in selling vinyl and don't have a Soundscan, you can probably double that figure and you wouldn't be far off the mark."
Yikes! That wasn't supposed to happen! When the majors discontinued releasing vinyl in 1988, everybody was expected to ditch their turntables and replace their LP collections with digital replicas. Many did, but guess what? Other people bought those used turntables and albums at giveaway prices and kept on buying vinyl. Take Dave Walker, a 25-year-old assistant manager at Tempe's Zia Record Exchange. In just two years, he's amassed an instant vinyl collection--a whopping 1,100 albums. This compared to his modest collection of 300 CDs, which takes up the same amount of shelf space as his vinyl.
"I actually can't afford a huge CD collection," Walker says, laughing. But economics, an attractive feature when considering vinyl, isn't the only plus. "There's so much music out there that's never re-pressed on CD," he says. "Novelty records, soundtracks, jazz titles, lounge music--that's the biggest attraction for me, and a lot of other people, too. I see people every day buying CDs and vinyl simultaneously, be it our used LPs, new limited editions or the seven-inch single."
Another record-store employee with a passion for grooved black plastic is Stinkweeds Record Exchange's Clay Wells, 19. Unlike most of his teenage contemporaries, he didn't grow up buying CDs. "I've been buying vinyl here at this store since I was 12. Vinyl's a lot more fun to collect. You get the bigger picture, the gatefold sleeve. It's more hands-on. CDs are just too small."
Is bigger really better? Does size really count? When it comes to a 12-inch record versus a 4.5-inch CD--if appearances count for anything--the answer is yes. Remember how menacing and larger-than-life the Stones looked on the old Out of Our Heads cover, with the camera exposing every zit and clogged pore on Keith Richards' face? Album covers were an integral part of the image-making process. By comparison, the Out of Our Heads CD cover seems little more than a snapshot with a price code and a bunch of song titles. There's a certain lived-in warmth attached to a big, battered album cover that a sterile little CD jewel box will never attain; maybe it's a little too much technology for such a human thing as music. "You feel like you should be sitting at a computer terminal when you're listening to them," offers Wells.
Lest you think that's a tad too superficial a reason, Wells, a jazz buff, says he really prefers vinyl because of the vibrations. Vibrations? "It may sound hokey, but it's true. Music sounds purer on vinyl, because the needle is running on the groove and the vibration creates the sound, like plucking a string causes a sound."
Several months ago, during an interview on another topic, former Byrds leader Roger McGuinn gave an even more scientific explanation as to why so many people prefer analog over digital. "Analog sounds warmer. Digital sound fools your ears into thinking it's continuous, but there are a lot of holes in it. It's 44.1 thousand holes per second, but still, there's 44.1 thousand holes in it."
Enough to fill the Albert Hall!
McGuinn's friend, longtime prodigy Tom Petty, demonstrates with his latest album, Wildflowers, just how far from digital recording an artist can go for the sake of his sound. Petty and producer Rick Rubin have made a point of saying this is an all-analog album with no digital remastering whatsoever.
Not surprisingly, the vinyl version of Wildflowers, spread out over two LPs with wider grooves, is selling like wildfire at independent stores like Tempe's Eastside Records.
"The new Tom Petty, I sold 30 or 40 on vinyl as opposed to 15 or 20 on CD," says store owner Ben Wood. "Things that I normally wouldn't sell well, like Petty and Queensrche, people are coming to me, because they know I'll have the vinyl." Eastside recently expanded its digs to make way for a 350-gallon fish tank and the oncoming tide of new vinyl. And business is booming, vinyl-ly speaking.
"Pearl Jam's two albums and Nirvana's Unplugged--we sold 150 copies of each, for sure," says Wood. "A lot of people are also snapping up The Beatles Live at the BBC and Robert Plant and Jimmy Page's UnLEDded to complete their Beatles and Zeppelin record collections.
"I don't want to be some bourgeois vinyl elitist," says Wood. "I don't pooh-pooh the CD format. But I love going home, putting on some coffee and playing records. I never say I'm going home to play CDs or cassettes. I do that deliberately. I pull out the vinyl." Later, at his home, Wood did just that, spinning selected, vinyl-only cuts from artists new and old--Man or Astro-Man?, Dick Dale, Petula Clark, Tom Jones.
If any good has come out of this, it's that the majors--like Warner Communications, which led the way in announcing it would discontinue wax in the late Eighties--now see that a lot of people have an emotional attachment to vinyl that compact discs can't replace. Compared to vinyl, CDs seem like heartless, evil stepsisters with no warmth to them. While Bill Bentley, vice president and director of publicity for Warner/Reprise, acknowledges that the majors may have underestimated the ongoing appeal of vinyl, he draws the line at talk of a resurgence. "I don't see Warners dramatically pressing up more copies of vinyl than it does now," he states emphatically. "Compact disc is still the format of choice. We'll continue to press vinyl strictly on an artist-by-artist basis. If it's an artist we feel we can sell well within that independent collectors' market, like Neil Young or Tom Petty, we'll press it." He adds, "Frankly, it's too many headaches for the majors to press vinyl."
In March, MCA will placate those who demand the elaborate packaging of LPs when it reissues The Who's Live at Leeds CD in the original, lavish 12-by-12-inch packaging. But indie labels like Amphetamine Reptile, which have been putting out vinyl because they do God's work, resent the capitalistic impulse of the majors to jump on the vinyl bandwagon.
Pat Dwyer, Amphetamine Reptile's "press propaganda czar," says, "I don't want to see major labels co-opting the vinyl market just to gain credibility for their artists, and, in the long run, hurt the mom-and-pop retail stores. Pearl Jam wanted to show they were 'down,' and basically threw mom-and-pop stores a bone by letting them sell the vinyl for a week."
Dwyer has a political reason for buying vinyl. "When the band Jawbox put out their own vinyl LP, I bought it because the money went straight to the band instead of Atlantic Records."
Even though Amphetamine Reptile is committed to putting out vinyl, Dwyer is skeptical about its long-range staying power. "When we pressed 10,000 copies for Helmet, we looked at that as the roof for vinyl demand. People under 20 aren't buying turntables, because it's too hard finding new turntables. I don't see vinyl dying immediately. I see it as having a very long retirement."
It's hard for even the most fervent record fans to see the vinyl reactivation as a full-blown resurrection. Zia's Dave Walker attributes the success of the vinyl edition of Pearl Jam's Vitalogy to its release date, two weeks before the compact disc and cassette. "But that hasn't hurt sales of the CD a bit. I've seen people walk out with all three formats at once."
Clay Wells, the 19-year-old jazz buff who clerks at Mesa's Stinkweeds Record Exchange, doesn't believe those 40,000 Pearl Jam fans who rushed out to buy vinyl are going to change their format allegiance. When Wells saw the Vitalogy LP selling hand over fist at Stinkweeds, he got curious and conducted an informal in-store survey. Just how many of his peers were indeed planning to "Spin the Black Circle" when they got their purchases home?
"Half the kids who bought it in our store didn't even own a turntable," he cracks. "One even said, 'I'll have to play this at my grandmother's house.'"
FATALE ATTRACTION ... v1-19-95