Until I recently stopped, buying vinyl record albums was simply something I did, like sleeping or having a lot of opinions. Given a spare hour on a Tuesday, you might have turned on the TV or curled up for a nap; I went looking for records I didn't yet know I needed to own.
The people I knew who bought records — we referred to ourselves and one another as vinyl nerds or, in the case of people who really took themselves seriously, audiophiles — had, like me, been doing so their whole lives. Most of us had our own agenda. For decades, my friend Lisa has collected bubblegum pop she couldn't afford back when she was a 10-year-old girl with a five-dollar-a-week allowance and those Monkees and Sajid Khan records were new. Bob, a jazz musician I know, has devoted his off-hours to amassing every single recording ever pressed on the Chess Records label. And I once had an editor who only purchased factory-sealed copies of albums by third-rate British Invasion knock-off bands no one remembered. (He especially loved The Robbs.)
Lately, though, I've noticed that regular people are buying record albums, too.
My friend Veronica bought her husband, John, a record player for Christmas a couple of years ago because he'd lately been dragging home thrift-store records but had nothing to play them on. My friend Kathy's teenage grandson started borrowing his mother's Duran Duran LPs. Last month, an artist whose studio I visited was playing a Bix Beiderbecke album on an old Magnavox portable. "Are you a collector?" I asked. The artist looked confused. "No," she replied. "I just like old jazz music."
Something's going on. Regular people are buying record albums, and not because they're filling some childhood void or nurturing an obsession to have all of something from long ago. They appear to be buying LPs in order to listen to them. And record labels are making vinyl LPs again — certainly not for each of their new releases but often enough lately that Billboard has added a chart devoted to ranking vinyl LP sales.
Record labels slammed the door on vinyl production in the late '80s, in favor of digitized music sold on compact disc. But over the past several years, while CD sales have been largely overtaken by digital downloads, vinyl sales have been inching up. Today, each of the major labels and many indies are releasing vinyl editions of some of their higher-profile new titles, and back catalogs by estimable rock bands have enjoyed vinyl reissues in recent years, as well. The Beatles Vinyl Box Set sold out its initial print run in 2011, and ABKCO's Rolling Stones Clearly Classic series, launched last year, is reprinting that band's early- and middle-period discs in special see-through vinyl editions. Columbia Records is reportedly preparing to reissue the entire Bob Dylan catalog on vinyl later this year.
Is the vinyl revival — an actual term used now by collectors and the media to describe this uptick in interest — just a keen fad fed by Record Store Day, the internationally celebrated third Saturday of April that honors independently owned record stores? Or is this a legitimate rejection of MP3s by music buyers who dislike the soullessness of digitized music?
I suspect it's both. Nielsen SoundScan, which monitors music sales, tracked close to 5 million LP sales last year, an almost 20 percent increase over 2011. But this increased interest in vinyl records still accounts only for 1.5 percent of all domestic music sales, which favor digital downloads (the new standard mode for purchasing music) and CDs, sales of which are on the decline, dropping 13.5 percent in 2012. About half of these LP sales are for back-catalog stuff, like those Stones and Beatles reissues. I found no studies describing the median age of the new vinyl buyer, but SoundScan recently reported that French electronica duo Daft Punk's Random Access Memories album sold nearly 20,000 units in vinyl last year, suggesting that young music fans are in the vinyl revival mix, alongside nostalgic oldsters.
"We get a lot of kids in here," Matt Martinez told me. Matt recently opened Record Revival at Seventh Street and Osborn Road. It's the kind of record shop vinyl nerds like me love: clean, fairly priced LPs by every imaginable artist, neatly alphabetized in milk crates. "The other day we had three kids in here who must have been about 14 or 15 — long hair and metal-head T-shirts on. And they bought the Fantasia soundtrack."
Okay. But why? And why now?
"You can't download an album," Matt said, holding up the cover of The Lemon Pipers' Jungle Marmalade, which was playing in the background. "CDs were smaller but still tangible. Then CDs were replaced by music downloads. You can own an LP, but an MP3 is just another file on your computer. Music no longer had a physical thing — an album cover or liner notes or whatever. Kids are just discovering that, and older people are starting to remember it."
I called my friend's son Jack, who's a junior in high school and has what he calls "the vinyl bug." I told him I thought his spending his money on Supertramp albums was sort of like when my friends and I used to scour thrift stores in the early '80s, looking for vintage dinner jackets we could wear with jeans and a Dead Kennedys T-shirt — hipness by way of someone else's past.
"No way, dude." he replied. "CDs are what my mom listens to in the car. Why would I want to do that? Also, like, a lot of the stuff I'm into isn't even available on MP3. Like I just found this record by this Japanese punk rock band called The Plastics, and there's no way to download this. It's just not out there."
Fair enough. But what about people my age, people who don't consider themselves record collectors? Are some of them suddenly returning to vinyl for nostalgic reasons? I called my pal Jim Minnick, a record collector and DJ who's been into records for as long as I have. "The upswing in DJs in clubs has a lot to do with why vinyl is making a comeback," Jim told me. "And a lot of people think vinyl has a warmer sound than digital recordings."
My friend John snorted when I repeated Jim's theory to him. "Everyone talks about clarity and warmth and how vinyl sounds better than digital," he said. "But that crackling sound of an old LP is how I used to hear music when I was first learning to listen to music. I like that sound."
John, who's 50, doesn't feel nostalgic about record albums. He feels more committed when he listens to music on vinyl. "I have to look through a stack of LPs, choose one, and then get up and change the LP when side one is done playing," he said. "You don't get that interaction with an iPod shuffle or whatever, which goes on playing forever. I feel more connected to the music when I'm playing it on a record."
Most of John's vinyl comes, he says, from Zia Record Exchange and from thrift stores. His most recent score was a pretty clean copy of Molly Hatchet's Flirtin' with Disaster, which he had on cassette in the '70s and always wanted on vinyl. He's thinking about buying Boston's self-titled first album; it was the first LP he ever owned.
While we were talking, John's wife, Veronica, grabbed the phone. "My first-ever record was an Alpha Bits cereal box record," she said. "It was Bobby Sherman doing 'Julie Do Ya Love Me.' What was yours?"
I've known Roni since the fourth grade; I can't lie to her. "It was The Archies' Jingle Jangle album," I replied. "Summer of 1969."
"Oh," she said, and handed the phone back to John. "See?" John laughed. "Everyone remembers their first LP. Who remembers their first CD?"
Actually, I do — or at least I remember the first CD I ever saw. It was 1984, and I was managing a record store called Charts on the west side of town. A&M Records sent a CD copy of Quincy Jones' The Dude to my store. I hung it on the wall behind the register, and my staff and I made sarcastic comments about it whenever we walked past. We were outraged by the CD's list price of $18.98, more than twice the $8.98 list of new-release vinyl LPs at the time, and by its diminutive size.
"The cover art is too small," we sneered. "How are you supposed to clean your pot on that?"
"These will never catch on," we assured one another. "You have to buy a special machine to play it on."
Of course, we were wrong. Compact discs took over that year, and almost as quickly, it seems, have been eclipsed by digital downloads. CDs are going the way of the 8-track tape.
When my "special machine" died recently, I headed for one of the big-box stores for a replacement. None of the 20-ish clerks knew what I was talking about when I said I wanted to buy a new CD changer. I finally found one, tucked into a dark corner. I didn't like it — it was a Sanyo and too big to fit nicely into my record closet — but it was the only one they carried.
On my way to the checkout line, I passed a gleaming row of shiny silver turntables.