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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Vinyl’s Back?

Analog music for a digital age

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Remember records? Those 12- or 7-inch vinyl discs we used to spin at 33 or 45 rpms? They're back, and their popularity is increasing faster than the price of oil during a hurricane.

According to Rich Menning, whose independent store Atomic Records will soon close due to the decline in CD purchases, vinyl sales have increased 10% over the last few years.

"There has always been a romance to vinyl," he says. "The size-particularly the artwork-is so much more tangible than a CD, and infinitely more tangible than the nothingness of an MP3."

Ken Freck of Musical Memories agrees. "Album covers are more interesting," he says. "Much of the increase in record sales has been in classic rock. The trend started about five years ago, when the younger crowd started buying vinyl."

The phenomenon has extended to local record labels. Vinyl sales for Beer City Records have also risen, according to owner Mike Beer.

"CDs were, for all practical purposes, just a convenience-type item," he explains. "It's easy to take them a bunch of places and put them in your car. Now, with MP3s, who wants to drag around a bunch of CDs when they can put 1,000 songs on a little box?

"With vinyl, though, it's a whole different thing," he continues, "because one, it's not digital, it's completely analog; and two, you get this big 12-by-12 jacket where there's nice artwork and there might be a booklet in there and the whole thing about colored vinyl, so it's just much more aesthetically pleasing."

It doesn't seem to be a passing fad, either. Both Dan DuChaine, co-owner of Rush-Mor Records, and Luke Lavin, owner of Bull's Eye, say that vinyl sales have increased dramatically over the last three years.

"For some people they sound better," Lavin says of vinyl. "Another thing is they're kind of quaint, not mass-produced like CDs. Records appeal to someone with a certain aesthetic. Records are more of a collectors' item. Vinyl will definitely hold value better than CDs."

Mike Jurek of Earwax says that 20% of his sales are vinyl. Even electronic giant Best Buy has jumped on the bandwagon. Their Brookfield outlet "has been stocking vinyl for about two years," says Dan Teasdale, the store's media specialist.

"We have it in a number of varieties, including rap, hard rock, '80s-'90s rock and classic rock," he says. "It sells fairly quickly, even though it's a bit more expensive than CDs."

This phenomenon is not unique to Milwaukee. The Recording Industry Association of America reported that shipments of LPs from manufacturers rose 36% from 2006 to 2007, while CD sales dropped more than 17% during that same period. Amazon.com started a vinyl section in October 2007 that is still going strong.

Warmer Sound

So what's the difference in sound quality? Analog or digital formats depend on the method by which the sound was recorded and retained. Some people claim that vinyl, which is typically recorded in analog format, provides a "warmer" sound than digital recordings.

Ironically, one new trend is to record an album in a digital format and then release the recording on analog (vinyl). According to Beer, this is because analog recording must be done on reel-to-reel tapes, which is a more-expensive process. It can be difficult to find recording studios that will take on such a task.

Still, many people have personal reasons for preferring vinyl. "You get more, emotionally, from [vinyl], including a certain nostalgia factor," says Atomic Records' Menning. "And audio-wise, many LPs sound better than their CD equivalent, although CDs have improved vastly in the past 10 years… unfortunately, many people have drifted to the sonic abomination of the MP3 for regular listening."