The shrieks of some obscure indie rock band ooze from The Sound Garden’s open door as people flow in and out of Armory Square’s not-so-hidden gem. Inside customers quietly stroll through ceiling high aisles of DVDs and CDs, but nowhere is as congested as the record section, where fingers comb through vinyls surrounded by the comforting smell of worn down incense.
The trend of buying vinyl seemed to have died in the 90s, along with bell bottoms, overly fluffed hair, and scrunchies, but people are starting to find their way back to the dusty concrete flooring of record stores. Vinyl sales have brought more money to the recording industry last year in the U.S. than advertising on free on-demand services such as YouTube and Spotify, according to the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Old school LP sales rose up to 32 percent in 2015, accounting for $416 million in revenue. The U.S. record industry group reported that’s the highest sales have been since 1988. While the sales contributed more than they have in decades to overall industry revenues, it still only made up a fraction of the $7 billion business.
That still hasn’t stopped popular artists from taking notice of the recycling fad and putting out LPs of their own. Well-known artists like Hozier, Leon Bridges, and The 1975 can be found hanging from the walls of record stores across America. The top-selling vinyl of 2015 was Adele’s 25 with 116,000 copies, and right behind her was Taylor Swift’s 1989 album with 74,000 copies sold.
Records have always been somewhat of a cultural phenomenon, but it seems more and more people are starting to remember how much fun listening to vinyl can be. Owner of the Syracuse record label L.R.S. Records Nicolas Oliver said that people are interested in vinyl for the experience of listening to its live, warm sound.
“Sitting in front of your record player, flipping it over, hearing the pops and the space in the sound. Or hanging out with friends going through your parents old records and discovering new things, or going out to an open turntable night where you get to be DJ,” said Oliver. “All those things really contribute to the experience…it builds a record community where it is about discovering new things and building relationships.”
This renewed love for vinyl is comparable to the appeal of books. While electronic book devices such as Nooks and Kindles make carrying around a bookstore more convenient—and much cheaper—books still manage to persist above the advances of technology. No matter how simple innovations make reading a book, nothing feels better than actually holding one in your hand, feeling the thick paper and its crisp sound as you turn the page.
Even record releases have become a cultural event themselves. So much so that artists are now taking advantage of the hype, making an event of the record’s release and waiting until Record Store Day to make it available to fans. Record Store Day first took place on April 19, 2008 as a way for people to come together, and celebrate the unique culture that makes up a record store and the role it plays in the community. This past Record Store Day, Justin Bieber exclusively released a 12-inch picture record for his single “Purpose.” There were also new releases of archived material from the recently departed David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and The Doors.
Co-owner of L.R.S. Records with Oliver, Mark Turley says releases have always been an event, even during the 90s and early 2000s when people were all about CDs instead of vinyls. Back then, Tuesdays were Mark’s favorite days because it meant release day was here. He would bust out of school and run over to Media Play—yeah, remember Media Play?—to buy the latest album he couldn’t wait to hear. With streaming and digital sharing the hype around release day, which will be changed to Friday come July 10, has simmered because everyone tends to want everything now. In an attempt to combat the “dying” excitement, labels like Turley’s L.R.S. Records are offering bundle deals and turning record release shows into events.
“We heavily promote the event for weeks leading up to it. The single will come out prior to the event to get people excited. And when the show happens, you know it’s an L.R.S. show. All of our shows are $10 at the door and we give you a free copy of the record just for showing up!” said Turley. “During the night we have raffles and giveaways for test presses of the record, and other merch. There are always 3-4 great opening bands, many of whom we have released albums for, and the headliner whose album is being released always delivers a crazy performance.”
Vinyl seems to be charming its way back into people’s hearts, but Turley says “vinyl never really went away, the taste of pop culture just shifted in the early 90s to wanting the latest technology, and CDs took off and were cheap to make.” Records are so popular now that it’s not just independent record stores attracting more customers, retail stores such as Barnes & Noble, Urban Outfitters and even Whole Foods have whole sections of their stores dedicated to vinyl. And they’re not cheap either. The way records are mastered and pressed today produce a better sound than old vinyl, and the recording industry won’t let you hear the sound unless you pay a nice price. New records are selling for around $40 in today’s market, versus the $10-$20 they were sold for decades ago. Those same old records are even cheaper now, selling for as cheap as $4 at record stores.
The quality of new digital records isn’t the only reason people are flocking back to record stores—it’s the whole phenomenon behind buying records. With the revival of neon clothing, oddly patterned baggy sweatshirts, and 90s sitcoms, it seems Americans are obsessed with the past. It’s as if people have this nostalgic thirst and one of the conduits to quelling it is by buying anything vintage, especially dusty and slightly scratched vinyl. The Sound Garden assistant manager Nicholas Shelton says the store has trouble keeping the used vinyl section restocked because so many people come in looking for old records. “A lot of the times you’ll see a lot of younger people buying records. It’s almost like they have nostalgia for an era they weren’t part of. There are kids now in their teens who love the 90s but didn’t grow up in the 90s,” said Shelton.
When people think of the average vinyl lover, usually the image of some old guy with greying hair and a beard comes to mind. But in reality, most vinyl consumers tend to be a little bit younger: 35 and under. Although 44 percent of the overall music marketplace is made up by music fans 35 and under, according to The National Purpose Diary [NPD] Group, MusicWatch says they account for 72 percent of record sales.
Record Store Day co-founder Michael Kurtz told Billboard Magazine in a March 2015 interview that when he first started the event it was just guys like him coming into his store to buy records: old with bald spots and ponytails. That crowd originally spearheaded the annual celebration, but the demographic has widened since then. “Now it has evolved to where the majority of people who come are under the age of 28,” said Kurtz.
Millennials are working hard to build their own collections, and among them is Le Moyne student Lee Bauter. He was first introduced to vinyls when his high school in Watertown was throwing away old record players they had previously used to play dictations for students and he asked to take one home. The first album he bought was Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’.
Everyone has their reasons for collecting vinyl—some appreciate the hiccupy sound while others just think it’s the cool thing to do—but Bauter admits that being dedicated to building a great collection takes time and a lot of patience. “If you’re buying for full price, it’s expensive, and it’s not very often you get to dig through someone’s old collection. People who are going to really get into it need to do a lot of searching,” said Bauter.
Looking at half of his collection sprawled across his dorm room floor, he took in the faded album covers of The Who’s Quadrophenia, The Glorious Sons’ The Union, and The Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like and Eagle. He took up a random record and started flipping it in his hands. “You know, It’s easier to just plug in a phone and hit play instead of getting out a record and setting it up,” he said. “But for me, vinyl albums have so much more content in terms of cover art and artist info and all that stuff.”
Bauter loves looking at album covers, discovering something new in the picture or looking at the inserts that come in most vinyls. He giddily referred to his stacks of vinyl as his “own little artifact collection.” But he admits there are things better than the music and the artwork itself: it’s how records force you to listen to the album in its entirety. Unlike downloading or streaming music, picking a specific track is much more complicated than pressing the “next” bottom.
“The artist arranged the song order like that for a reason…they want the songs to be listened in that order! That’s the part I love most,” gushed Bauter. “Digital music lets you just buy specific songs and that’s cool but being guided, almost forced, to listen to the whole album front to back is what I love about it.”
Though millennials like Bauter can be found browsing through the aisles of The Sound Garden, Shelton says the store still has and sees its regulars: “The die hards who have been buying vinyl since the 90s when it wasn’t cool.” So maybe it’s not just the nostalgic phenomena behind records that keeps everyone buying, maybe it’s the fact that there’s something more personal about buying a record than streaming music or buying a CD. You feel closer to the artists and in some ways you feel closer to the process. CDs can be produced at high volumes but record pressings put out much lower numbers, and in turn that makes buying them all the more special.