4. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (Or: It’s all a bunch of hipster hooey.)
I tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me.
— The Who
I walk into Underground Sounds in the Highlands and tell the guy up front that I want to talk about the resurgence of vinyl. He nods, excuses himself and fetches Craig Rich, who’s owned and operated Underground Sounds since 1995.
Underground Sounds looks and feels like a record store — all worn wood, posters, bins, crates and general stimulus overload. And Rich looks like a record-store owner — tie-dyed T-shirt, faded jeans, unruly musician’s hair. He’s heard this story before, and he’s not buying.
“I worked in record stores when we’d sell 600 copies of albums a day,” says the 44-year-old Rich, referencing the 1970s and early ’80s when vinyl was king. “There’s no vinyl comeback. It’s just some kids getting into it for the first time. I may sell 10 vinyl records a day. I’m sorry, but that figure doesn’t impress me. It’s a total niche thing with boutique prices. Look at this.”
He retrieves a new vinyl album off the wall. The Smashing Pumpkins’ Oceania. Price: $26.99. An iTunes download of the same record will run you $10.99.
“Vinyl has been around for a while and it’ll be around for a while longer, but I don’t think it’ll ever be what it was,” he says. “Not at these prices.”
As encouraging as the recent sales numbers are for vinyl — and those numbers don’t track what’s bought at flea markets and thrift stores — you know what Mark Twain said about lies, damn lies and statistics. In the right hands — like, say, a political pollster — numbers can darn near be made to sit, stay, jump, roll over and play dead. Make the case that vinyl is back and cite a 6.3 percent uptick in sales last year for vinyl albums, according to the Nielsen Company and Billboard’s annual music industry report. Throw cold water on the enthusiasm by noting that CDs, despite losing market share, still outsold vinyl by some 219 million units. And, according to SoundScan, which tracks the music business, vinyl sales represented only 1.2 percent of overall album sales (including CDs and digital albums) in 2010.
Still, up is up and down is down. And vinyl has been tracking upward steadily since 2008.
“About the only thing in music sales that’s increasing these days is vinyl and turntables,” says Anthony, who points to jazz, blues and punk records as his biggest sellers.
5. (Re)Birth of the Cool (Or: What’s old is new again.)
It woke up musical minds.
What’s ironic, and most likely just highly coincidental, is that while Rich is making some back-to-reality points about the resurgence of vinyl records, or lack thereof, three customers are thumbing through his stacks of LPs. Two are 20somethings, if that, and one is clearly a Baby Boomer. They may well gravitate over to the CDs after I leave, but there’s no denying the allure of rifling through 12-by-12-inch squares of era-specific artwork enveloping that famous black circle.
As even Rich admits, “Vinyl is tenacious.” It’s the Volkswagen Beetle of the music industry. Technology may have passed it by, but the thing just won’t disappear. Part of it is nostalgia, perhaps the biggest part. In researching this story, I borrowed a turntable and asked friends to bring in old records. As I write this, I’m listening to “Music From Big Pink” by The Band. Billie Holiday preceded that. Before that, it was The Eagles (Greatest Hits, pre-Hotel California) and Who’s Next from The Who, which features the first album cover I remember being thoroughly fascinated with and confused by. (I was eight years old and my “cool aunt” Mary Katherine had it. When I inquired as to the dark stains on the concrete pillar the band members were walking away from, Mary Kay mumbled something about rain.)
I submit that, as you age, there’s no stronger emotion than nostalgia. Listening to vinyl, hearing the old scratches and blips, takes a Boomer back. At the back of Jones’ Bardstown location of Better Days Records, it’s easy to transport yourself to the past. The prices are throwback, too. A secondhand Pat Benatar LP retails for $3, an ABBA, if you must, for $5. Down the street at The Great Escape, which sells comic books on one side of the store and records and CDs on the other, boxes of 99-cent LPs contain a flashback of 1970s must-haves — Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel — yes, even Barry Manilow.
But what attracts the kids who were reared on CDs and downloads, who consider Napster old-school, if they consider it at all? They’re not shopping on memory lane.Why would they spend $27 for that new Smashing Pumpkins album-with-“free”-download when they can get Billy Corgan’s nasally vocals online for less than half that?
“I think the kids are starting to figure out that they’re paying for something that’s not tangible,” Jones says. “They’re paying three or four dollars for what? Air? What’s interesting to me is I’ll see these kids nowadays, 13 to 15 years old, and they love listening to records because they like the pops and the scratches, the things we used to complain about. Nothing else sounds like a record. You’ve got that distinct motion of the sound.” (Motion of the sound: a great lyric its ownself, as if in italics.)
Here’s the question, and there’s really no getting around it: Is the renewed interest in vinyl a passing fancy, as transient a youthful fashion as skinny jeans and cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon? Because it’s hard not to feel a little pretentious when you’re browsing the stacks at the Flea Off Market, thrilling over your find of Carol King’s Tapestry, then texting your friend about it on your iTunes-laden iPhone.
Consider where we’re starting to find vinyl for sale around town: In coffee shops like Quills, and Please & Thank You on East Market, where you can sip your latte and warm to the funky cool of that old R&B album; at a barber shop like Derby City Chop Shop in the Highlands, where you can get your ears lowered within view of a wall of records for purchase, everything from My Morning Jacket to George Jones; at an adjunct space in an art gallery, where Anthony mans his station within eyesight of Orion’s Feelings album, the shop “mascot” that he has priced at $50 so nobody will buy it. (He also boasts a sealed copy of John Travolta singing as Vinnie Barbarino, certainly a limited edition.)
You can buy the latest from prominent local acts like The Ladybirds or Seluah, Cheyenne Mize or Houndmouth amidst the PBR-cool of vinyl’s kitschy past. Is that what this is all about? With-it-ness?
I put the question to Adam Hedgespeth, 30-year-old owner of Derby City Chop Shop and avid LP collector.
“Fad? I’m not sure that’s the right word,” Hedgespeth says, sipping on an iced drink outside his shop on a recent July morning. “But, sure, there will be a percentage of people who buy a turntable, buy records, then fall out and go on to something new. But records have been around a long time, and I don’t think they’re going away. Though I still see a number of people who’ll see our wall and say, ‘Wow. They still make those?’”
Hedgespeth’s commitment to vinyl seems real enough. He cops to owning more than 800 records and owns up to alphabetizing them all — by genre.