Records are back in fashion at shops across Louisville. Is wax really making a comeback, or is it all so much trendy spin?
This article appeared in the August 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
1. “I Want You Back” (Or: Dust off that turntable, darlin’.)
Oh baby give me one more chance
To show you that I love you
Won’t you please send me back in your heart?
— The Jackson 5
There is a scene in an episode of Freaks and Geeks, the short-lived Judd Apatow TV production about high school nerds and burnouts set in the early 1980s, in which the main character, geek-turned-freak Lindsay Weir, plays her first Grateful Dead album. It’s American Beauty, the album with the rose on the cover encircled by the title. Your dad probably has a copy in the attic.
She pulls the black oversized disc from its sleeve, places it on the turntable in her room and aims the needle at the first groove. When the music starts, Lindsay stares hard at the album cover, flipping it over to look at song titles, running times, credits and other back-cover minutiae — the kinds of must-know details that music fans of a certain age memorized as if by osmosis, the information seeping into the good vibrations of pet sounds. Soon enough, our time-warped character is swaying across the room — with the Dead, you sway, you don’t dance — album cover in hand, only breaking her spell to move the needle back again, to hear that last song one more time. And one more time. And one more time.
That was the experience of listening to music in the pre-CD, pre-digital age. You listened with ears, eyes and mind open — and without distraction, focused wholly on the art of the band by what you held and heard and felt through the physical act of moving that needle onto that spinning disc of vinyl.
Ben Jones remembers. “It takes a little effort to listen to vinyl,” he says. With newer forms,“you lose that effort, you lose part of the sound, part of the soul.” He can still recall the first album he ever heard. It was Jimmy Reed’s Bright Lights, Big City. “My mother played me that when I was in the crib,” says Jones, the 52-year-old owner of Better Days Records in the Highlands and the West End. “She said I would point at the album when I wanted to hear it.” His first purchase? “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5. Jones was in sixth grade.
Now he sees sixth-graders flipping through the bins of vinyl records at his Bardstown Road store. “I think the physical product is re-catching on,” he says.
Charlie Green, another veteran of the music industry in Louisville, has noticed the same thing. “The public seemed to miss what you got with a 33 1/3 record,” says Green, who has owned Magnetic Tape Recorder, selling and servicing sound equipment, including turntables, for 21 years. “More young people are dragging out their parents’ records, finding records at yard sales and finding that the old music sounds pretty good.”
Nationally, sales of vinyl LPs were up 36 percent last year, ahead of even digital album sales (up 19.5 percent). Meanwhile, sales of CDs dropped almost 6 percent. Here in Louisville, the much-mourned closing of ear X-tacy last October has been salved somewhat by the opening of Matt Anthony’s Record Shop in Butchertown, Astro Black Records at Quills Coffee in the Highlands and what amounts to the biggest vinyl record store in town when the Flea Off Market meets the second Saturday of each month. Plus, Jones’ reincarnated Better Days Records celebrates its one-year anniversary Aug. 1 at its Bardstown location, having done well enough to expand by 500 square feet — the better to accommodate, yes, vinyl.
By our count, and we could be missing a record bin or three hiding at the back of a coffee shop or hardware store — vinyl seems to be everywhere these days — 18 shops in the Louisville area sell vinyl records. Not bad for a product that has been pronounced dead more often than Cher’s career.
What’s it all mean? “Oh my God, I miss record stores!” says Matt Anthony, mimicking the comment he says he has heard more than any other since he opened his shop June 1 to a long line of customers waiting to buy stacks of wax.
2. “Help!” (Or: Records are dead; long live CDs.)
Help me if you can, I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won’t you please, please help me?
— The Beatles
If you’re in your late 40s or early 50s, you may have had a similar experience. Sometime between graduating college, starting a job, moving from apartment to apartment, I didn’t see the point of dragging around beat-up cardboard boxes of beat-up old albums.
Records were yesterday’s news. Video killed the radio star, cassettes wounded records, and CDs officially pronounced last rites on vinyl and turntables. The numbers were irrefutable. According to the Recording Industry Association of America in 1973, vinyl LP albums sold 280 million copies, representing some 73 percent of total album sales in the U.S. (The rest? Eight-tracks and those newfangled cassette tapes.) Some 15 years later, vinyl sales had fallen to 17 percent of the market. In dollar figures, Americans spent $1.25 billion on vinyl in 1973, $793 million in ’87. And that was before the digital revolution, even before compact discs went mainstream.
Here’s the lead on a 1988 story in the Los Angeles Times: “Vinyl long-playing records — for decades the foundation of the recorded music industry — may not make it into the ’90s.”
Why sure. After all, CDs were portable, more durable than cassettes (which are, surprisingly, also enjoying a latent sales surge) and had a decent-enough sound. You could hardly carve a scratch into them. Records? Too delicate. Too labor-intensive. (You had to get up, walk to the player, pick up the needle….) And, for the record industry, too expensive to produce.
Anthony, also a DJ and musician, is sitting in his Butchertown shop, essentially an oversized room in the building that houses the Tim Faulkner Gallery. Anthony estimates that a thousand CDs run $1,000 to manufacture; a thousand records can cost three to four times that. “And,” he adds, “CDs were great for the car.”
In an on-the-go culture, that was the real selling point. Anthony worked at ear X-tacy until it closed, and he remembers the CD peak in the ’90s directly mirroring the decline of vinyl.
“There were still the big-box stores — Tower, Virgin — and even we would sell 300 copies of ’N Sync or Britney Spears, which would allow us to have a whole section of Cuban music,” Anthony says. “Then came downloading.”
Fast-forward to 2012, and the most portable, inexpensive way to access music is digitally — by downloading songs to your smart phone. Notice all the people driving around with ear buds? They’re not listening to CDs.
“For those of us in the business, you almost treat CDs like business cards,” says Mat Herron, in charge of project management and promotion for the record label Karate Body and former music editor for LEO. “They’re easier to mail out to media and radio. NPR won’t accept anything but CDs. Talking inside baseball, from the music industry’s standpoint CDs are still viable. But for music nerds and audiophiles, they are very well aware of the quality of vinyl and they almost always end up making the switch.”
3. “Sympathy for the Devil” (Or: New technology ain’t so bad.)
So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, um yeah.
— The Rolling Stones
Herron recently moved from Louisville to Lexington, but in a multi-topical conversation over the phone, it’s clear that Herron’s heart remains in this river city. His label handles a long lineup of local musicians, which he lists rapid-fire as if he were naming his kids: Seluah, Silver Tongues, The Fervor, Rachel Grimes, Shipping News, Johnny Quaid, Joe Manning, the Sandpaper Dolls.
Almost all of Herron’s clients produce vinyl (as well as CDs and digital downloads). “I don’t know a musician who doesn’t love vinyl,” Herron says. “It’s a quality issue in the end. . . . CDs produce only about 5 percent of music’s dynamic range (the highs and lows, the loud and quiet parts). You get two or three times that on vinyl. But there’s the romance and then there’s the retail. And for retail sales, a digital download is a must. . . . Digital fills the convenience void.”
Imagine this world: At home, you have your turntable and record collection, having bought into (or reacquainted yourself with) the idea that music simply sounds better on vinyl. On the road, in the car, on the jogging path, walking the dog, you’re plugged into your iPhone or iPod or some other Steve-Jobsian device that holds 300 squillion songs. Where does the CD fit in? Perhaps as a coaster?
“I was talking the other day to somebody and they were like, ‘I will give you a CD,’” says Jason Pierce, co-owner of Please & Thank You on East Market Street, a coffee shop/cafe/vinyl-record store complete with turntable-listening room. “I had to think really hard as to how I would even play a CD.”
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.
6. “I Can’t Tell You Why” (Or: Will it last this time?)
Every time I try to walk away
Something makes me turn around and stay
And I can’t tell you why.
— The Eagles
“It’s booming! I’ve seen a huge surge. I’ve been in the record business for 30 years, the last eight pressing records, and I’ve never seen anything like it.” That’s Tom Dillander on the phone. He owns Palomino Records Pressing in Shepherdsville, and I’ve called to ask if the business of making vinyl is as good as the spin. And, yes, he sounds as enthusiastic as his quote reads. And why not? Dillander says his company is doing 500 percent more vinyl business today than it did in 2010. Palomino, he adds, is at full capacity and booked solid through September, pressing 500 to 1,000 records a day.
Why the boom? “I scratch my head every day,” Dillander says, laughing. “But if you’re an up-and-coming band, you better have vinyl. You can’t sell CDs.”
Business has been so good, Dillander adds, that he resisted for weeks an inquiry from the Courier-Journal to do a story on Palomino. “I just don’t need the exposure,” he says. “Word of mouth has done this.”
So sold on records is Dillander that he predicts that, by 2014, CDs will be obsolete and we’ll be living in that once-unimaginable world of vinyl and digital, past and future.
At Magnetic Tape Recorder, owner Green reports that turntable sales and repairs are up. “Most people like the older tables. They like the look, the quality and so forth,” he says. “A lot of bands are going to vinyl to do their mastery. The trend is that they’re selling records instead of a CD and then they’re offering a free download that brings their fans to their website, where they’re exposed to a lot of information.”
Green notes that some of the newly manufactured turntables can be hooked to a computer so that records can be transferred to the computer’s hard drive, then to your digital smart gadget.
And get this: You can buy turntables at Best Buy and Target. It doesn’t get much more mainstream than that.
7. “Spin the Black Circle” (Or: What goes around comes around.)
See this needle...a see my hand...
Drop, drop, dropping it down...oh, so gently...
Well here it comes...I touch the plane...
Turn me up...won’t turn you away...
Spin, spin...spin the black circle.
— Pearl Jam
Back at Matt Anthony’s Record Shop, the conversation has turned to a parallel between the record business, specifically vinyl, and print publications, specifically magazines like this one. They’re both niche products that reach back generations. They’ve survived thanks to, modesty aside, quality and a devoted following. They’ve both suffered under the sudden cyber empire. But they press on, pardon the pun, because there will always be a market for quality, for content, for something tangible that one can possess, hold, look at without worrying that the screen will soon refresh.
Anthony adheres to the cover test when it comes to records. “The cover,” he says, “represents the aesthetic of the artist. A good cover usually means a good record. A bad cover almost always reveals a bad artist.” It reminds me of the monthly agony this and other magazines go through to choose just the right cover. It’s to attract the reader, yes, but it’s also a reflection of the aesthetic of the magazine staff itself. And, unlike the latest blog post, download or stream, it’s lasting.
“I hate downloading,” says Anthony, who adds that he still has hundreds of songs digitally downloaded. “It’s not satisfying. You watch a bar run across a screen and then it ends and you’re like, ‘Do I have it?’
“Look, I’m selling records to people who don’t even have turntables. Albums are collectibles. Imagine if the Beatles had never put out the White Album or Sgt. Pepper’s. That they just threw it all on a website. We wouldn’t have it. . . . A world in which music is only online frightens me. That’s Doomsday.”
Herron and others in the local music business make the point that Anthony’s shop — like Astro Black in Quills and Better Days and Please & Thank You — indicates a trend toward sound quality (read: vinyl) that may be more local than national.
Louisville’s national musical reputation extends at least back to the early 20th century when, according to the Encyclopedia of Louisville, “the Ohio River and the railroads were two vital transportation avenues along which many jazz pioneers migrated.”
By the end of the century, also according to the Encyclopedia, Playboy magazine identified Louisville as a rock-music mecca. The city has been known for its classical music and its punk scene. Of late, indie bands have proliferated. Herron notes that, a few years ago at the Forecastle music festival, he was charged with finding local acts. He had no trouble coming up with 30 of them.
“I have this theory,” Herron says. “If you look at what’s happening in your profession (print journalism) and arts and entertainment, to be successful, you have to capture the zeitgeist. There has to be some strong local connection. . . . Yes, record stores are going to be hybrids or niche. The mothership (ear X-tacy) is gone, but Louisville is getting noticed more and more as a viable music market.”
In other words, Louisville seems increasingly flush with record makers and record buyers. Which strikes one as a supply-demand combination that could at least last longer than skinny jeans or PBR.
Additional reporting by Mary Chellis Austin and Carmen Huff.
Photo: courtesy of Amanda Bates