|By Brett Weiss
Interest in vinyl records has been surging for several years now and it shows no signs of going away anytime soon. According to a recent report by the Recording Industry Association of America, record albums are poised to outsell CDs in terms of dollar amount this year for the first time since 1986.
Streaming remains the most popular way to consume music, accounting for 80 percent of sales, but stores like Target, Walmart, and Best Buy have sections dedicated to LPs, exhibiting the mainstream nature of the format, which was once thought dead. Of course, independent stores sell records as well, including Forever Young Records in Grand Prairie, Texas, which is between Dallas and Fort Worth.
Forever Young manager Chuck Spurlock, who said the store will celebrate its 35th anniversary next year, has definitely noticed the recent spike in vinyl sales.
“LP sales have really picked up,” he said. “A couple of years ago, record and CD sales were about half and half, but we sell more records now.”
People are attracted to the size of the LP format, and some even decorate their walls with record albums.
Unlike CDs, where the cover art is small, or downloaded or streaming music, where the image is only on your electronic device, album art is big and often worthy of display. You can go the cheap way out and tack the records to the walls in your home or office, or you can purchase picture frames, starting at around $10 for a plastic frame, on up to about $50 for a wooden frame with glass.
Many collectors like photos of their favorite bands, but others prefer designs or paintings on the albums. The fantasy genre is particularly rich, especially with rock and roll records. Album covers featuring art by such fantasy specialists as Vargas (Candy O by the Cars), Richard Corben (Bat Out of Hell by Meatloaf), Boris Vallejo (Ultimate Sin by Ozzy Osbourne), Kelly Freas (News of the World by Queen), Ken Kelly (Destroyer and Love Gun by KISS), and Frank Frazetta (Flirtin’ with Disaster by Molly Hatchet and Expect No Mercy by Nazareth) are popular with record collectors as well as comic book and sci-fi fans.
Collectors like the inserts you can find in many records as well, such as liner notes, lyric sheets, posters. booklets, stickers, and limited edition art. New records typically come with download codes as well. For older records, expect to pay more for an album that comes complete with inserts. In the past inserts were the exception rather than the rule, but there were some memorable freebies packaged with certain classic albums. Perhaps the most noteworthy example is the Beatles’ groundbreaking psychedelic record, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album came packaged with a page of cardboard cutouts featuring a moustache, a picture card of Sgt. Pepper, sergeant stripes, two badges, and a Beatles Sgt. Peppers Band stand-up. Various KISS records had some neat inserts as well, such as the paper pop gun in Love Gun and the full-color booklet and sheet of temporary tattoos in Alive II.
Certain music fans, especially older listeners, enjoy the physical action of breaking the shrink wrap on a new record, sliding the vinyl disc out of the cardboard jacket and paper sleeve, placing the disc on the turntable, and watching it whirl. More importantly, many audiophiles and other proponents of the format believe records simply sound better than CDs.
“There’s better audio quality for vinyl over CDs,” Spurlock said. “Analog against the digital. With records, you get a richer sound. You can feel the music in your body. CDs have kind of a flat sound.”
You might think that record sales are largely restricted to hipsters trying to be cool by purchasing Ramones and Sex Pistols records and Baby Boomers and Gen Exers looking to recapture their youth. There’s plenty of that, for sure, but Spurlock says his biggest sellers are newly minted records by current acts.
“A lot of younger people come in looking for vinyl,” he says “A lot of them are getting turntables and buying records. Kids come in looking for Lana Del Rey, Mac DeMarco, Tame Impala, and Mac Miller. They want new stuff.”
Spurlock again cites audio quality as the reason for the brisk sales.
“Around 10 or 15 years ago, new release vinyl didn’t sound as good as it does now,” he said. “They’re doing a good job on the new stuff. New reissues sound real good.”
While sales of records by current acts are strong, Spurlock says the old and familiar bands are steady sellers as well. His customers typically want affordable records in the $5 to $20 range.
“We get old-timers looking for the older stuff,” he said. “They are looking more for records to listen to rather than rare editions or collectibles. Beatles, Cream, Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd are big sellers. These bands don’t sound dated, so they stay relevant.”
The record industry, which reached its peak during the 1970s, has its roots in Thomas Edison’s cylinder phonograph (1877), a crude, but revolutionary machine that recorded and reproduced sound onto a tinfoil sheet phonograph cylinder. Chichester A. Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter, working for Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory (Chichester was Alexander’s cousin), improved upon Edison’s invention by using wax-coated cardboard cylinders and a floating stylus, the latter of which replaced Edison’s more rigid needle.
In 1888, Emile Berliner furthered the concept by inventing the gramophone record, which was a flat, two-sided disc. The 78-RPM phonographic disc followed (RPM refers to rotations per minute), and in 1948 Columbia released the first modern day LP in the form of a 12-inch, 33-RPM microgroove vinyl record. Prior to vinyl, records were made of such materials as hard rubber, metal, or, most prominently, shellac, which was brittle and could shatter fairly easily.
The record industry of the ’50s and early ’60s was dominated in some respects (such as radio airplay and units moved) by hit singles, but when acts like Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Jefferson Airplane, the Rolling Stones and The Who helped turn the rock album into a singular art form, no rock ’n’ roll connoisseur worth his or her headphones would be caught dead buying a 45 (though singles were still very popular with kids and mainstream consumers).
Record sales were strong throughout the 1970s, but during the mid-1980s, compact cassettes and compact discs began replacing LPs as the medium of choice among music buyers. By the early 1990s, thanks in part to major music labels convincing consumers to “upgrade” their music library to CDs, vinyl was declared all but dead.
Luckily for collectors, nostalgia enthusiasts, vinyl purists, and, yes, hipsters and older people, the long-playing record album is once again a player in the music industry.