Don't Sit on the LP: Vinyl Still in the Game

By Ian Howarth, December 4, 2017
I’m a Baby Boomer, old enough to have had an intimate relationship with vinyl. My mother, with her record collection (probably handed down by her parents) of mostly 78 rpms, tried diligently to keep her four sons away from them – and the record player. But in some careless moments, she would leave them out, which is how we found out that 78s break as easily as a 92-year-old hip hitting the floor of the seniors’ home. LPs, or long-playing albums, had more flexibility and durability to them, although if mistreated, they did warp and scratch. Melted candle wax, always nearby in the 60s and 70s, also would compromise the integrity of a 33 rpm. 45 rpms got lots of spins but were labour intensive unless you loaded up about 15 of them onto the turntable and they’d drop down one at a time onto the turntable – maybe – until about the 6th or 7th 45 when the already overworked arm would ram into the stack and drop down onto the rubber. You went to parties with singles and albums under your arm. This was your gift to the host, only you took them home with you when all was over- if you could find them. Also, the album sleeve (the warmth of vinyl is reflected even in the language) and LP cover art was sometimes bold and brilliant – and great surfaces for rolling joints. The cover of Abbey Road, with Paul McCartney out of step with the other Beatles – and bare-footed – become a major point of discussion in the “Is Paul Dead?” debate.
Thing is, this was all a very tactile and stimulating experience, requiring some eye-hand coordination if you wanted to drop the stylus down on one particular track on a album. (We were young and had way steadier hands.) Or -and this is something that’s gone down the toilet in the digital age – actually playing the whole fucking album, then flipping it over and playing the other side. And this, in part, is at the heart of why vinyl has won the hearts (or re-won Boomer’s hearts) of a modern generation that is up to its ears , weary and bored, the victims of over-streaming. It ain’t just a bunch of old hippies clinging the glory days who have helped resurrect vinyl.

According to most information I’ve read on its re-birth, sales of vinyl in 2016 reached a 25-year high as consumers young and old have once again embraced physical formats of music. More than 3.2 million LPs were sold last year, a rise of 53% on 2015 and the highest number since 1991 when Simply Red’s “Stars” was the bestselling album. This was also the first year that spending on vinyl outstripped that spent on digital downloads. What? Outstripped digital downloads? Can’t be.

Author Dominik Bartmanski helps explain this in his book, Vinyl: the Analogue Record in the Digital AgeFull disclosure: I haven’t read the book, but here’s his explanation for the vinyl comeback: “People buy vinyl because it sounds different, (not better just different) because it’s an object they can hold in their hands. Consumers are attracted to vinyl because they like the big-format art covers, and they like to keep the music in their collection. Sometimes they even buy vinyl just because they like how fragile it is.” See me, feel me, touch me., that’s what LPs say to you. Think the cover of The Rolling Stones, ” Sticky Fingers”, a genius moment in album marketing, one that featured a working zipper on a pair of jeans, presumably Mick Jagger’s, that had millions zipping and unzipping it in the record store. CDs and cassettes’ brittle plastic covers broke like a cheap child’s toy. You ever seriously pondered the artwork on a CD or cassette? Me neither. (But if you unfolded the cassette’s liner notes, re-folding it required some dexterity.)

But, I guess the bigger question, and one for someone else to tackle is: Is this just a trend that is likely to go away? And are sales of vinyl making much of a dent in a troubled record business?

But here are some current vinyl sales stats:

For the 11th year in a row, Nielsen Soundscan reported an increase in vinyl albums sold in the United States. Consumers bought 13 million vinyl albums in 2016, an increase of 10 percent over 2015. That’s more vinyl records sold last year than from 2008 to 2012, the heralding of the genre’s comeback, combined. Compare that data with sales of CDs (down 16.3 percent) and digital sales (down 20.1 percent), and vinyl is the only music format with stable sales; everything else is in rapid decline. The Great White North, according to a IFPI 2016 Global Music Report, ranks #5 in top global vinyl sales, pushing 1.3 million units in 2015.

What these figures do not include is sales of second-hand records (so far not re-branded as previously-owned) a not-so-underground economy which probably has significant margins to it. Second-hand record stores have been a staple of the rock ‘n’ roll LP biz for decades now. Montreal has the venerable Cheap Thrills, a fixture on the used record scene since 1971, which gives it major street cred and seniority.

In the Montreal suburb of Pointe-Claire, Norm Aubé has run Musiquest for the past 24 years, where 90 percent of his sales are LPs. The store has the classic cluttered look and odour that makes shopping for LPs a multi-sensory experience. Lately, he’s seeing a younger demographic showing up to surf his store for vinyl. “I have young people coming into my store looking for the albums their parents listened to, or in some cases, their grandparents,” said Aubé. “Mainly, they’re after the classic LPs like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and Pink Floyd.” His female clientele lean more towards the softer side of classic rock, he added, like Fleetwood Mac or the Beatles late ’60s and early ’70s albums. And both genders, whatever their musical tastes, either use their parents turntable or have bought their own.
Aube farms out stereos that need repair to a private contractor as well as selling re-furbished sound systems. “Everyone’s still  got the other digital options,” Aubé explained. “But with vinyl, it’s a brand new experience, one that requires some engagement on the part of the listener, where they sit down and actually listen to a whole side, maybe even flip it over. This is not a bunch of music on shuffle.” And for his older clients, ones that grew up with vinyl, but lost touch over the years after the CD and then digital download days took over, vinyl is like a trip back to their hometown.  “To hear analogue again,” he said, “they remember how rich the sound is. After not listening to vinyl for so many years, they’re in awe of a sound they’d forgotten.”

Currently sitting on my turntable is Supertramp’s “Even in the Quietest Moments,” which has been there for about the past 10 years since I disconnected my stereo to do some renos to the basement. The basement is LP-ready. I think it’s time to dust her off, then find where the outlet is. Then get someone to do it for me.

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