Jeff Smiddle bought his first record - Rick Derringer’s “All American Boy” – in 1972 when he was 12 years old. During the summer, Smiddle would cut grass and split logs at his grandfather’s house in Canonsburg to earn money for the records he bought at Goody’s Record Store every day on his way home.
Then came along the digital revolution – iPods, MP3 players and compact discs – and while Smiddle, of Bridgeville, was busy amassing a vinyl collection that reached 100,000, records went by the wayside.
But something funny happened. Years after vinyl nearly went extinct, records are groovy again.
LPs represent just a sliver of music sales, but vinyl is making a modest comeback. Last year, vinyl record sales grew more than 36 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan data.
While the majority of records are sold at independent record stores and online record stores (including Smiddle’s eBay store killedbydeath, named after a Motorhead song), stores like Best Buy and Half Price Books now carry vinyl for a loyal and growing number of record listeners.
“Records never went away,” said Steve Madonna of Cleveland, a high-end Beatles record seller and collector who set up shop at the Pittsburgh Vinyl and CD Convention in Green Tree in November. “Sales were slow because CDs dominated the market, but they were around. There’s no denying that there’s been a renewed interest in vinyl in recent years.”
So who’s buying records?
Mainly, the vinyl revival is being driven by teens and 20-somethings who have embraced both the turntable and the iPod, and audiophiles who prefer vinyl’s analog sound over digital. Indie artists (the Black Keys and Bon Iver) and classic rock artists led 2011’s best-selling LP list, and the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” has consistently been the best-selling vinyl LP, Madonna said.
Vinyl lovers like Brad Hundt of Washington say records have a warmth and nuanced sound that digital music lacks.
It’s true that CDs don’t warp or wear out as easily as records, and MP3 players are portable and can play thousands of songs continuously. But the pops and cracks and white noise that is associated with records lend themselves to the organic experience of listening to vinyl.
Dave Panasik, owner of Dave’s Music Mine in Oakland, said older music lovers prefer the authentic sound of records.
“People are realizing the sound is better on vinyl because analog is better. The older clientele like the idea that the analog wave is a true sound wave, where the MP3 is not a natural sound wave; it’s more broken up. So really, a record offers a more true sound,” said Panasik.
The retro appeal of records draws a younger audience to Panasik’s store.
“Among the younger crowd, our clientele is 90 percent college girls,” said Panasik, whose record selection has expanded to a second floor. “The parents of these kids got rid of their records instead of passing them on because they figured they weren’t worth anything, and now the kids are discovering them. You can pick up a Chicago or Rolling Stones album in good shape for $3 or $4. That’s about what you would have paid 20 years ago.”
Emily Dick, 20, of North Strabane Township, discovered records about four years ago, when her mother, Cindy, was cleaning out the house and ran across an old record player and several albums.
“I thought it was neat,” said Dick, who buys records at Half Price Books and garage sales and counts Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and The Beatles among her favorites. “Music sounds better on vinyl. I like some of the cracking and stuff. It’s not perfect like it is on the radio and CDs.”
And there’s the art. Album artwork - think the Beatles walking along Abbey Road - offers a visual appeal that isn’t available on CDs and MP3s.
“Vinyl has the advantage of the album sleeve that has the art on it and the liner notes. It’s something that you can sort of sit down with and enjoy while you’re listening to the music,” said Hundt, an Observer-Reporter staff writer who has covered entertainment.
Bill Mooney, president of kungfunation.com, an ecommerce provider for artists including Ryan Adams, said more musicians are releasing their music on vinyl.
“It’s a niche market, but it’s big enough and profitable enough for artists to press vinyl and sell them,” said Mooney.
Adams released a 15-LP, limited-edition box set titled “Live after Deaf” in June, and it sold out within minutes.
“Everyone from Ryan’s management company and our company was taking bets on how long it would take to sell out because it was a limited edition, but nobody predicted there would be the demand there was. There was a tidal wave of internet traffic and the site actually crashed. It showed how strong the demand was for the collectible vinyl item.”
Sales of record players has increased, too, and Crosley, a Louisville, Ky., record player manufacturer now makes “20 or 30 pretty cool, different styles of turntables,” according to Mooney, available online or at stores including Urban Outfitters.
And unlike a CD or MP3, listening to records is an interactive event, which is part of vinyl’s allure, Mooney said.
“I think people really like the idea that an album is something that they can hold,” said Mooney. “It’s the odd nature of music right now that people are owning more music than they ever have before, but in some cases it means less to people because they have 5,000 tracks downloaded,” said Mooney. “There’s something about pulling the album out of the sleeve, putting it on the record player and then playing it so much that you wear out the grooves.”
In some ways, Mooney said, the popularity of vinyl is a music lover’s stand against technology, a way of making sure that an iconic music form doesn’t get lost as technology barrels ahead.
“With MP3s and dowloading, music has become sort of disposable. You can download thousands of songs on an iPod. But I still like to have music on an object, something I can hold on to,” said Hundt, who estimates he owns about 5,000 records. “I suppose vinyl objects are the ultimate in permanence in some ways. I feel a greater sense of sentimentality about the first copy of the Beatles’ ‘White’ album that I got for Christmas one year than the first CD version I got. I would get rid of the CD versions before I would ever get rid of the vinyl because of the attachment I have. There is something appealing about records.”