Exploring the b-side of the vinyl resurgence.
by Michael Escañuelas
photography by Michael D. Martinez
Things are very wrong in the music industry. Walking into Rhino Records in Claremont, one can see customers buying CDs, books and magazines of their favorite bands, but the real interest lies in the back of the store, which houses two long rows of newly pressed vinyl records. These are not the vinyl records one would find in his parents’ garage, but actually recently pressed and repressed vinyl from both new artists and old.
With album sales going down and most of the big box stores like Best Buy and Wal-Mart liquidating their music sections, it is hard to believe that a store like Rhino Records could still exist. But with the recent numbers supplied by SoundScan, small indie shops like Rhino Records are actually rising in sales. With the age of iTunes in full swing, it is hard to pin point where the music industry is really going. This fear of unpredictable trends could explain the rise in vinyl sales during the past couple years.
In the last six months, vinyl sales have spiked more than 50 percent according to Nielsen SoundScan. Those very records that once plagued your parents’ garage are now the hot new media, overtaking the music industry and, in some cases, actually saving record stores from extinction. Many artists, both unsigned and signed, are now releasing their albums on vinyl along with digital downloads. In some cases, artists like Weatherbox on Doghouse records actually released just a vinyl version of its most recent album, “The Cosmic Drama,” and chose to ignore a CD release. Philadelphia natives Balance and Composure, on the No Sleep Records label, released their label debut on vinyl. “I don’t think of it as resurgence for vinyl,” says Pete Lyman, a mastering engineer at Infrasonic studios in Los Angeles. “Vinyl is the first real music delivery to the consumers so it’s not like this new technology.” This resurgence may be something new in mainstream media, but, for many collectors and music enthusiasts, the idea of vinyl never left the garage.
The art of collecting
“It’s a resurgence but, for me, not really,” says Jose Calixto, sitting in the comfort of a Starbucks chair in La Verne. “It’s more accessible now; you can go to Best Buy, and there is vinyl. Before, you had to hit up punk rock distributions to get vinyl.” A local musician and graphic designer who collects vinyl, Jose plays in the local band 12 o’ Clock in English. He uses the advantage of traveling with his band to visit record stores and enhance his vinyl collection.
Vinyl collecting is not only something that benefits the artists who distribute them, but also the music fan who longs for something physical. In an age where the digital single has overtaken the album, it is growing harder and harder for music collectors to actually collect tangible music. “It’s good for collectors like me,” says Raymond Markel, a local musician and Cal Poly, Pomona student. “Vinyl is bigger, more difficult to find and valuable. It’s the perfect way to show just how much you like a band.”
Throughout Web sites like vinylcollective.com, limitedpressing.com and eBay, vinyl collectors bid to obtain some of the rarest vinyl in the music scene today. These items include records from classic artists like the Beatles and Jethro Tull, to contemporary artists like Brand New, New Found Glory and Against Me! Collectors are at the heart of the art of collecting vinyl. The recent resurgence of vinyl comes from the fact that so many music enthusiasts have gone that extra mile to obtain it.
From behind the register
In the spirit of supporting locally owned independent stores, 2007 saw the creation of Record Store Day. Inspired by comic book stores that hold their own yearly event, the day (held the third week of April) recognizes the independently owned record store. Many artists and labels release limited edition vinyl albums exclusively to participating record stores. The event also features artists playing in stores to promote the event. In Claremont, Rhino Records dressed its store with balloons, filled its racks with limited edition vinyl and invited Yo La Tengo to play the store in honor of the special day. The result: a long line of customers opened the shop and a large crowd filled the store during the performance.
“It used to be that another store was your competition; that’s no longer the general viewing,” says Dennis Callaci, general manager of Rhino Records for the last 20 years. Opened in 1976 and independently owned since 1981, Rhino Records has supplied vinyl records to consumers long enough to see the trend of vinyl sales go up and down. “The format was pretty specific when it started to have a resurgence with hip hop and electronic,” says Dennis. “That’s when we first started to sell a lot more vinyl.”
A major attribute to vinyl’s refusal to drown against the ocean of new technology was the support from local independent shops like Rhino Records. Although one could go into a Best Buy and find a small amount of vinyl, Rhino has one of the largest selections of both used and new records in the local area. Dennis’ career has shown him the many trends that have sprouted throughout the years, especially with the recent popularity of the once dated format. “We would try to sell a record for 99 cents 10 years ago,” Dennis laughs. “Now those records are in demand, so when one comes in used through the front door, it’s gone in a matter of a week.”
With the rise in popularity of digital singles and the availability of music in big box becoming more limited, record stores are becoming music consumers’ only option. “I don’t see the big box getting into LPs; I see them getting out of music, which is what they’ve been doing the last few years,” says Dennis. Recently, many stores have felt the failure of the compact disc. Rhino Records’ system of buying and selling used CD and vinyl has allowed the store to succeed from both the failure of CDs and the resurgence of vinyl. For the store, buying and supplying vinyl is a different process than just ordering CDs. “The vinyl is not returnable, so you really have to know your customer,” says Dennis, regarding vinyl’s distribution. To gather vinyl to place on store shelves, Dennis must find a distributor of the product and specifically order it. This results in a mixture of odd pricing issues, and the hope that someone will buy the records in order to make money. “With LPs, it’s all over the map; they don’t quite get it still. They’ll do a pressing or a reissue and make it $34.99; you’re pricing people out of that market.”
Independent labels keep vinyl alive
Distributing vinyl has always been something for which small independent labels are known. Now, with the recent resurgence of vinyl, large labels like Universal and Sony are releasing major acts on vinyl. In Best Buy, one can find the new Guns and Roses album for sale. Web stores like Amazon.com carry many vinyl titles. The concept of vinyl has caught on, and many labels and distributors are beginning to see the benefit of pressing vinyl album versions or even releasing only a vinyl version. And while many big labels are beginning to produce vinyl, when looking at their track record of keeping the music industry healthy, it is hard to believe that they will do what is right, even with the format’s recent success. “The record industry is filled with a lot of morons who don’t know what they’re doing, and they’ve done things so poorly over the last 20 years that I’ve been here,” Dennis jokes.
For the past year, no one group can be more involved in the resurgence of vinyl than the indie label. Small sister labels to the majors like Doghouse Records, Vagrant Records and Merge Records have promoted the release of vinyl records of their bands. For most major labels, the concept of doing vinyl records could prove to be too costly or unnecessary.
For label owner Chris Hansen, founder of No Sleep Records, vinyl is something he wanted to do from the very beginning. Sitting on a small concrete wall outside Pomona’s Glass House, wearing a gray sweater adorned with “No Sleep Records,” Chris explains his label’s story. It is based in Huntington Beach and includes acts like The Wonder Years, Balance and Composure and La Dispute. “I always wanted to do a label since high school. When I first started, I definitely wanted to do a lot of vinyl.”
Since starting his label in 2006, No Sleep Records has released several albums on vinyl. One of No Sleep’s first vinyl releases was an EP by The Wonder Years titled, “Won’t Be Pathetic Forever.” The release premiered on three different colors: orange, brown and purple. A plain black second pressing followed. “Vinyl has that everlasting appeal to it. It has a raw sound; the artwork is so much bigger,” Hansen says. The experience of pressing vinyl for the first time was a learning experience for him, to say the least. The release was plagued with misprint issues and long turnaround times. “The turnaround is six to eight weeks, and you want to go with the eight weeks just to be safe,” Hansen says. “I knew it was going to take a while, but I didn’t know it would take as long as it did.”
The resurgence of vinyl is just another example that shows the next generation rejecting the way music is sold. The idea of a compact disc is slowly becoming an outdated technology. For years, CDs were the dominate force. Now, with iTunes, Amazon and illegal downloading, consumers are looking for something more tangible and, most importantly, collectable when shopping for music. “The younger kids, they still don’t know what vinyl is yet,” Hansen says about the consumers of vinyl. “They buy vinyl because it looks cool; most people who buy vinyl these days don’t have a vinyl player.” Like many labels now are noticing, there is something to vinyl that brings out the music fan. Recently released vinyl is more collectable and higher in value. “It takes a lot longer to make money off vinyl,” Hansen says. “Vinyl is something you do because you love what you’re doing; you love music.”
Bands supporting the movement
Music has evolved greatly during the past couple years. For bands, the method of distributing music has gone forward and backward. Sitting on a step outside a venue anxiously waiting to play, Kenny Vasoli, former lead singer of the pop-punk band The Starting Line and current front man to the band Person L, discusses his band’s efforts to retreat back to the classic methods of distributing music. “I really like listening to older records because that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Vasoli says, regarding the band’s most recent release, “The Positives.” Many bands have been following the direction of Person L and releasing vinyl pressings of their music. “It’s always fun to work on projects whose primary destination is vinyl, because we concentrate on making it sound good, rather than making it sound loud,” says Pete Lyman, a 10-year mastering engineer and 16-year band recording artist. The process of distributing band music in the digital age far exceeds the options that bands had when vinyl was first introduced. Now, for a band to distribute its album through vinyl is a means for fans to gain a new musical experience. “When you’re listening to a record, you’re really dedicating time to listen to it, so I think people are starting to discover that experience,” Lyman says.
Although music lovers have a new listening experience, for bands, the success of selling vinyl can contribute to the bands’ style or genre. “For more DIY style bands, vinyl seems to do better. They have a core fan base that knows more about music or appreciates it more,” says Hansen. Music distribution may be evolving, but with the movement of vinyl sales rising, the art behind music is still important to music consumers.