Arts & Entertainment, Boston, Music

The Return of Vinyl

Jared Lucas Nathanson fondly recalls his creamsicle-colored plastic record player; he would prance all over the house with it listening to the Mister Rogers album “Josephine the Short-Neck Giraffe” when he was just three years old. When he was eight, Nathanson graduated to funk band Heatwave and Saturday Night Fever, then as a teenager onto Men At Work. He’s been a record collector ever since. Nathanson is now 38 and plays in Boston-based blues, pop-rock band The HeartSleeves and dreams of distributing his music on vinyl: “When you put your soul into your music, wouldn’t you rather someone listened to it in that thoughtful and respectful context if you could?”

Nathanson is not alone. More and more Boston audiophiles are buying vinyl records in the age of digital music. Although overall music album sales dropped 13 percent in 2010, vinyl sales increase by 14 percent—marking a new high point for vinyl sales since 1991 in the wake of the CD explosion—according to Nielsen SoundScan. In 2010, Vinyl is the fastest growing music medium with 2.8 million units sold. In October 2007, Amazon.com launched a vinyl-only store—today the site sells over one million records.

Vinyl records have changed a great deal since their creation by RCA Victor in 1930. Victor’s design was the first commercially available long-playing record that was intended for playback at 33 ⅓ rotations per minute and was pressed on a flexible 12-inch diameter plastic disc. These revolutionary discs were a commercial failure due to the lack of reliable and affordable record players and consumer caution from the Great Depression. After World War II, 78 rpm discs made out of a shellac compound became the standard until 1960. The movement towards the cost-cutting use of lightweight, flexible vinyl pressings with 45 rpm EPs went on to define the “golden era of rock” at the height of their popularity in the 1960s and 1970s.

However, technological advancements changed the way people could listen to music. Eight-track tapes were popular through the late ‘70s until cassette tapes proved to be more opportune with its smaller size and rewinding ability. In 1982, compact discs launched by Sony provided a reliable and convenient alternative to the sensitivity of vinyl and the simple sound quality of cassettes. The popularization of MP3s along with the formation of Apple’s iPod in 2001 seemed to be the final nail in vinyl’s coffin.

In recent years, a new generation of people began to resurrect vinyl records. Recently, mass retailers like Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, and Urban Outfitters have begun selling vinyl records and record players. Vinyl records have now become the trendy new item for young audiophiles. The top-selling vinyl records of 2010 were a mix of classic rock acts and indie bands, including Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Radiohead, and Arcade Fire. The overall bestselling vinyl album of 2010 was the Beatles’ Abbey Road—which was originally released in 1969.

Local music chain Newbury Comics (that has sold vinyl for over 30 years) has firsthand experience with newfound vinyl comeback. Chief Operating Officer Duncan Browne says vinyl sales have increased approximately five times over in the last three years. Brown adds store’s main consumers of vinyl are largely “hardcore” music fans that covet the “cult product” due to its “cool factor.” Angela Sawyer, owner of Weirdo Records in Cambridge, has worked in the local record stores for the past 20 years. She argues that Boston is known worldwide for it’s knowledgeable collectors, “tolerance” of abstract and unique music styles, lower-than-usual prices, and plentiful shops and dealers.  Sawyer says she did not see the a dramatic difference in sales at her shop because “within the marginalized subculture of record collecting and underground music, vinyl never really went away in the first place.”

Many vinyl-enthusiasts say they prefer vinyl for its superior sound quality. Listeners say the music is more detailed and “warmer” than digital music. “Listening to vinyl is like eating a home-cooked meal,” says Henry Beguiristain, “and the fact is most people can’t or won’t find time to slow down enough to experience music this way.” Local musician Marc Pellegrino believes “listening to vinyl is more of an activity than just popping something on your iPod. You can’t put it on shuffle.”

Most vinyl fanatics agree that vinyl record sales will “never in a million years” surpass digital music sales. Although Nathanson may never hear his music played on vinyl, he says: “Vinyl is one of the last tangible experiences in a world of ephemeral media. Will it stay? Yes. Just like theater, jazz, and home-churned ice cream.”

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