Features & Columns

Coming Back Around

Sales of vinyl records continue to climb, and local musicians, retailers welcome the trend
For certain music fans, there's something undeniably satisfying about flipping a record—and for many bands, the resurgence in vinyl sales has helped in turning a profit. Photo by Greg Ramar

Earlier this week, Drew Roulette, bassist for Los Gatos-bred alt-rock outfit Dredg, posted to Facebook. On offer, a handful of test-pressing LPs from his band's first—and only—vinyl run of El Cielo, which they printed back in 2012, around the time of that album's 10 year anniversary.

He took the post down not long after he threw it up. The records, which came with handwritten memorabilia and were priced at $200 each, got snapped up almost immediately.

Dredg haven't put out a new album since 2011 and they haven't played live much since touring behind their last release, Chuckles & Mr. Squeezy. Still, Roulette says, "When we put out vinyl, it goes in seconds." And individual sellers offering sealed copies of the El Cielo double 12-inch LP on eBay are pricing the item at upwards of $300.

To be sure, all of this speaks to the band's potent songwriting and dedicated fanbase. It also speaks to the continued resurgence of vinyl records, which have steadily risen in popularity since sales of the medium cratered sometime in the early to mid-2000s.

And so, what was first seen as a revival is now being hailed as a renaissance. Vinyl albums just marked their 12th year in a row of growing sales numbers, with Nielsen Music reporting 14.32 million records sold in 2017—the highest number since the company started tracking vinyl sales back in 1991. In fact, other than rapidly expanding digital streaming services, vinyl is the only sector of the recording industry that showed positive revenue growth, increasing by 9.3 percent in the last year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Spinning Gold

It's a staggering comeback for a medium that was all but dead 15 years ago when the internet opened the floodgates of digital music streaming, downloading and pirating. That came after the advent of the vinyl-killing CD in the 1980s.

Today, more new artists are releasing their music on vinyl, and classic records are getting deluxe reissues, like the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 2017's No. 1 selling vinyl release. Major retailers like Urban Outfitters and Barnes & Noble have been racking vinyl in their stores, even as Best Buy has announced it will stop selling CDs altogether.

Paige Brodsky, store manager at Streetlight Records in San Jose, says that within the last year, revenues from vinyl LPs have overtaken CDs at her store.

"We still sell a higher number of CDs, but they are priced lower," Brodsky says by phone while attending a convention of independent record-store owners in New Orleans. "We're here with about a hundred other independent record stores across the country, and the numbers are really similar for all of them."

To be fair, sales of vinyl LPs aren't remotely close to what they were in their heyday—sales peaked in 1977 with 344 million units sold, about 25 times the amount they sold last year. But today's sales mark represents a dramatic spike from 2006, when less than a million LPs were moved.

Those in the record retail business report that vinyl, largely wiped out by CDs in the 1990s, began its ascent back into the market in the mid 2000s. But only in the last year or two has it broken through to an even greater level of mainstream popularity. "Sales keep getting higher every year," Brodsky says. "We haven't peaked yet. It's possible we could be peaking right now, but all indicators are that we are still in growth mode."

From indie rock to classical, there is a growing market for vinyl records. Photo by Greg Ramar

Lost Generation

So, who's accounting for this rush to vinyl? Brodsky says it's a boomer and Gen X cohort now in its 50s and 60s, and young people born in the heyday of the CD. "Some of them are not even old enough to drive, but they have turntables," she says.

Brian Hartsell runs the Analog Room, a San Jose record shop that deals exclusively in vinyl and the old-school hi-fi equipment to play it on. He confirms that interest in vinyl has mushroomed in the last year or two.

"It's a funny world," Hartsell says. "I never thought this would happen." He also agrees that the new vinyl resurgence has a demographic angle to it, pointing to a "lost generation" of people now in their 30s who are, he says, sitting this trend out.

"People my age, 50- or 60-plus guys, they never left. Or they've just gotten back into it. And there are kids, lots of kids, people from about 15 to 25 or 30. But in between, there seems to be this lost generation, people who grew up between 1988 and 2001 when there weren't a lot of records out there you could find in vinyl. We're seeing a few of them come back, but not to the degree we're seeing the young people who are finding records in their parents' garage. All these kids want turntables."

Hartsell's demographic estimation jibes with Roulette's personal experience in Dredg. He says the reason El Cielo (2002) and other Dredg albums—like their major label debut, Leitmotif (1998)—didn't get vinyl releases is simple.

"We didn't even think about vinyl," he says. It wasn't until the band's 2009 full-length, The Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion, that they released a brand-new album on CD and vinyl simultaneously. "The sales were great on that, so we decided to do runs on the other records."

This underscores a crucial point. Pressing 12-inch records is more than something bands do to satisfy diehard fans looking for collector's items. Vinyl is a viable moneymaker in an age when professional musicians are constantly on the lookout for ways to make money from their art.

"It's the most asked question that we get," Roulette says, referring to fans inquiring about vinyl reissues. "It's crazy." At Streetlight, Brodsky suggests that Hartsell's "lost generation" may be discovering vinyl for the first time. "Part of the reason that we can tell that's a factor is that some of the bigger-selling vinyl reissues now are titles that originally came out in the '90s on CD only, like Marcy Playground. People are just eating that stuff up."

Audio Holiday

Coinciding with the upward trajectory of vinyl LP sales is an annual event known as Record Store Day, established and promoted by a coalition of three independent record store associations.

Record Store Day takes place each year in late April ("Supposedly, right after people have gotten those tax-refund checks," says Streetlight's Brodsky), and features a wide range of new promotional products that include everything from archival, live or limited-edition recordings of classic and older artists to new material from younger artists. Brodsky notes that these days, almost all of that new promotional material is on vinyl.

Record Store Day began a decade ago, right when vinyl sales began to take off, and has now become a retail phenomenon at most of the nation's 1,400 indie record stores.

"It's my favorite holiday of the year," Brodsky says. "I usually get to the store at about 8 in the morning, and usually there's already about a hundred people in line; some of them have been there since the night before. And it's especially fun, because it's all just a bunch of music nerds talking about stuff that would make the normal person's eyes glaze over."

Authentic Addiction

Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is a pop culture historian and media personality based in the U.K. and a columnist for the magazine Long Live Vinyl. But her love of pop music was sparked growing up in Santa Cruz. Her new book Why Vinyl Matters: A Manifesto from Musicians and Fans (ACC Editions) collects interviews from a variety of musicians—Fatboy Slim, Lars Ulrich, Henry Rollins, novelist Nick Hornby and many others—on the joys of vinyl.

Bickerdike says that the culture that grew out of vinyl LPs was more conducive to creating deep emotional bonds with music than that of CDs or digital downloads. A big reason for that, she says, is the LP's large format and its ability to create visual imagery. "It wasn't just the sound of vinyl; it was the images and the culture around the images of whatever band was on those records. When you go to someone's house, you look through their record collection. It gives you a good barometer of that person, and they know it. No one ever asked, 'Oh, can I see your MP3 collection?' Vinyl takes up a big space. So when you buy that Talking Heads album, you're putting a stake in the ground and saying, 'This is worth taking up space in my house.'"

"There is something very powerful about the tactile sensation of holding a record," says Streetlight's Brodsky. "I remember when I was a kid and I got my copy of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, it had two inner sleeves and all sorts of pictures you could look at and pick apart."

"I think the vinyl record is a reaction to the world we're living in," says Bickerdike. "You have to take the time to care for records in a way you don't have to with CDs. I have a mixed CD in my car from the late '90s and if I'm not listening to it, I'll just throw in the back seat. You have to be careful with vinyl. It's almost like an opposition to instantaneous culture and a rebellion against a disposal culture."

Expanding on Bickerdike's point, Hartsell at the Analog Room says he is also seeing renewed interest in old-school stereo equipment, as music fans are discovering another big difference in the analog vs. digital debate: repairs.

"I can't tell you how many people come in with old multi-changer CD players and want you to fix them. The crap is unrepairable," he says. "You take an old '70s receiver built in Japan, all passive parts. Almost 50 years later, you can fix them. But you bought something in the '90s, it's a doorstop now. You can't fix those things."

Streetlight Records is also selling stereo equipment, particularly turntables. Streetlight's Brodsky says that people are not exactly flocking to equipment to the degree that they are turning to vinyl records, but there is an uptick in interest.

"The audiophile culture has made some inroads," she says. "When you go a step further and start exploring with better equipment and nice speakers and a good pre-amp and a nice stylus on a component turntable, you get hooked."

Welcome Home

"The renewed interest in vinyl has blown my mind," says record dealer Gary Saxon. "I never would have believed it in a million years."

Saxon runs the beloved indie record/pop culture shop called The Record Man in Redwood City. The Record Man is especially well-known for its annual parking lot sale that attracts vinyl collectors from all over the world. For the last four years, Saxon has been struggling with cancer, but he still plans to hold his parking lot sale in October.

He got into the business back in the '90s when everyone was dumping their LPs for CDs, figuring he could cater to the small cadre of collectors left behind by the digital revolution. Now, 30 years later, he's happily catering to a flood of new customers, most of them younger fans looking to buy music recorded in vinyl's golden years: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen.

"When people come in, I always say, 'Hi, how's it going? You ever been here before?' Now, every single day, someone will say, 'No, I haven't.' New people are coming into the story every day. That didn't happen before now. So now I just say, 'Welcome. We've been waiting for you.'"

Charlie Swanson and Nick Veronin contributed to this story.