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03.26.08

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Endless Cycle: The mighty LP has returned.

Rise of the Demise

CDs trumped the LP, but with the advent of new download cards, vinyl is back.

By Gabe Meline


Every few years during the past decade, the cultural trumpet has sounded to herald the "re-emergence" of the vinyl LP. Combined with the glaring oversight of the fact that vinyl, even in the CD-crazed years of the late '80s and '90s, never really went away, such repeated declarations have always been weak with the dominance of digital media.But this time, the vinyl resurgence is very real--with a little help from its digital friend, the MP3. In fact, nearly every prominent independent record label in the country--Merge, Sub Pop, Epitaph, Matador, Saddle Creek and many more--is now applying what's becoming a familiar sticker on LP versions of their releases: "Includes coupon for free MP3 download of entire album." And it's helping vinyl sell like crazy.

Brian Davis, a buyer at San Francisco's Amoeba Music, has seen the phenomenon's impact firsthand. "Vinyl sales have noticeably increased in the last six to nine months," he says, noting that the enclosed MP3 download card is so widespread for vinyl releases that it's rarely even mentioned as a selling point anymore. "It seems to be the standard," he says. "We just assume it now."

Not only has Davis noticed regular customers switching from CDs to LPs lately, but he's seen completely new customers buying LPs for the convenience of the enclosed download card. "It just makes it easier," Davis speculates, or--hinting at the beleaguered conscience of the illegal downloader--"maybe they feel better about themselves." And in some cases, he says, the LP/MP3 version of a band's album has nearly outsold the CD format.

The pioneer of this marketing practice is indie heavyweight Merge Records, home of acclaimed acts like the Arcade Fire, Spoon and M. Ward. Merge's founders Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance approached their digital assets manager Wilson Fuller with the LP/MP3 idea in 2005, and shortly thereafter, the label released the Clientele's Strange Geometry with an enclosed download card. The public response was immediate: hell, yes!

"People love it!" Fuller enthuses, adding that vinyl sales have quadrupled since 2004. "It's boosted vinyl sales, and its versatility makes labels more likely to put out vinyl. You can tell by just looking at the amount of vinyl we're putting out now vs. the last few years."

Chad Pry, a website programmer who developed the PHP/MySQL web application for Merge, Polyvinyl, Matador, Touch & Go, Epitaph and many other labels, goes even further in his praise of the idea. "I do feel that vinyl will surely outlast CDs," he says. "The compact disc is a total drag and will hopefully be out of our lives before too long.

"For some reason, vinyl demands my respect," the digital-savvy Pry adds. "Maybe it's the large album cover and format size or the great feeling of finding a cool old LP at a secondhand store for a buck, or just that magical transducer, the needle in the groove."

The download cards themselves reinforce the superiority of vinyl: "Like you, we love vinyl," states a card inside Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga LP; "Your good taste has been rewarded," says Okkervil River's The Stage Names LP; "Thank you for purchasing vinyl," declares Headlights' Some Racing, Some Stopping LP.

On the card is printed a website and a randomly generated password to enter online to download the entire album, and sometimes bonus tracks, in MP3 format. Most download cards are good for one digital download, after which they expire, and the tracks are fully importable into any iPod or portable music player. Fuller says there've been few, if any, technical problems.

It all points to the demise of the disc. Seth Hubbard, head of publicity at Polyvinyl Records, notes, "If CD sales continue to decrease, I don't think we'll keep putting them out if it doesn't make sense to keep putting them out. We're not stuck on the CD. I mean, we're called Polyvinyl."


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