The Dividing Lines of the Vinyl Resurgence
Up until a few years ago, the concept of hauling massive crates of vinyl from apartment to apartment and city to city was likely something you heard about from a DJ friend moving to a new place or a nostalgic baby boomer. Vinyl had become a forgotten format replaced by modernity and convenience and largely relegated to attics, dollar bins, and passed down by thoughtful parents. As the digital era of music emerged and swiftly wiped out the old industry model and all it held dear, CDs sunk into the same abyss vinyl had long dwelled and the death knell of all physical formats sounded. And as more and more people turn to streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music or use torrents, even the digital download model appears to be doomed. Despite this, a confluence of unexpected factors has led many to return to the lost warmth of vinyl static, the ritualistic needle-to-groove placement, and the full immersion into the album experience that the artist has intended since time immemorial. The vinyl resurgence, however, has two sides, which predictably fall along the lines separating mainstream and independent music. I spoke to indie artists such as Ceschi, Open Mike Eagle, Sage Francis and Rickolus to get a better understanding of where vinyl stands in their scene versus the mainstream.
In the past seven years vinyl sales have tripled and large chains such as Best Buy, Urban Outfitters and Whole Foods have begun carrying records. Prior to 2008, sales were so low that Billboard didn’t even bother sharing them with the public. While digital downloads and CDs still make up the bulk of the market, why are those sales dropping as vinyl sales increase? And when all music is essentially free to download or at least stream, who pays for it? You have a minute and dying breed of technology-resistant individuals who will still shell out money for a physical product and tweens who hit the mall (or, more likely, iTunes) and happily drop their allowance on the flavor of the week. Beyond that, there are the folks who deeply love music, have disposable income, and want to spend it on supporting an artist while fully aware that they can torrent virtually any album in less than a minute.
For vinyl to rejoin the conversation it had to gain a certain “cultural cool” and momentum from tastemakers and retail establishments, even if the bigger chains are merely cashing in on a trend. Record Store Day, however, makes a strong argument for the staying power of vinyl while supporting mom-and-pop shops in the process. Since its inception, the annual event has sought to promote record store culture by providing exclusive vinyl releases and in-store performances from artists at independent brick and mortar retailers. Unfortunately recent years have seen major labels beginning to co-opt the DIY aesthetics of indies on Record Store Day and corrupting something that began as a purely independent movement.
For RSD 2014, Jack White created the world’s fastest record, pulling it off in three hours, 55 minutes and 21 seconds. Popular artists like White have relied on innovation to breathe new life into the format and bring outsiders into the fold. White and his team at Third Man Records released his 2014 album Lazaretto with a number of unprecedented bells and whistles, including a hand-etched floating angel hologram and an intro that plays as either acoustic or electric depending on where one drops the needle. Six months after its release Lazaretto had already registered the highest vinyl sales year of the SoundScan era.
White also came up with the idea for a refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph machine, simply dubbed the Record Booth, where artists visiting Third Man Records in Nashville can record music to a 6” phonograph disc dispensed from the machine. One such artist who recently recorded a track at the Record Booth while on tour is Ceschi Ramos, rap/folk musician and head of Fake Four, Inc., an eclectic Connecticut-based indie label. Ceschi released his penultimate album Forgotten Forever, a 15-track collection of previously unreleased odds and ends, strictly on vinyl with 100 unique hand painted covers by 10 visual artists, making each copy a one-of-a-kind collector’s item.