The Dividing Lines of the Vinyl Resurgence
“I started buying vinyl when I was thirteen or fourteen or something. I’ve bought records solely based on their cover and never listened to them, just thought they looked cool and wanted to hang them on my wall,” says Jacksonville indie folk artist Rickolus.
The artwork and aesthetic presentation of a record plays a substantial part in “creating a world for the listener,” according to Ceschi. The world he speaks of exists in the classic album experience, something that cannot be reproduced by partially engaging with music on Spotify or Bandcamp while checking emails and multitasking. From the cover art to the liner notes to the design of the record itself, vinyl provides a tangible product that allows consumers to fully immerse themselves in an album as a piece of art versus background entertainment.
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Speaking to artists like Ceschi and Sage Francis, a veteran underground rapper who runs Providence’s Strange Famous Records, it’s apparent that indie labels are still treading water when it comes to vinyl and unsurprisingly not reaping the same benefits as established rock acts like The Black Keys and Arctic Monkeys or major labels perpetually releasing remastered LPs from old giants like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Ceschi notes that vinyl is “harder to sell because there is generally a no return policy with distro and shipping is outrageous.” For an indie label or musician who has to cover the cost of vinyl production and wants to get it properly distributed, securing said distribution generally requires handing over digital distribution, which is often the only place an under-the-radar act makes any real money. Francis states, “The typical indie artist or indie label investing in vinyl manufacturing without proper distribution will lose in more than three ways. And they’re all the hard way.”
Limited initial pressings may be a safer way for lesser-known artists to test the waters before breaking the bank on large-scale vinyl production. Open Mike Eagle went that route with his critically acclaimed 2014 LP Dark Comedy, which is already in its second run. “This was my first time having vinyl with a new project (Rappers Will Die Of Natural Causes came out on vinyl two years after its release) so I wasn’t sure how it would be received but the first pressing went pretty fast,” says Mike. Like Ceschi and Sage, he’s still moving more CDs at this point, but feels vinyl sells well at the merch booth because it’s “big and pretty.” Mike shares my skepticism towards big chain stores getting in on the vinyl game. “It’s just a case of a couple smart companies that know their markets. If I figured out that people that came to my shows liked fair trade ski goggles, I’d consider selling them too. Especially if I had ties to distributors.”
In the mini-doc Why Vinyl?, academic and vinyl enthusiast Simon Poole speculates that while vinyl will always be niche, in time it will supplant CDs as the last physical format for music. Though the scales haven’t tilted heavily in that direction just yet and the 16 remaining vinyl plants in the U.S. can’t come close to meeting the current demand, the desire for this transition is apparent. “I hope the only formats I ever release music on again is vinyl and digital download,” says Rickolus. Rick turned to indiegogo to fund his band The Little Books’ first vinyl release, Bridges and Empires, as well as his 2015 solo record Coconut. Crowd funding has become an increasingly popular way for independent artists to the tackle the high costs of pressing vinyl. It’s a win-win for artist and consumer, and a great way to directly support musicians instead of industry middle men.
For anyone who grew up as a music lover and collected any kind of physical format, the vinyl resurgence is infinitely more relevant. At this point there are an astronomical number of people who were born into a world where digital music, whether paid for or torrented or streamed, is and will remain the only relevant arena for music consumption. For a diehard community of vinyl enthusiasts, checkout counter conversations over Dilla’s Donuts and Songs: Ohia reissues will continue to reign supreme over Apple Music or whatever digital format should supplant it. As Ceschi states, “We are inundated with information and culture” and consume everything in increasingly fast and passive means. It takes genuine effort to absorb one’s self in any artistic endeavor from the recording booth to the movie theater to the written page. For anyone to cut through the overwhelming fog of the now and focus his or her attention solely on a spinning record, whether procured from a merch booth of indie obscurity or a Best Buy end cap, respect is due.