Back in the groove

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It could be the dusty bins full of worn-down vinyl, or it could be the bright plastic-wrapped artwork on the 12-inch by 12-inch sleeves. For many enthusiasts, records have a certain appeal that CDs don’t.

KPSU Program Director Tony Prato is, like a growing number of music purchasers, a recent convert to the vinyl record format.

“I made a conscious effort to start collecting only vinyl because the sound is better,” he said. “There’s much more of a ritual to listening to vinyl.”

Thomas Jones, co-owner of the Crossroads Music record store in Southeast Portland, said he is seeing an increasing number of the younger consumers come into his vinyl-only shop.

“It has a certain hip cache to it. Big artwork. It’s a solid, heavy, pleasing sort of thing to have,” Jones said.

From 2006 to 2007, according to a year-end Nielsen Soundscan report, vinyl sales went up 15.4 percent, rising by 132,000 records.

The rise in sales, from 858,000 to 990,000 records, is a drop in the bucket when compared to compact discs or digital album sales, which sold 450 million and 50 million units, respectively. Still, it’s one of the few positive trends in an industry that is still struggling with the rise of online file sharing.

The most recent data from the Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group that represents 90 percent of the music industry and all the major labels, show that for industry giants like EMI and Warner Brothers, vinyl records are still on the decline.

Competition from cassettes and CDs slowed vinyl sales until it became the niche market that it is today, selling fewer than 1 million units a year by the late 1990s.

Total music sales have gone down since the inception of online file sharing, and they continue to decline. But some sectors of the business are finding success: independent labels.

Independents in the groove

It is independent labels like Julius Moriarty’s Chicago-based High Wheel Records that are expanding vinyl record sales. The label’s two newest releases, including a full-length album by Dragged by Horses and another by La Scala, are both pressed on heavy-duty 180-gram vinyl that is favored by audiophiles.

Moriarty said the decision to press them that way was based primarily on sound quality, though he also said the medium was better for album art and collecting as well.

“We’ve seen a really positive response to our new releases,” said Moriarty, who has run High Wheel Records since 2006. “And we’ve definitely seen an increase in the demand for vinyl.”

Part of the increased demand for vinyl records comes from the unique listening experience records offer that CDs don’t. It is a larger format that has more tactile presence. Vinyl can also lend itself to album artwork because of its large dimensions, which in turn makes the format more collectible to some.

“You really care for the artifact as much as the music itself,” Prato said. “CDs get tossed around, used as coasters. They devalue so quickly in terms of what the actual physical artifact means to people.”

Jones said that the physical presence of vinyl makes a difference for collectors. And at Crossroads Music, a store that has over 100,000 used records in stock, he described the reason some people collect records.

“Gatefold sleeves and the feel of supple cardboard between the fingertips. And the stink of the vinyl itself. It just seems to be something wonderful and arcane that’s still useful,” he said. “There’s definitely a psychological component to actual collecting that works on the same level as some drugs [and] sexual experiences.”

The analog world meets the digital world

Chris Ashworth, owner of United Record Pressing, the largest vinyl record manufacturer in the United States, said he’s seen a consistent and definite increase in the demand for records over the past few years.

Ashworth said that primarily independent labels are pushing vinyl in the marketplace because it’s what their customers want. Still, consumers are seeking the digital format, whether it’s CD or MP3.

To fulfill this desire, more and more labels are combining digital and analog into one package.

Both of High Wheel Records’ new releases include a CD inside the sleeve of each record. They are hardly the only one. Independent labels like Matador, Saddle Creek and Touch and Go have all started including CDs or free MP3 downloads with the purchase of new vinyl records as well.

The love of music is part of the reason Moriarty decides to release his music on vinyl.

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