Dust off the Turntable: Record Sales Jump

For devotees, only records capture 'what music is supposed to sound like.'

April 6, 2009, 1:36 PM

AUSTIN, Texas, April 6, 2009 -- No, no, no, no, no, yesss.

Bobby Strobeck, 21, is thumbing through vinyl records at End of an Ear, a record store that is walking distance from his house in South Austin. He has just struck gold: an original U.S. mono pressing of his favorite Beatles album, "Revolver."

The corners of the cover are bent, but he forgives. Strobeck slides the record out, handling it as if it were his baby. After a trip to the till, that record will have a new home in Strobeck's growing collection.

This year, End of an Ear's vinyl record sales are up 50 percent to 80 percent a month compared to 2008. The phenomenon doesn't stop at this little record store that could and it does not end in Austin.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, vinyl began making a national comeback in 2007.

Though vinyl sales account for less than 1 percent of sales, Rollingstone.com reports that the number of records sold last year jumped to 1.88 million from 988,000 in 2007.

The reason, collectors say, is because it puts the experience back into music.

"Music is so much more than a 99 cent Soulja Boy song on a phone," Strobeck said. "Some people really want the album experience. The art, the liner notes. There is no better way to get that experience than through vinyl records."

The Recording Industry Association of America officially acknowledged a resurgence of vinyl records when statistics proved it in 2007. That year, the American music industry saw a 46.2 percent revenue increase for vinyl sales. By comparison, CD revenue sales dropped 20.5 percent in the same period.

"CDs are convenient, but vinyls feel like it's the real thing," said Dan Plunkett, co-owner of End of an Ear.

Plunkett and business partner Blake Carlisle opened End of an Ear four years ago. They are both often behind the cash register, drinking Harp lager and taking turns at putting a record on the turntable to share with customers.

"There's a noticeable difference in audio quality," Carlisle said. "A CD is thinner and flatter. It's just a compressed format that spins really fast while lasers hit it. With vinyl, there's an actual needle playing over the grooves. It's what music is supposed to sound like."

Walking into the record store on South First Street, the first thing a visitor notices is the stands of records that take center stage. Though CDs line the walls of the store, most customers flip through records, using their pointer and middle fingers methodically to inspect them one-by-one.

Place cards divide the records by genre and artist, but it is common to find a Spoon album that doesn't belong in the Sufjan Stevens section. And not everyone would agree that Robert Goulet deserves to be under the "Strange" genre. Record finding is clearly a hunting sport.

"It's as much about looking for them as owning them," record collector Michael Rosenthal said. "It's just like collecting anything. It's fun to get good deals on ones you know should cost more."

Vinyl records were the primary medium for commercial music in the 20th century before digital media took hold. They have come in different sizes and played at different speeds.

There are two common forms today. The 12-inch, or long-play, spins at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. The 7-inch, or extended-play, spins at 45 rpm.

Though records left the mainstream by the early '90s, disc jockeys and the hip-hop culture helped bring them back.

Rosenthal is a Plan II honors student and advertising major at the University of Texas. He has grown up around records and has continued to surround himself with 12-inch vinyls.

He doesn't have a job and sometimes skips meals to save money. In his modest apartment in west campus, though, sits more than $1,000 worth of DJ equipment.

"I got into records and wanted to start DJ'ing," Rosenthal said. "But I didn't really have the means to do so."

During the last three years, Rosenthal saved money from summer jobs to buy two turntables and a modest record collection that sits in crates beneath his worktable.

He collects mainly hip-hop and spins for free at his friends' parties. He is currently listening to "Mothership Connection" by Parliament and other funk artists like George Clinton.

"I often buy used records because it's the only way to get a lot of stuff and it's cheaper," Rosenthal said. "And I'm poor."

It is not uncommon to find used vinyls on sale for a dollar at places like End of an Ear or Waterloo Records. Even new records are roughly the same price or even cheaper than their CD equivalent.

Waterloo offers a "vinyl happy hour" every Tuesday from 7 to 11 p.m. During those four hours, record collectors may peruse the record collection and purchase all regular-priced vinyls at a 10 percent discount.

"Record sales are going up quite a bit," Waterloo manager Paul Mason said. "For our store, sales have gone up about 35 percent since last year. Vinyl is growing nationally."

Under the big red-and-white sign that shouts "VINYLS!" at Waterloo Records are hundreds of new and used vinyls. In keeping with today's technology, many record labels offer free digital downloads of the same album that a customer is purchasing on vinyl. Now people may listen to the album on their MP3 players as well as own a collectible version of it.

"Music has gone digital," Mason said. "But vinyl is very tangible. And people don't want the in-between format of a CD."

Mason is a record collector. Though he doesn't know an exact figure, he guesses that he owns between 3,000 and 4,000 vinyls. He has been working at Waterloo for 13 years and has been collecting for more than 25 years. He and other collectors like Carlisle believe that the record market will continue to grow.

"There's just something so human about records," Carlisle said. "Things can only go so digital. Until we turn into 'borgs, they will always be around."

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