July 2, 2009 - 9:00 pm
To oldsters, and not-quite-oldsters, it’s like seeing an old friend you had thought to be long dead.
Vinyl LPs, in all their shrink-wrapped newness, in cardboard sleeves bearing artwork visible without a magnifying glass and liner notes that don’t look like the small print on a mortgage contract, sitting, right out there in the open, on the racks of your neighborhood mass-market retailer.
Just like they used to, so many years ago.
Vinyl records — newly pressed ones, not vintage or pre-owned albums — are making a comeback. A small comeback, a minor comeback., but a comeback nonetheless.
According to the Recording Industry Association of America — the trade group whose members include record manufacturers — about 2.9 million LPs and EPs were shipped in 2008.
In comparison, about 385 million CDs were shipped and consumers downloaded more than a billion singles and about 57 million albums that same year. But, for a recorded medium that has spent most of the past decade on life support, last year’s 2.9 million isn’t bad.
Again, according to the association: In the years after 1998, when about 3.4 million LPs and EPs were shipped, LP/EP shipments went into a steady free fall until 2006, when fewer than a million were shipped.
Then came 2007, when LP/EP shipments jumped to about 1.3 million, setting the stage for last year’s 2.9 million. The bottom line: Last year brought shipments of vinyl records back to where they were 10 years ago.
Along with increased sales has come higher visibility. Last year, Best Buy began stocking vinyl LPs — new LPs by such artists as Bruce Springsteen, as well as new pressings of classic albums by such artists as Guns N’ Roses — in many of its stores, and tabbed selected stores to house more extensive collections of vinyl, said Best Buy spokesman Erin Bix.
Many of today’s artists are "producing vinyl LPs when they release CDs," notes Bix, who adds that Best Buy also stocks about 4,000 vinyl titles in its online music store.
Actually, vinyl never completely disappeared. For example, imported LPs and EPs always were available to music lovers with the determination and time to seek them out. In addition, some artists never stopped offering fans a vinyl option to the more common, and less expensive to produce, CD and digital download.
"I think they’ve always been distributed. It just wasn’t in high demand," says Rick Dangerfield of Record City, which has three stores locally that offer everything from vintage vinyl to imports.
Wax Trax Records, 2909 S. Decatur Blvd., specializes mostly in vintage albums and collectibles, although owner Rich Rosen says he began offering new vinyl several years ago. He, too, has noticed an uptick in new vinyl sales during the past few years.
Rosen says some vinyl buyers own the original versions of the albums they buy and, after years of wear, wish to replace them. For those customers, a reissue LP usually is less expensive than buying an original copy of it.
For example, a collector looking for a James Brown album could expect to pay $75 to $100 for a copy of the original, Rosen says, while a reissue will cost about $15.
Other vinyl buyers are younger listeners who wish to hear classic bands the way they were originally heard.
"Say a kid wants a Ramones album," Rosen says. "A Ramones album can go from $20 to $60, depending on what it is, and most of those are available as reissues for $15 or so."
Reissues can be the only way to obtain some albums that weren’t widely distributed in their initial release, Rosen says, while Dangerfield adds that vinyl fans also include audiophiles who simply prefer the sound of analog LPs over digital CDs or mp3s.
"A lot of people will tell you they can’t tell the difference between a CD and a record. That probably means they’ve got a pretty inexpensive stereo," Dangerfield says. "If you have a really high-quality turntable and good speakers, you can hear the difference."
Advocates of LPs long have maintained that vinyl offers a softer, warmer, more nuanced sound than digital recordings. Count Rosen’s 28-year-old son, David, among those fans of vinyl.
"It really does have a better sound to it," he says, offering a wider spectrum of sound, as well as the highs and lows that digital recording tends to lop off.
Adding to the quality of today’s reissues is their construction. They’re typically made of 180-gram virgin vinyl, Dangefield says, compared to older LPs made of 120- to 140-gram recycled vinyl.
"A good, solid turntable creates a nice platform for the record to be played on, whereas a thinner record that was mass-produced before was kind of flimsy," Dangerfield said.
And here’s something unexpected: David Rosen says many younger listeners are embracing vinyl.
"I do think it’s probably kind of trendy right now," he concedes, although younger listeners also find an LP’s cover art and the vinyl format itself a refreshing departure from the CDs and downloads they’ve always known.
"It’s loving specific bands so much that you want to have more than just a digital download," he says, noting that some artists even include a digital code with their vinyl albums that enables the buyer to also download a digital copy of it.
And, he says, "it’s definitely a rare thing, but there are some that are pressed on vinyl-only by some more indie, cool, retro groups. They’ll put out special singles only on vinyl."
Contact reporter John Przybys at email@example.com or 702-383-0280.