The Vinyl Experience

Record Store Day was just the latest indication that the analog technology of records is alive and well

 

When Rich Fisher and Kim Gold arrived at SqueezeBox Records in downtown Wilmington to open for Record Store Day on April 13, a line of vinyl enthusiasts already stretched down the block. The line had started forming around 4 a.m.

It proved to be the single best day the store has had since opening two years ago.

A similar story played out at Wonderland Records in Newark. “We crushed it,” says store owner Demitri Theodoropoulos, noting that this was the busiest Record Store Day he’s seen in a long time, and it was even better than the holidays. “This year was really successful for us.”

Likewise at Goodboy Vinyl on Kirkwood Highway, where owner Blane Dulin says the day was comparable to previous years: there was a line out the door at open and steady business throughout the day.

All this comes as no surprise. Since the inaugural event in 2008, Record Store Day has been good to the entire vinyl industry. In the last decade, vinyl album sales in the U.S. have increased from 1 million LPs per year to 16.8 million, according to Nielsen. That’s quite a recovery for an industry that registered just  300,000 sales in 1993. Turntable sales have since increased to match demand, and vinyl now comprises nearly 12 percent of total physical album sales.

By some measures, that’s just a drop in the bucket. But for record shop owners like Fisher and Gold, it’s enough to keep going amid increasing competition from big box retailers like Target and Urban Outfitters. (Amazon, not surprisingly, sells more vinyl than anyone.)

Record Store Day has become the Black Friday of the vinyl industry. For the week, sales are regularly over 2 million albums, with 30 percent of all sales taking place at independent record shops.

The line stretched down Main Street for Rainbow Records’ Record Store Day. Photo Joe del Tufo

The vinyl revival, as it’s called, is largely driven by millennials, with those 35 and under constituting 72 percent of vinyl consumers, as Billboard reported in 2015. According to Theodoropoulos at Wonderland, it’s not unusual to see tweens come in with their parents or grandparents and walk out the door with their first Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd.

Record Store Day is now an international event with appearances and exclusive releases by the biggest names in music. This year, Pearl Jam headlined as the event’s official ambassadors. In 2017, record labels released remastered and collectors’ edition albums by The Cure, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Grateful Dead, David Bowie, The Beatles, Dave Matthews Band and Prince.

It’s an all-day party. At SqueezeBox, located on 11th Street in the heart of Little Italy, Fisher and Gold open the warehouse doors so live music can vibrate down the streets. They brought in a band just for the occasion.

At Rainbow Records, just off Main Street in downtown Newark, more than three hundred people were waiting in line before the doors opened. For owners Todd and Miranda Brewer, this was the best Record Store Day they’ve seen since purchasing Rainbow in 2013, back when it still sold used books. They’ve since gotten rid of the books to focus entirely on vinyl.

Says Brewer, “There’s no doubt that since Record Store Day has come, it’s put independent record stores on the map.”

Analog Resurgence

When music turned digital in the late 1980s, people were literally throwing their records away, tossing them to the side of the road for the garbage truck. Rich Fisher would drive around and scoop them up. Some days there’d be so much he’d fill up his trunk multiple times.

“I was really unhappy about that,” he says. “I started picking up all the records I could get. Saving their lives is the way I looked at it.”

Records lost their appeal. They became antiques. Compact discs were futuristic digital technology encased in a sleek box where a laser reads data at 500 rpm. By contrast, if you look closely at a 33-1/3-rpm record, you can read the text on the label as it spins. You can see the record wobble, hear the grainy pops of analog technology. The whole thing just seemed so quaint.

When Fisher and Gold first met, his collection already numbered in the thousands, and it continued to grow. When their bedrooms and the garage at home became filled with records, they started renting climate-controlled storage sheds.

“Rich always wanted to open a record store,” says Gold. She claims she’s not much of a risk taker, but one day something changed and choosing not to open a record store suddenly seemed like the greater risk. “I became afraid not to,” she says. “We weren’t the only ones with a lot of records.”

In just two years, Kim Gold and Rich Fisher have transformed an old carpet warehouse into SqueezeBox Records, a successful record store in Wilmington’s West End. Photo Oya Alatur

And so, two years ago, they opened SqueezeBox in an old carpet warehouse. The space has since been transformed into a vibrant community hangout. Vintage posters of Muddy Waters, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and other legends animate cinderblock walls. In the back is a stage and in the corner a couple of sofas surrounded by speakers and amplifiers that Fisher is endlessly interchanging, depending on the music.

When they first opened, the inventory was entirely from Fisher’s private collection, but soon he was ordering new albums from independent labels like Jack White’s Third Man Records in Detroit. One of his favorites is Coalmine, an Ohio-based funk and soul label. New pressings from independent labels now make up a significant portion of Fisher’s business.

“Do you like soul music?” he asks me while we lounge on the sofas.

“Yeah.”

“Hey, Rob! What are you doing?”

Rob Vanella is a regular around here. He had just set an old blues album on the turntable. “What?” Vanella responds. “Want to put something else on?”

“Yeah. Put on that Durand Jones.”

“Have you heard the new Durand?” Fisher asks me as he takes a rip from his nicotine vaporizer. “We have sold more Duran Jones records than anyone else. Period. We sold well over 125 copies of his first LP in like three months.”

“So you guys are taste-makers?” I ask.

“That’s it. And that’s what we’re trying to do. One of the reasons we opened the shop was to give a heartbeat back to vinyl.”

We sit quietly for a few minutes and listen. As the music begins to rise and fall throughout the room, I’m overcome with a feeling that music really does sound different on vinyl. At least, I think it does. But maybe it’s just nostalgia.

The Metaphysics of Vinyl

Music has become ubiquitous in our digital age, embedded into every facet of public life. It pervades restaurants and departments stores, cinema and television. We carry it with us on our smartphones. Our ears hardly get a chance to rest. Music is beginning to feel like it is everywhere and nowhere at once. The advanced technology that allows for this convenience and virtual omnipresence seems to diminish the emphasis on the art itself, not enhance it.

Grateful Dead’s Sage & Spirit LP was a partnership effort between the band and Dogfish Head Brewery as a special release for this year’s Record Store Day. Photo by Joe del Tufo

So it only seems appropriate that, for some at least, music is swinging back to a decades-old technology.

Vinyl is not only aural, like digital music, it’s also tactile and visual. It’s an experience. Pulling the record out of the sleeve, feeling the grooves pressed into the vinyl, placing the needle in the groove, watching it spin, flipping to the B-side, reading the liner notes. To experience “Sympathy for the Devil” as it was experienced by teenagers and horrified parents back in 1968, you need to listen to it on vinyl.

“There’s something different about a record,” says Gold. “It’s not that clean, crisp sound of a CD where every little bump has been brushed out. There’s a little bit of roughness in records. There’s something about vinyl. It moves you. You can feel it come through your body.”

Back at Rainbow Records, Brewer suggests that this metaphysical feeling is all about focus. Our attention has become so scattered by social media and other distractions, but vinyl forces us to focus. When we do that, he says, we’re no longer just hearing music. We’re listening intently.

“You have a whole generation now that’s never heard a cassette tape, never heard a CD, never heard a vinyl record,” Brewer says. “They’ve only had an iPod with headphones, and what happens is when they actually listen to music that was recorded properly onto a vinyl record through a hi-fi system, they’re actually listening to it for the first time. It sounds different than they’re used to. It sounds better than they’re used to. That’s really what it is. It’s the experience.”

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