Vinyl Revival: The unlikely resurgence of records
by Glen Boyd
Roll Over Compact Discs, and tell MP3 the news: Vinyl is back.
You heard that right. The same format that ruled the music industry during the glory years of the Rock and Roll 1960s and 1970s -- only to be written off and declared all but obsolete with the advent of compact discs by the late 1980s -- is enjoying something of a moment right now.
In fact, according to 2022 sales figures just released by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA); Vinyl Records this past year just outsold Compact Discs for the first time since 1987.
But don't call it a comeback.
As one might expect, nostalgia has driven much of the back-to-vinyl charge. But while albums from artists like The Beatles and Fleetwood Mac are readily available everywhere from independent music stores like West Seattle's Easy Street Records, to the record bins that have recently begun reappearing in places like Target and Walmart, other releases from the classic era can be much harder to track down.
Availability gaps in the catalogs of artists like David Bowie, Prince, Neil Young and Pink Floyd (to name a few), have driven some of their otherwise mainstream releases to the collectors market. Vinyl copies of anything from Neil Young's 1990s output for example -- albums like Sleeps With Angels, Ragged Glory and Freedom -- will cost you big bucks, and that's if you can find them at all. Just the other day, I likewise spotted a used copy of Pink Floyd's Meddle with a $90 price tag at an antique dealer's space in Snohomish (though one was sold for $30 at Easy Street recently), so prices can vary.
It is also worth noting that Taylor Swift shifted over a million vinyl units of her latest album Midnights. So, while it might be easy to write off the vinyl resurgence as being mostly a "Dad Deal" limited to aging boomers trying to recapture their youth, to do so would be both short-sighted and inaccurate. In fact, you could make a convincing argument that the current vinyl revival really began about twenty years ago with the sort of pre-Millennial hipsters who mainly listen to bands like Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes.
To better understand what led to the present-day "moment" being enjoyed by vinyl records, one need only look into the rearview to see what got us back to where we once belonged. For some, vinyl records never really went away in the first place. DJs and other assorted record nerds and collectors have sung the praises of digging in the crates for years now. When speaking to vinyl enthusiasts like these, the one word that you'll hear spoken most often to describe what fuels their passion is "warmth."
Sometime during the initial rush by consumers to embrace the digital technology that led to compact discs replacing vinyl records as the dominant music format in the 1990s, a funny thing happened. Many of the same music buyers who had once been so quick to praise the "clean sound" offered by CDs, now found themselves actually missing the clicks and pops of their dusty old vinyl records. While compact disc technology does eliminate the background noise so often associated with vinyl, this often results in a flatter sounding audio -- creating a sanitizing effect so clean as to render itself effectively sterile.
Likewise, current digital recording technology uses audio compression to reduce file size for formats like MP3, which causes certain instruments and frequencies to either blend together, or just get blended out altogether. So, while this may be acceptable for the background jazz heard in a dentist's office or an elevator, it isn't hard to see what sent so many punk, rap and heavy metal fans, racing back to the warmth (there's that word again) of their turntables -- clicks, pops and all.
For those looking to get back to vinyl, you first need to find the right turntable. Much of that depends on what you are looking for and just how deep you are willing to go to find it. Chances are if you haven't given that old turntable gathering dust in the closet a spin recently, you'll need to find a new one. Turntables available for purchase fall into categories ranging from starter record players priced as low as under $50; to the higher end models running up to $1000 or even more.
Of the lower end turntables, the suitcase models marketed by companies like Crosley sound about as bad as you would expect, and are worth your time only if you are looking to gift something for a small child or a grandparent.
The retro-looking console knock-offs specialized in by Victrola sound only slightly better, but also look pretty cool and will run you anywhere between $100-$200. Many of these also include built-in radio, cassette players and Bluetooth capability. The best bets for a mid-range turntable that sounds good and won't break the bank, are probably the mid-priced options from companies like Audio Technica and Sony found at electronics retailers like Best Buy. For these, you will also need speakers and an outside power source like a receiver or amplifier. You can of course still get top quality turntables from audio specialists like Definitive Audio, Hawthorne Stereo, and Tune Hi Fi. Easy Street has some great turntables too, they are a licensed dealer for U-Turn, Backgroove and Audio Technica. If you need to fire up your old one and it needs some love, they can point you in the right direction.
But the real adventure comes in seeking out and finding the records themselves. Music retail looks far different than it did back when the big record store chains like Tower Records and Musicland ruled the music landscape and everything was readily available. These days, searching for your favorite album can be more like a treasure hunt. You can expect a journey that might start with the few independent record stores still left standing (like Easy Street). But eventually, you'll find yourself just as likely to end up searching through the musty smelling bins and crates of thrift shops, antique spaces and record collectors shows (the most recent of which was held at a taproom in Bothell).
You can also expect to run into some sticker shock along the way. New vinyl albums sold at traditional stores are generally priced at around $30, give or take. Used vinyl albums aren't much cheaper. At the record shows and the antique spaces, you can expect to pay anywhere between $8 and $20 for the most commonly found titles by classic artists like Bruce Springsteen and Elton John.
But those artists deemed more highly collectible -- The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin and Pink Floyd being prime examples -- will routinely command prices upwards of $50. It is not at all uncommon to see a used copy of something like The Beatles Rubber Soul -- often in only marginal condition -- with a $60-$70 tag on it, especially in the antique shops. Vintage R&B, soul and jazz are equally hot commodities. So while masterpieces like Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue or Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On might be somewhat readily available, some of the more obscure titles by folks like Coltrane, Issac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield can fall into the category maybe not so much.
Original copies of old school hip hop from the 80s and 90s -- particularly 12" singles on labels like the old purple label Def Jam, Profile Records or Tommy Boy are hard to come by as well. De La Soul's entire original Tommy Boy Records catalog for example -- including their masterpiece debut album Three Feet High & Rising -- was simply unavailable at all for decades, until the albums were finally reissued earlier this month, following years of legal-wrangling between the artist and the record company.
Sometimes you'll find vinyl releases like this displayed in a special location. These can include the locked glass cases found in some of the antique spaces, or displayed on a wall or behind the counter in certain record stores
Which brings us right back to those catalog gaps found with certain artists. This is due in some part to the reduced number of vinyl pressing plants still left operating, following the rush of closures once vinyl albums first stopped selling a few decades back. This has resulted in shortages, making certain titles hard to find at all. The situation has improved somewhat in recent years, but some of these gaps remain. So while some David Bowie albums like Ziggy Stardust are for the most part easily found, others like Diamond Dogs and Station To Station can be damned near impossible.
Still, for those willing to dig through all the crates, bargains are still out there. I couldn't believe my luck when I came across a dog-eared, but otherwise VG+ (that's collector speak for "very good plus") copy of Bowie's David Live at the Bothell record show for just $10 last month.
For selection, it's hard to beat Easy Street Records. There's plenty of good reasons this iconic store has a such a well-earned reputation as one of the best indie record stores in the country, and as such they should be the first stop for any serious vinyl hunt. According to them they have, "some of the cheapest records in King County…3 for $10…you can find Jackson Browne, Elton John, Tina Turner and more."
But if you don't find that elusive vinyl nugget on the corner of California and Alaska Streets, you'd be surprised at what can turn up in those out of the way spots like the thrift shops and antique spaces.
When it comes to the latter, some of the best local spots to check out include the Aurora Antique Pavilion, a massive antique mall located above the Burlington store on Aurora Avenue in Shoreline. This location includes at least three full-time, fully stocked vinyl record dealers operating their own spaces inside. Several other vendors include vintage vinyl records as part of a broader overall product mix. The Star Antique Mall in Snohomish is another go-to spot, with one well-stocked room devoted entirely to vinyl records, ranging from cheaper, more commonly found titles at reasonable prices to those pricier high-end collectibles.
Speaking of Snohomish, a more recent entry into the vinyl retail sweepstakes is Stargazer Records. The small father and son owned shop, located on Avenue C in the heart of that city's downtown antiquing district, opened earlier this year.
The family run operation features a growing selection of both new and used vinyl albums, housed in a small space adorned by posters and artwork by local artists (including the owner's daughter). Since much of the art found on the walls displays grunge-era bands like Mother Love Bone and Pearl Jam, on first blush one might think this to be Stargazer Records main focus. But a deeper dive into the bins reveals a broad range of titles by artists ranging from The Beatles to Prince. Owners Derek and Mark Florian are also looking to strengthen their offerings with sections devoted entirely to punk, as well as non-rock genres like country and hip-hop.
The staff at Stargazer Records is super-friendly and helpful, and the location even features a true throwback to old school music retail -- a listening room where you can test a record out before making a purchase. Another plus is the great locally brewed beer you'll find just down the hall in the same building at Three Bulls Brewing. Much like music and beer itself can be, the two businesses are practically connected at the hip they are so close.
Stargazer Records also just got approved to participate in this years Record Store Day, a coup for such a new location (they've only been open just a few months). So come Saturday April 22, vinyl lovers will be able to find the same special deals and exclusive releases offered by the more established indie stores during the annual music retail celebration.
Record Store Day, which began in 2007 as a yearly event to "celebrate the culture of the independently owned record store" has proven to be a lifeline for many small retail outlets, particularly during the industry's leaner years. The annual "Christmas in April" for record stores, has also expanded to include a second event during Black Friday in November. With an increasing emphasis on records, this year promises more vinyl releases exclusive to RSD than ever before. RSD has also expanded from its beginnings as an American event, to now include more international music retailers in Canada and other countries.
As vinyl enjoys its moment for now, one can't help but wonder if the current resurgence will prove to be just another passing phase or something more lasting and permanent. But even if, in that truest of all rock and roll traditions, vinyl should ever eventually just burn out or fade away, there can be little doubt of one thing.
For right now at least, vinyl is not only back -- it is thriving in ways not seen for decades.