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The Vinyl Revival

By James Tennant

What’s old is always new again, whether we’re talking about flared skirts or Pabst Blue Ribbon. When it comes to music, what’s new again isn’t a genre, but a format: the vinyl LP.

The market for vinyl is a mixture of hipsters who think it’s cool, middle aged folk who have always loved the format, audiophiles who value the sound, teenagers who enjoy the novelty and consumers across the board who simply appreciate receiving a physical product when they purchase music. What they give up in iTunes convenience, they gain in collect ability, artwork, and sound quality. Furthermore, if the record company is smart enough to include such a perk, they often receive a free mp3 download with the vinyl anyway, giving consumers more portability for their buck.

Are vinyl sales really making a difference to retailers? Mark Furukawa, who has run the Dr. Disc store on Wilson Street for 20 years, says that it does. Dr. Disc never stopped selling vinyl, despite the major label effort to kill the format in order to make way for the shiny new compact disc. Unlike the majors, the independent labels kept producing vinyl, and Furukawa kept stocking it.

“That created a little groundswell,” says Furukawa. “Some people like vinyl better – it’s larger, the artwork’s great, there are inserts and posters, and some people say it sounds warmer. Eventually the majors started reissuing stuff too.”

Over time, interest grew, and soon most major label new releases started to appear on vinyl too. Stores like Cheapies Records, who had stopped selling new vinyl, took note. “It got to the point where we just couldn’t ignore it anymore,” says manager Scott Bell. “We racked a couple of new items, and boom, they sold.”

Bell says that although the alternative acts sell the most, the likes of Bieber and Rihanna move as well.

Overall, vinyl has been a boon to them. The once robust used DVD market is the most recent to lose sales to downloading, but the upsurge in vinyl sales has taken the edge off the losses. “I’m still making money off them, but it’s not enough to keep us afloat,” Bell says. “Weirdly, the vinyl sales are kind of making up the difference in our sales. We can’t believe what people are buying.”

Will McRobb, owner of The Beat Goes On in Guelph, recently took over the Hamilton store on Upper James Street. Demand in Guelph was high enough that he wasted no time in making new release vinyl available in Hamilton as well.

“Sales are almost on par with an average week in new CD sales,” says McRobb. He finds that it isn’t even the older, nostalgic demographic making the purchases. Instead, he sees 25 – 35 year olds buying both new releases and collectable reissues; possibly buying vinyl for the first time.

Douglas Middlemiss has seen his share of first-time buyers, too. He opened his James North shop, Books & Beats, primarily as a way to sell off his own vinyl collection. Ten years ago, such an idea would never have flown.

“A lot of the shops that closed up – if they were able to stick around, they would probably be reaping a lot more,” says Middlemiss. “The same with the pressing plant in Mississauga – they would have been the only ones in Canada making vinyl.”

That may be true. It’s hard to deny the empirical evidence – vinyl records are appearing on shelves after a long absence. Even so, the numbers can be misleading. Reports suggest vinyl sales were up 33% in 2009 – a huge surge, faster growth than that of digital sales, which increased only 16%. Yet only 2.5 million vinyl albums sold in 2009, whereas 76.4 million digital albums were downloaded. At only 0.7% of overall music sales, vinyl is almost negligible by industry standards. To the indy retailers and their clientele, however, vinyl is crucial, and not necessarily because of profit.

McRobb sees the resurgence, whether a passing fad or prolonged trend, as just beginning. “I think the popularity of vinyl is still starting to climb,” he says. He also believes that vinyl has brought back the importance of the independent record store.

Furukawa agrees, citing Record Store Day – when independent shops offer special items not found on the WalMart racks – as an example of how much vinyl has revitalized the spirit of the business.

“Once, you’d get a big release and there’d be people lined up to buy it,” Furukawa says. “Over the years people stopped caring – they could download it whenever. Now, with things like Record Store Day, there’s an excitement in the business again, and it’s happening 100% because of vinyl.”

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