Vinyl record sales settle into good groove

When statistics showed that vinyl record sales reached a new high since 1991, the music business began to buzz. According to Nielsen SoundScan, an information and sales tracking system, 3.9 million units were sold in 2011, a 36.3 percent change since 2010.

Vinyl sales are making a comeback. Photo by Elise Krivit/

Media outlets like Rolling Stone, The New York Times and USA Today swarmed over the report. Some, like the Chicago Tribune and the Shepherd Express, started taking it to the streets, asking independent record stores how vinyl sales have impacted their business.

The Shepherd Express said store owners started noticing the trend in 2004 and saw an increase in vinyl sales in 2009.

“I thought (vinyl sales) would peak out, but they haven’t,” said Terry Hackbarth, store manager at The Exclusive Company, an independent record store with locations throughout Wisconsin. The Exclusive Company in Milwaukee, located at 1669 N. Farwell Ave., has “made the switch,” Hackbarth said, meaning less CDs for sale and more vinyl records.

So what accounts for the switch to vinyl records?

“There is a certain warmth to vinyl,” said Phillip Naylor, professor of history at Marquette. “The timbre of the sound is richer — it’s not as clean, but there is a depth to it.”

The perceived “better sound” of vinyl comes from its analog format, meaning the sound was recorded to the tape or disc as physical grooves or magnetic impulses. This contributes to the vinyl’s “warmness,” or ability to pick up music’s low-tones, Alex Lahr, a sophomore in the College of Communication, said.

Their analog format also causes vinyl records to degrade over time. Every time they are played, some of the recording wears away. This creates the “pop” or scratching sound.

“Sometimes those imperfections or blemishes of a song are what make the album real,” Lahr said.

Naylor said music switched from vinyl to digital recordings in the 1980s for preservation purposes. Because of this, he feels music is more democratic, or accessible, to people.

Record companies are catering to all audiences by including digital downloads of albums with most vinyl purchases. This gives listeners a portable and transferable version of their favorite album without compromising the aesthetically pleasing art of the vinyl package.

And for Lahr, that’s the reason why he listens to vinyl — for the holistic experience of the album. He describes it as a culmination of an artist’s work, as something that physically encapsulates everything they do.

Just look at Nirvana’s “Nevermind” vinyl package sold at The Exclusive Company. It includes four CDs, one DVD, a 90-page collector’s book, unreleased photos, 70 total tracks, 35 unreleased recordings and a rare, double-sided poster, all totaling $164.99.

Talk about an experience.

Vinyl albums are how you can appreciate more of what artists have to offer musically, Lahr said.

“You can’t just pick singular songs,” he said.

But digital music changed all of that.

“A lot of artists have been shooting for singles,” Hackbarth said.

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI)’s 2011 Digital Music Report says the United States is the largest digital market in the world, raking in $4.6 billion in revenue since 2010. This is a 1000 percent surge in value since 2004.

While some critics say listening to an MP3 is an abomination — because of the sound quality, or lack thereof — Naylor appreciates its ability to clean up the works of Robert Johnson, one of his favorite blues singers and musicians. But CDs and MP3 files don’t seem to share the same “character” as a vinyl record.

“The sound of a CD is crystal clear — but it’s cold,” Naylor said.

Perhaps that is why music aficionados like Naylor and Lahr are gravitating toward vinyl records — because the digital age is far less “romantic.” But what of the folk who only listen to MP3 files or digital downloads? Are they falling out of love with music?

Some may say vinyl records offer a tangible experience of an album, which allows you to literally feel the music you’re listening to. Others may feel digital music is not less romantic, just more convenient. Whichever way you look at it, love for music will never change. The only thing that does is the way we listen to it.

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