Vinyl's Return: A Nostalgic Niche By Natalie Cerf

Music is everlasting. The young and the old, the passionate and the passive, everyone can enjoy it no matter the source. Technology has allowed people to listen to music for little money, if not none at all, through hassle-free apps such as Spotify, SoundCloud, Pandora and many others. While the convenience of digital music seems hard to beat, some people believe that convenience is incomparable to the tactile feeling a record and turntable can provide.

Amoeba Music, San Francisco

Tony Green, project manager and co-owner of Amoeba Music San Francisco, said he has worked with music for more than 20 years and has been in the business long enough to see the fluctuating sales of different forms of music media.

“Before about 2002, it was the solid days, the Berkeley store was so busy it was just insane and on the weekends there would be a line out the door,” Green said. “Since iTunes, since that happened, there was a drop, a slow, incremental drop. Why buy digital if you can download?”

This was true, at least for a while. According to a 2014 Nielsen Music Report, between 2013 and 2014 alone, vinyl sales increased nearly 52 percent and digital track sales had a 12.5 percent decrease. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) found that in 2015, vinyl sales made a profit of 416 million dollars and streaming, advertisement reliant music, profited at 385 million dollars. According to RIAA, vinyl sales have not been that high since 1988.

If people are generally content listening to music digitally, it begs the questions: What makes vinyl so important to music listeners recently that has caused an upward surge in record sales? What has changed between the early 2000s and now that has re-sparked interest in vinyls? It’s hard to say exactly, but Green thinks he might have an answer.

“Pressing a button on a computer to download, it’s just not very sexy. In some ways you know if you bought a 12-inch record you would get the cover of that record, you would get the ceremony of taking it out and putting it on the turntable,” Green said.

Red Devil Records, San Rafael

Luckily for Barry Lazarus, owner of Red Devil Records, located on Fourth Street in San Rafael, the new age of digital and online music hasn’t seemed to impact his sales.

“[Red Devil Records] has survived through every stage of [digital music], so the people who are into records could care less about all the other stuff. It does not affect us whatsoever,” Lazarus said.

Lazarus has noticed his business becoming even more successful recently. He said that his records shop has steadily been busy, however, Lazarus has noticed an upsurge in popularity of vinyl within the last four years or so. He has his suspicions on why people have recently begun to reappreciate vinyl: the emotion that the records tend to evoke, a viewpoint Green also has.

“[Records] sound better and look better. Why more people have discovered that recently, that is a good question, I’m not really sure,” Lazarus said.

A mix of old and new music hanging on the walls at Amoeba

Junior Miles Squires, a musician and self-proclaimed music fanatic, had a similar take on the phenomenon.

“There is a connection people have when they are actually holding the physical [record]. I get vinyls because I love the art that’s on the cover and also I like physically having the music,” Squires said.

Lazarus has an analogous outlook on this, making a strong statement in favor of vinyl’s authenticity.

“Vinyl, it sounds more realistic. Digital music, it doesn’t sound realistic compared to records,” Lazarus said.

CDs at Red Devil Records and Amoeba Music

There are a lot of factors when it comes to the science of listening to music. Sometimes it’s hard to rely on just a turntable to listen to music. Economically, environmentally and realistically, it’s not that savvy. Green notices that clientele are more willing buy CDs because they can get them for less money than they could buy a record for, possibly an effect of the already-high cost of living in San Francisco.

“It's not real glamorous at the moment to talk about CDs, but CDs are like the meat in our sandwich here. We sell so many used CDs,” Green said. “It's San Francisco and it’s freaking expensive to live in San Francisco, so you can buy a Lou Reed CD for $4.99 rather than buy the vinyl version for $22.98. [CDs are] a pretty attractive option.”

Practicality-wise, streaming music may be the easiest route. Both Squires and Green said they listen to their digital music much more often than they listen to vinyls.

“I definitely listen to music on my phone more but I do have a few vinyl albums at home that I listen to, but not regularly, because it's so much easier [to listen by streaming],” Squires said.

Similarly, Green said he spends his commute from Oakland to San Francisco listening to music, and a record player in the car wouldn’t exactly work out.

Even if they aren’t listening to vinyl as much as they would like to, Green and Squires both said they appreciate the act of listening to music through any method available.

“I’m more a fan of the music than I am the vehicle for consuming the music,” Green said.

According to Squires, his love for music won’t be put on hold because of lack of access to a turntable.

“As long as you’re listening to music, it doesn’t really matter if you’re listening to vinyl or CD or on your phone, [as long as] you’re listening to it,” Squires said.

This love of vinyl has kept record stores like Amoeba and Red Devil Records in business since 1993 and 1998 respectively. They both had to rely on people’s simple love of music and the faith that it will stay consistent through time. Green thinks that this is a part of Amoeba’s charm and helps the business to stay successful over all its years.

“The big thing here is that we kind of let the music speak for itself. We really don't have a lot of advertising. I think we have a reputation as being really beholding to the music industry,” Green said.

Lazarus credited some of Red Devil Record’s success to the tranquility that music can add to people’s lives.

“Music is very therapeutic for people. It makes them feel good. To quote this Charlie Brown Peanuts comic that is hanging up [in the store], ‘whenever I feel low I go out and buy some records’,” Lazarus said.

Green also reiterated that part of running a record store is staying true to the pure intent of selling good music to the public.

“People are constantly asking for a t-shirt and we find ourselves constantly selling out of Iron Maiden t-shirts. As long as it fits with the Amoeba thing, we're not going to start selling crap like fluffy dice or something like that,” Green said. “I’ve seen some record stores where you have to go in around about three-fourths of the store before you see any actual music and that’s not going to be happening at Amoeba anytime soon.”

However, adjusting to the changing times is sometimes necessary. Green said a large amount of Amoeba’s clientele are millenials.

“It’s crazy actually, people who buy records. You think it would all be people my age but it's mostly evenly divided I should say. [There are] a lot of people picking up records in their mid to late twenties [and we’re] selling a lot of turntables to go along with that,” Green said.

The younger age range has started to express interest in exploring a way to listen to music that was fairly obsolete in the early parts of their lives. This would undoubtedly impact why vinyl sales have skyrocketed in recent years.

The LA Times correctly chalks this up to unwarranted nostalgia. “Across the board, consumers who weren't even around when these technologies first lost their prominence are driving their resurgence. How can a 15-year-old be nostalgic for a turntable, when her parents never owned one in the first place?”

Amoeba Music has always counted on the reliability of the music industry. According to Green, their sales have fluctuated throughout the years but he continues to advocate for the pure tactile connection a vinyl record can have. Flipping through the records at the store in admiration or rummaging through a personal collection of vinyls has a much different effect than scrolling through your Spotify playlist to find the next song.

“It's just a more tactile, cooler, sexier experience putting a record or even a CD on. It’s somehow more respectful to the music and I think if you’re a real music fan, it’s the only way to go for a lot of people,” Green said.

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