Local record stores thrive despite digitization
    Customers browse the selection at Chicago's Dusty Groove. Photo by Olivia Curry / North by Northwestern.

    Big, clunky and fragile are not exactly characteristics that modern consumers in a fast-paced, convenience-hungry society look for when buying a product. In the increasingly digitized music industry, paradoxically, people are rediscovering nostalgic beauty in the grandeur and magnificence of vinyl records.

    “People like holding the product,” said Craig Silva, a Boston-based vinyl enthusiast who works with various bands on promotion. “It's big, it's sexy and it sounds awesome.”

    Vinyl sales increased 37 percent in the beginning of 2011 over the same period last year, according to a survey conducted by The Nielsen Company. Vinyl sales have also been on the rise since 2007, and the past four years have experienced record-breaking increases in nearly two decades.

    Although digital sales are still the majority, vinyl sales are growing at a much faster rate. According to a 2011 mid-year music industry report by Nielsen and Billboard, vinyl sales rose from 1.3 million to 1.9 million in the past year, a growth rate of 41 percent. Digital album sales, in contrast, increased only 19 percent, from 42.2 million to 50.3 million.

    “There’s a backlash from the digital realm,” said Dustin Drase, operations manager and DJ at Chicago Independent Radio Project, a volunteer radio station. The recent fascination with vinyl is a result of consumers wanting to hold on to the physical in a world of virtual property, he added. “People want to own something.”

    Rob Sevier, co-founder of Chicago-based independent reissue record label Numero Group, agreed. “It’s substantial,” he said. “There are some things that should be disposable, but you want things that feel permanent to have a truly permanent format, and that’s what vinyl is.”

    Sevier explained the increased popularity of vinyl is mainly a change for major labels that are now pressing more chart-topping albums on vinyl to cater to consumer demand. “Indie labels, dance labels, hip-hop labels, they never stopped with vinyl,” he said.

    “There’s also an explosion of really small indie labels doing vinyl only or cassette only for very limited titles,” Sevier added, commenting that there are more of these specialty labels than there were about 10 years ago. “The reason is because there’s a market there. People are just going to instigate collectability.”

    Dave Crain, owner of Dave’s Records in Chicago, a vinyl-only record store, has seen evidence of this. “Back [in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s], kids your age would come in and look around and go, ‘Oh, just records,’” he recalled. “But now it’s just the exact opposite. They come in and say, ‘Oh cool! Records.’”

    The store does indeed exude a sort of nostalgic feeling. Upon entrance, the neatly organized narrow space has a cozy connotation, a place to just relax and browse through the bins upon bins of vinyl with some good old rock music playing in the background.

    Artwork and historical context are some other reasons for a return to vinyl. At Dave’s, with the walls decked out in album artwork, it’s hard not to go through every bin if not just to look at the spectrum of album covers.

    Charles Kuner, a volunteer at WFMT, a Chicago radio station focusing on jazz and classical music, cited the artwork and liner notes as important factors for buying vinyl. “You have some outstanding educators, whether they’re music critics or they’re poets or writers, giving the liner notes to the music itself,” he said while reading the booklet of a classical LP at Dave’s Records. “There’s history. There’s something about this that’s different; you can’t capture this on a small CD.”

    Additionally, there is the cultural aspect of vinyl collecting. “You can have a library of music in your house,” said Kumar McMillan, director of technology and DJ at CHIRP. “It’s a home culture thing now, displaying your records.”

    Along with this renewed fervor for vinyl, there have been more events dedicated to the format, which, in turn, drives sales and puts a brighter spotlight on vinyl. An example of such is Record Store Day, an international annual event in April that celebrates local record shops as well as the vinyl format. According to Nielsen, the 2011 Record Store Day garnered the highest sales since the event’s inauguration in 2008. The event added a special Black Friday celebration this year, a day of special releases, ranging from The Black Keys and The Doors to Matisyahu and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, similar to the event proper in April, but not as extensive in scale.

    On a more local level, CHIRP hosted its record crawl, an event they hope to hold annually, a few weeks ago, bringing together station DJs and listeners on a casual tour of six Chicago record shops, all of which feature hefty stocks of vinyl.

    “It’s a good way to bring record lovers together,” said Karin Fjellman, CHIRP events director and DJ. “It’s half a social thing and half being part of something.”

    The event drew 50 to 60 people at any given time throughout the day, much more than necessary to crowd out the usually compact size of the record stores the group visited.

    “There’s a social aspect,” Drase agreed. “There’s something powerful in suggesting records to your friends.”

    At Dusty Groove America, a stop on the crawl, a funky world jam warmly greets customers along with bells that jingle on the door. The center of attraction is definitely vinyl, running seemingly endlessly along the middle of the store, but along the side are CDs and cassettes, new and old.

    Crawlers, squeezed in narrow aisles while purveying bins of specialty soul and funk cuts, asked their peers for opinions on what records to buy and what labels to look out for.

    Crain also cited the social component of record buying as a part of vinyl’s increasing popularity. “I think it’s more a visceral kind of thing for most people,” he said. “When you have 10 thousand songs on your iPod, you don’t know where you got them, but [with vinyl,] you can remember, ‘Oh yeah, I was out shopping three months ago with these friends and we went to this record store and looked at that and I bought this one record.’”

    Silva provides a personal testament to Crain’s assertion. “I've had friends over and we just have some drinks and listen to music,” he said. “Sharing music that way seems better than dragging and dropping some album on my friend's avatar on Spotify. Hopefully [the renewed interest in vinyl] will make people more social and less social media.”

    Looking to the future of musical formats, there is hope for vinyl to stay in the market. “Vinyl’s not really affected by digital,” Crain said. “Vinyl’s enhanced by digital because a lot of the indie companies that have been putting out vinyl started out by doing the download with the record.”

    On the contrary, CDs, which have similar sound quality to digital MP3s, are getting the short end of the stick in an increasingly digitized market. “For most stores that have CDs, it’s been a lot tougher because the digital revolution has kind of hit those stores a lot harder,” Crain said.

    Silva agreed. “Streaming services like Spotify killed the CD, in my opinion,” he asserted. “Who wants to carry a huge book of CDs when your cell phone does the same thing and weighs 10 times less?” What digital lacks, however, is the nostalgia that vinyl provides. “People by nature like the feeling of having a physical manifestation of the music.”

    In a society of innumerable intangibles, it makes sense that physicality is slowly becoming more of a novel convention, leading to a rekindled fascination with vinyl.

    In the midst of the bustling Dusty Groove, the walls of which are strung out with large LPs, posters, and other paraphernalia, Fjellman attested to her emotional attachment to vinyl. “It’s very romantic to see the needle drop and watch the groove spin and hear that crackle.”


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