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King of Spin

It hasn’t reclaimed its throne as the dominant format for music listening and recording; that ship has likely sailed in the digital era. But don’t tell that to vinyl’s rapidly increasing fanbase.

G.K. Hizer
September 28, 2018

Although the advent of CDs in the late ‘80s promised to kill off vinyl albums — and the rise of MP3s seemed to be the nails in the coffin — the format never truly died off or went away. Granted, it may have been on life support: official sales statistics show vinyl hit an historical low of 205,292 units in 2007. After a turn in health, according to Nielsen Music’s tracking reports, vinyl has been rallying back over the past decade, witnessed by double-digit sales growth for six of the past seven years, reaching 14.32 million albums sold in 2017.

Who is driving that growth? Depending on which store (or what time of day) you visit, you may attribute it to a different demographic: perhaps the middle-aged 40-something looking to reconnect with their past; maybe the young music fan discovering a new listening experience; or the 20-something proving their cool by only listening to the pristine. The truth is, it’s all of these and more.

Vinyl has always maintained a loyal following, especially in the underground and among classic rock and jazz enthusiasts. In the 1990s, as mainstream record stores phased out their wax inventory, Pearl Jam was giving out 7-inch records — the preferred recording format of the punk-rock scene — to its fan club.

As turntables come back into vogue with the vinyl revolution, the fall in equipment prices has put the format back into everyone’s reach.

Before you jump the gun with visions of strolling back into Peaches Records or the heyday of Sound Warehouse with aisles upon aisles of new albums packing the floor space, be ready for a quick reality check. Today’s record store experience isn’t the same as it once was.

All you need to do is step into one of Tulsa’s local record stores, and it’s clear that the model has changed. When you check out Spinster Records in the heart of the Tulsa Arts District, a few bins along the walls and on the main floor display new vinyl and the latest releases, with popular titles displayed on the walls. Take a trip upstairs, and you’ll not only find a relaxed listening station, but the store’s used collection, ready for your perusal.

A trip to Josey Records paints a similar picture. Although the store is much larger, measuring in at roughly 2,500 square feet, the first row of racks, spanning across the width of the store, are dedicated to new vinyl, along with a new release display in the southwest corner of the store. The rest of the space is dedicated to used treasures, organized by genre.

Any conversation about vinyl and why people are migrating back to it, however, always seems to get back to one thing: the richness or warmth of the sound. (Photo: Valerie Grant)
Any conversation about vinyl and why people are migrating back to it, however, always seems to get back to one thing: the richness or warmth of the sound. (Photo: Valerie Grant)

Even a trip to Tulsa’s longtime staple, Starship Records & Tapes, paints a different picture than it used to. Before moving from its old location on 11th Street, racks of vinyl crowded the center of the store. The vinyl never left, but after the move found itself delegated to a few smaller racks near the front of the much larger store. With the rising popularity of vinyl over the past few years, however, that display has been growing to meet the public demand. But it still doesn’t dominate the store like it once did.

“Vinyl sales have definitely been growing the past seven years, but it never really went away,” says Joshua Norris, manager at Josey Records. “I’d say vinyl is back, and it’s been everyone buying. Yes, there are the older music fans who are getting back into it, but there are also younger kids who have just discovered their dad’s old turntable and record collections, and now they want more.”

Not only does nearly every new album include a vinyl option, but some releases, especially on Record Store Day, can only be obtained on wax.

“It’s a more tactile experience,” Norris says. “Once you feel it in your hands and hear the needle drop, you feel like you’re a part of it. If someone is a music fan, it allows them to feel closer to the music. Of course, there are a percentage of people who jump on the bandwagon because it’s cool, but that happens with anything. But fans always want the details. They want to know who played what and who the producer was. When you sit down with an album in your hands and read through the lyrics and liner notes, you’ve got all of that at your fingertips. There’s a Leslie West album back there, The Great Fatsby, that has Mick Jagger listed as playing guitar on it. I’d never heard of that, but when I did, I had to check it out.”

Any conversation about vinyl and why people are migrating back to it, however, always seems to get back to one thing: the richness or warmth of the sound.

“Man, the fidelity is just better with vinyl,” says Norris. “The best way I can explain it is that listening to a CD is more like listening to a copy of the original — it just loses something. And if that’s the case, listening to a file is like listening to a copy of a copy [of the original].

“Sure, the digital copy is cleaner. When they first started making CDs, they were mastering from tape, so there was a little bit of tape hiss left. Then they took the noise off, but that also shaved off some of the frequencies and details. Now, when you listen to the vinyl that’s remastered from the original tapes, you hear the details and things like cymbals that you never heard on the digital copies.”

For Shannah VanHoose, the journey down the vinyl rabbit hole started a bit differently than most. Her reconnection with vinyl started with finding a vintage 1976 Magnavox console stereo in near-pristine condition at the flea market. Upon getting it home and pulling out a couple of albums she got with it, she was most impressed by the sound quality, but she readily admits that for her, vinyl is about more than just the sound.

“When I started buying vinyl again, it wasn’t just about listening. It was about experiencing it,” VanHoose says. “I still enjoy the process of dropping the disc on the turntable and the anticipation as the needle hits the vinyl. Listening used to be a process, where you listened to the whole album. With CDs, nobody did that anymore. You could just skip to the next song so easily; and with digital files, you can just download the songs you want and leave the rest.

“For me, it’s really about the memories it brought back. There’s nothing that compares to or can replace that. And the sound quality? When it’s good, it’s great, and the new vinyl sounds even better. There’s just a richness to the sound that can’t be mimicked on CD or tape — it’s just so full.”

Even though she’s shopped at stores like Josey and Spinster, VanHoose says, “If I’m looking for something older, the real vinyl market is at the flea market. If I’m looking for new, I’ll usually go online and order from Amazon. If it’s a soundtrack or something I’m looking for, they’ll let me pre-order and when it comes out, I get the digital download immediately, so I can listen in my car. Then I get free delivery in two days, and I’ve got it in my hands.”

Even so, for many music fans, half of the joy is in the hunt and in finding the new or old treasure themselves. That’s where stores like Spinster and Josey are stepping up and making the search a little easier.

“Getting it home, breaking the seal for the first time and pulling out the disc, then looking through the pictures and liner notes, that’s maybe the best part of the whole thing,” says VanHoose. “That’s the experience that you don’t get with digital. With cassettes [and then CDs], you either had to unfold it so many times it got ridiculous or it was so small you couldn’t read it. And the artwork? That’s an art that started going away when CDs made everything so much smaller. The whole experience [with vinyl] just makes me giddy.

“What I find ironic is that when a lot of my old high school or college friends hear that I’m collecting vinyl, they offer me their old collections — except for their treasured favorites, even if they don’t have something to play them on. That tells me there’s still something special about it to them, even if they don’t want to admit it. I know it’s mostly a nostalgia thing for me, but it sounds so much better and brings back such a flood of memories when I listen. I’m good with that.”

Nostalgia or not, vinyl has re-established itself as a more tangible alternative for discerning music fans over the past decade, and the industry is taking notice.

It’s not a cheap hobby to get into, however. While you can still get a portable record player for around $50, a stereo turntable can start at around $100 and go up to nearly $2,000, and then you still need an amplifier and speakers.

Also, the days of sliding in and finding that new copy of Van Halen’s 1984 on sale for $6.99 are long gone. New vinyl starts at roughly $15 and can go up to $30 for a single album, depending on the artist and label. Nevertheless, it’s a listening experience that many are coming back to while others are just discovering, and nearly all of them swear it’s worth the price.

So just how shining is the vinyl market right now? It’s undeniably brighter, but you don’t need to break out the sunscreen just yet. While vinyl sales rose 9 percent to 14.32 million albums in 2017, that was still only 14 percent of all physical album sales and 8.5 percent of overall album sales for the year. And although new albums are getting the vinyl treatment as well, six of last year’s Top 10 were at least 30 years old and the No. 1 album of the year was 50 years old: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, at 72,000 in sales. For reference, Michael Jackson’s Thriller closed out the top 10 with 49,000 in sales and Ed Sheeran’s Divide was the top selling new release at No. 4 with 66,000 in sales. So while the market is looking up, it’s still nowhere what it used to be, and there’s a whole lot of nostalgia and baby boomer or Gen X money driving the revival.

For now, vinyl is on the rise and bringing back a more immersive listening experience, but just where it will peak is what we’re waiting to see.

Blue Moon Discs
2606 S. Sheridan Road | Tulsa

Josey Records
1020 S. Rockford Ave. | Tulsa

Spinster Records
11 E. M.B. Brady St. | Tulsa

Starship Records & Tapes
1241 S. Lewis Ave. | Tulsa