Wednesday, April 09, 2008

L.A.'s Vinyl Revival

The key to improving record sales might lie in the past...
by L.J. Mancha

Grad student Bianca Lopez, 24, used to show up to her Silver Lake friends' parties with a bottle of wine. These days, she arrives with her $25 dollar portable record player and a stack of LPs.

Over the past several months, these items have become regular fixtures at get-togethers and are often demanded by Lopez’ friends prior to party time.

“If you bring vinyl to a party, you’re [more likely] to listen to an album all the way through,” Lopez explains, sipping her drink and looking through a worn Trader Joe’s bag packed with records. “Plus, an [iPOD] playlist can hurt the flow of a party, if one minute you’re listening to MC5, and the next, you are listening to something off [Bob Dylan’s] Blonde on Blonde.”

Lopez is one of many music lovers who are a part of a vinyl revival, a far-reaching phenomenon that has accelerated over the past couple of years. In a time when music fans have the capability to transfer their entire CD collection onto iPods, more people are choosing to buy records in addition to, or instead of, digital formats.

This resurgent love for analog began roughly two years ago, when record labels began offering download cards with vinyl purchases. These cards enable one to download mp3s of the songs featured on the record. This package deal, known as digital vinyl, has acquainted fans with a more focused music-listening experience that dates back decades, and in the recent past, was only enjoyed by the most serious vinyl collectors.

Merge Records, one of the first indie giants to develop digital vinyl offers, affirms that many followers of their artists have bought vinyl for years. Merge was motivated to push vinyl/downloads by listeners’ affection for vinyl and by their own affinities.

“We were thinking of our fans when we made the decision [to include downloads with vinyl]…and as all of us who work here are vinyl fans, it just seemed like a great idea,” Christina Rentz, publicist for Merge Records, explains. “Our fans responded the way we did, with excitement and gratitude that they wouldn’t have to steal mp3s or buy a Merge release twice, just because they liked vinyl.”

Jeff Tafolla, Director of Licensing and New Media at Saddle Creek Records, said that his label was inspired by Merge’s digital vinyl move and followed suit with their own artists’ releases.

“We love vinyl,” Tafolla said, “and are always looking for ways to make it more enticing for the consumer.”

There is no denying that Merge and Saddle Creek developed these deals with the longtime vinyl lover in mind; still, a new wave of music fans is finding record playing to be a more tangible and enjoyable experience than setting their iTunes to random play.

What’s more, many local bands and upstart labels in Los Angeles have produced their own vinyl recordings, and much to their delight, they are often outselling CD versions.

Los Angeles-based alt-country band Everest chose to release their first recording as a 12” 45rpm single last year. Guitarist Joel Graves, who has been buying vinyl as long as he can remember, relates that fans’ reaction to the record has been positive.

“…It’s sold pretty well,” Graves said. “We later made a CD that was an exact mini-replica of the 12”, and the 12” still sells better.”

Everest’s debut album, which will be released in the beginning of May on Vapor Records, will also be available on vinyl.

Some groups have opted to exclusively release vinyl and downloads and swear off self-releasing CDs altogether.

Eli Chartkoff, singer and guitarist of The Monolators, relates that his band put out their first 7” single in 2004. More recently, the band has released another 7”, as well as a 10” EP, 'You Look Good on the Train'.

Initially, there was no real justification [for doing vinyl releases] other than to satisfy my nerdiness. But after our first record, it became kind of addictive,” Chartkoff said. “There’s just nothing like getting the first test pressing back from the mastering engineer and putting it on our turntable, instead of just playing it on a computer. It seems more real somehow.”

Friends and fans of The Monolators especially responded well to the 10” EP, their most substantial vinyl release to date.

“A lot of our friends who are in bands have asked us for advice and contacts for putting out vinyl, especially after this last record,” he said. “Maybe it inspired them to put out their own records somehow? That would be great if it were true.”

While bands like Everest and The Monolators continue to release their latest works in their favorite format, there are other creative self-starters whose deep-seeded love for vinyl has inspired flourishing projects.

Ashley Jex, aka Jax, founder of L.A. music blog Rock Insider, started her own design company, JAXART, in 2005. But in the past year, the indie renaissance woman widened the scope of JAXART by releasing limited edition 7” singles of local bands, under the name JAXART Records.

“I’ve been a psychotic record collector since college and spend way more than I should on vinyl every month,” Jax said. “…I’ve worked in new media at record labels for five years now and have seen how digital sales have gone up over the years. I decided I wanted to do a vinyl [and] digital-only label, because I wanted to combine something collectible with something convenient.”

Jax is quick to voice the reasons that music fans find vinyl so desirable, including vinyl’s bassier aspects and warm tone to its keepsake quality.

“If I have my way, JAXART will never release albums on CD,” she said.

One of the advantages that vinyl has over CDs and mp3s is that an album is more likely to be heard in its entirety, instead of being skipped through as on a CD or picked through for iTunes playlist purposes.

Bassist Noah Green of L.A. rock band The Henry Clay People, one of the vinyl-friendly bands who have released a 7” on JAXART, identifies this as one of the reasons he prefers to buy LPs.

“I think that more people are getting into buying records these days as a result of what a neutral experience it is to play an mp3 on a computer,” Green said.”…You can literally set iTunes to play for days on end without having to think about anything, whereas with records, you are more aware that you are the one controlling the music and that you have to be around to flip the record over to hear an album in its entirety.”

Many musicians and the most ardent of music fans appreciate vinyl in terms of how the format safeguards the album. Vinyl forces listeners to appreciate an artist’s songs in terms of how they fit together…just like in the not so distant old days.

“I think people still love the idea of an album,” Jesse Davis, vinyl lover and singer/guitarist of rock band The Karabal Nightlife says. “Vinyl allows people to reclaim the album again. I think that if labels and distributors really start to invest in the idea of vinyl, the music industry might improve.”

According to Nielsen SoundScan, vinyl sales rose 15.4% in 2007 from the year before; however, label people like Tafolla say digital formats still sell better.

“Even though vinyl is making a comeback…it still [accounts for a] pretty small percentage of our music sales,” Tafolla said. “CDs and digital downloads are the majority of our business.”

While vinyl might not be saving the music industry, there is no denying that the old school format encourages listeners to experience an entire record and stimulates artists’ to create collective works instead of catchy pieces.

“Labels will obviously benefit from the combination,” Davis said, “but artists will feel freer to make albums, rather than singles that will hopefully make it onto someone’s playlist.”

In a modern context, this could be vinyl’s greatest contribution; at least, to those who create the albums being played.


Blogger amnion said...

gr8 post! reminds us of a joke we saw the other day...

2000 B.C. - Here, eat this root
1000 A.D. - That root is heathen. Here, say this prayer.
1850 A.D. - That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion.
1940 A.D. - That potion is snake oil. Here, swallow this pill.
1985 A.D. - That pill is ineffective. Here, take this antibiotic.
2000 A.D. - That antibiotic doesn’t work anymore.
Here, eat this root

9:17 PM  
Blogger t.rex said...

this post = high five

great entry, joe. really!

5:17 AM  

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