It's a chilly day at the Lab, Costa Mesa's über-hip “anti-mall.” It's the kind of place where people spend $30 on cotton T-shirts emblazoned with line drawings of birds. Amid well-heeled young couples strolling by, lattes in hand, and foodies munching on empanadas pulse the synthy rhythms of avant-garde industrial band Ashra, courtesy of a 12-inch platter of black polyvinyl chloride spinning at 33.3 rpms on a nearby turntable.
Located stage left of Urban Outfitters' towering glass doors is a small relic of the past—a baby-blue, chrome-trimmed 1957 Kenskill camper trailer. It's where local bluesman/head-banger/entrepreneur Parker Macy has chosen to house his latest business venture, a record store named Creme Tangerine. After successfully running a small LP stand located across Bristol Street (outside specialty market the Seed), he and his business partner Jonathon Staph seized an opportunity to upgrade.
Macy is just one cog in a wheel of Orange County traders and retailers whose primary ware—vinyl records—is a sonic format many declared dead decades ago. But don't try telling him that.
“This has been so much fun,” Macy says, referring to his trailer of records as the 26-year-old draws deep from an American Spirit Orange cigarette. “We may just do a few more of these.”
Record stores have been popping up all over Orange County and Long Beach in recent years—despite the economic malaise. Indeed, sales of new records have been on the rise for three consecutive years.
Costa Mesa's Port of Sound Record Shoppe, owned by John Weir, opened a little more than two months ago. That same city's Factory Records was opened by Dave James in April 2010. Fingerprints Records, a Long Beach institution, needed more room to house its collection, so earlier this year , it moved into a 7,200-square-foot space. Fullerton's Burger Records was founded in 2009 and run by three friends from local band Thee Makeout Party!
Then there are the veterans—the independents who battled with chains such as Tower Records, Blockbuster Music, Wherehouse Music and Music Plus; outlasted the competition; and lived on into the post-record-store age: Fullerton's Black Hole Records, Cypress's Bionic Records, Huntington Beach's Vinyl Solution, to name a few.
Why is there such a resurgence in a format that, a decade ago, was declared dead?
Nielsen Soundscan, which tracks record transactions at points of sale, said that while vinyl's numbers dropped significantly after the advent of the CD, people continued to buy them in the 1990s. Between 1995 and 1996, sales of LPs increased from 794,000 to 1.2 million and held steady. Then, in 2005, the bubble burst. Sales of records tumbled to 857,000. They crept back above the 1 million mark in 2008, and last year, vinyl sales reached their highest numbers since the agency started compiling data in 1991. About 2.8 million vinyl records were sold in 2010.
“I don't know that we've ever seen a format that's had a resurgence like this,” says David Bakula, senior vice president of analytics at Nielsen Entertainment. “Even if you look at year-to-date [figures] this year, the numbers are 30 percent higher than they were this time last year.”
The 2010 list of the 10 best-selling LPs is heavily weighted toward the Coachella set and includes titles from Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, Beach House, the National and XX.
So given the finicky nature of vinyl—constant maintenance, proper storage, the twin scourges of direct sunlight and dust, as well as quests for replacement parts for turntables—why would young people cheat on their iPods and computers? Anyone familiar with hipster culture knows that the lack of practicality in a thing is often inversely proportional to its hipness quotient (see fixed-gear bicycles, meticulously coifed handlebar mustaches or elaborately pretentious tattoos featuring Paul Klee paintings). Vinyl has integrity.
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Macy's tousled waves of blond hair drape over his shoulders and frame a shirt with T. Rex's Marc Bolan on the front. He sports a laid-back demeanor and is given to referring to people he barely knows as “brother.”
He has just returned from Riverside, where he purchased a collection of almost 1,000 used LPs, which sit in scattered piles behind him on a large, square chaise longue alongside a cardboard box, flaps opened to reveal rows of thin cardboard spines embossed with titles such as Breakfast In America, Off the Wall and Bad.
Inside the cramped trailer, taller shoppers dip their heads to clear the low ceiling. The space emanates the smell of new wood, the result of a recent remodel. A sign near the door beckons customers to wander into where the “good stuff” is. Folks run their fingers along the tops of sleeves, ticking them back like pages in a flip book. There are copies of Miles Davis' fusion-masterpiece Bitches Brew, Birth of the Cool, Harry Nilsson's Aerial Ballet, as well as a clear vinyl bootleg of the Beatles' Yellow Matter Custard. There's also a section dedicated to odd titles such as The Bible for Children, John Wayne Loves America and an entire lesson on how to learn Morse code.
Outside, Macy sits at a humming Smith Corona Electra 120 typewriter. He stabs at the keys, smacking numbers onto circular stickers used as price tags—no fancy computerized inventory system or, for that matter, a steady crew of employees here. Macy instead relies on help from his friends. He's the first to admit he hasn't perfected a system.
"Just trying to keep up with it all is something I'm working to be disciplined about,” he says.
Macy, whose father was a non-denominational Christian pastor, grew up in a strict household that frowned on rock & roll music, though he does remember his dad having an LP of Led Zeppelin IV, which Macy keeps on a shelf at home. "I treasure that,” he says, "my dad's fucked-up sin.” He estimates he has around 5,000 LPs in his personal collection and a penchant for vintage records featuring trumpet players posed next to sultry, curvaceous women. As a kid, he remembers wanting to own a record store: "I wanted a store with velvet bins.”
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Rand Foster opened Fingerprints Music in Long Beach 19 years ago, and he continues to run it today. His store represents the epitome of hi-fidelity cool: hip digs, well-stocked, knowledgeable staff.
An open space that lets in a flood of natural light through skylights, the high ceilings sport criss-crossed two-by-fours; an assemblage of autographed posters signed by bands who have played in the store adorns the exposed-brick walls. Though the aisles are full of new and used CDs, LPs and kitschy rock & roll action figures, the space more closely resembles a trendy SoHo loft than a music retailer.
This past Record Store Day, the Foo Fighters played here for a small crowd of fans granted access after pre-ordering the band's new LP through the store. And though he's riding the current wave of interest in vinyl, it's clear from Foster's store's history, even after the format was eclipsed by other options, it never completely went away.
"About 10 years ago, my staff came to me, thinking about getting rid of all the records, that it would give us so much more room for CDs,” he explains. "I said, 'But then we can't say we're a record store.'”
Both Foster and Factory Records' Dave James have their own theories on the resurgence of vinyl.
James—who ran Costa Mesa's Noise, Noise, Noise until 2005—says the rise of the CD occurred at a unique time in music history. "I opened up Noise, Noise, Noise in 1991, and right after that, the rave movement came around, which really brought vinyl back in a big way. The DJ got really popular again, the underground hip-hop movement exploded, and the third wave of punk kind of brought vinyl back. Vinyl's really been a punk-rock thing also.”
Foster attributes the boom of vinyl to the digital age. "We've entered an age when so much music is consumed digitally. If you don't want to consume music digitally, the LP makes so much more sense. It's a much better experience from what you hold in your hand to the sound experience to the larger artwork.”
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Other experts attribute the phenomenon to a mixture of factors.
In Los Angeles, Infrasonic Sound Mastering co-owner/mastering engineer Pete Lyman has worked with numerous indie artists who've released albums and EPs on vinyl for the past 10 years. He has worked on recordings for Matt and Kim, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, and People Under the Stairs, among others. He admits there's an element of novelty at play—but, he adds, going the vinyl route has a lot to do with artistic control.
"When we're mastering the record, artists are pretty specific about how they want the tracks to flow—the order, the spacing between the tracks. A lot of that gets lost when people are just putting their iPods on shuffle,” he says.
And then there's selling the LP. "For a band on tour, it's another way to make money,” Lyman says. "It's something to sell at the merch table unless you're selling a tiny drop card for MP3s, which is a great thing to do—it's just not as exciting as leaving with a slab of vinyl.”
Christina Rentz, publicist for Arcade Fire's label, Merge Records, says it's usually the artists who insist on releasing records on vinyl. Still, it's been beneficial for the company. Vinyl releases by Mountain Goats, Telekinesis and Wye Oak were all very successful. "We're excited as music fans in the resurgence of vinyl,” says Rentz. "It gives you more satisfaction to hold. Especially with the free digital download you get. You're still getting your iPod fix.”
Exciting as it may be, new vinyl sales make up less than 1 percent of today's music market. If you look at graphs produced by the Recording Industry Association of America going back to 1973, the visual representation from vinyl at its peak to the current day fell sharply after 1982. That's when Sony Phillips developed the compact disc, effectively smashing the LP's supremacy. But for more than a century leading up to the year when Abba's The Visitors was mass-pressed on a 16-bit rainbow-infused disc, records were the bee's knees.
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According to the Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound In the United States, the earliest device capable of recording and replaying audio was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. The machine featured a brass, grooved cylinder around which metallic tinfoil containing audio information was placed. Though there's some discussion regarding the first audio recording to be played, many agree it was Edison's warbled voice singing the words "Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
The record player evolved from the cylinder to the gramophone to the 12-inch; by 1949, records were produced on a substance discovered by scientist Waldo Semon, who had been working on developing a synthetic adhesive. Originally used to make golf balls and shoe heels, the substance was known as polyvinyl chloride. The vinyl era of music was born, and soon, a slew of legendary rock recordings was produced.
Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Johnny Cash used a system that took a sound source directly from the microphone and, hooked to a lathe with a gem-equipped cutting head, inscribed audio directly onto a piece of lacquer-covered aluminum to create the "stampers” that would press an LP.
That process soon gave way to recording first to magnetic tape, then to digital recording. Infrasonic's Lyman has done his part to resurrect the analog arts, continuing to offer his clients vinyl mastering. He has even done a direct-to-vinyl recording session for Beck. This process isn't for everyone; each lacquer plate runs $30 and allows for one take to get it right (two, if you flip the lacquer over). It definitely requires musicians to be well-rehearsed.
The machine in his studio is known as the Neumann lathe. Built in the 1950s, it was once the property of RCA records. These machines are no longer made, and parts are hard to come by, so Lyman contracts with a technician with a machine shop who makes parts when necessary. Working with it, he says, is akin to "driving an 18-wheeler down a cobblestone street.” But the effort is rewarded in the final product.
"I prefer the sound of vinyl 90 percent of the time over a 16-bit compact disc,” Lyman says. "There is something the medium does that actually changes the way [the music] sounds—in a pleasing way, I think.”
And there's an entire subculture of audiophiles that agrees. These music fans can afford to drop six figures on a turntable.
Dan Meinwald distributes high-end audio components for European electronics company EAR and serves as an industry consultant to the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society. At 58, he has been listening to vinyl records since he was 15 and enjoys everything from classical Indian music and subgenres of jazz to Jimi Hendrix. He estimates he has 5,000 records in his collection.
“I never stopped buying records and playing records,” he says. “It was very obvious CDs didn't sound very good in the beginning. . . . I have lots of CDs now, and I play them all the time. But when I really want to sit and listen to music carefully, I play records because they sound better.”
That's because on vinyl, audio waves captured with microphones are directly reproduced by the playback system, giving the listener a true analog of the original event. With digital formats such as MP3s and CDs, sound waves are captured by the microphones the same way, but they're converted into bits and stored in a computer. Those bits are then replayed on a CD in what Meinwald refers to as a “digital approximation.”
“There's all kinds of subtleties in music. If they're not there, you miss them—even if you're not aware of missing them. I think digital still does not do a good enough job,” he says. “To me, LPs just simply sound more natural, more like real music than CDs do. [CDs] always sound a little bit ster[CDs]But it's gotten better, quite a bit better.”
According to Nielsen's Bakula, vinyl's real or supposed sonic advantages pose little threat to the digital format.
“Certainly over a 128K digital file, there probably is a [vinyl] sound superiority, but I don[vinyl] if the average ear could hear it. . . . I don't think the majority of mass consumers are going to say, 'Oh, I'm going to stop buying digital because the sound quality of vinyl is so much better.'”
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Whatever one's thoughts on why kids buy vinyl, it's hard to dismiss the tactile benefits of getting away from one's computer, stepping outside, and socializing with knowledgeable humans on the creation and presentation of rock & roll. The human experience is lost in the digital ether and blinking lights of the hard drive. It's this human factor that Rand Foster sees as reason for hope in the future of his business.
"There will always be a marketplace for the physical music experience,” he says. "Whether that will continue to be an accelerating aspect of the marketplace is the one big, hairy question in the room.”
Though he's technically in competition with several nearby stores, Port of Sound's Weir remains optimistic about the state of vinyl records. "I see more stores opening up as a good thing,” he says. "People coming from farther away are more apt to drive to an area where they can hit five stores as opposed to going out of their way to hit one.”
Even though Weir sees future dips in sales as inevitable, he remains unfazed. "It's kind of in vogue now,” he says. "But even when that tapers off, there's always going to be enough people interested in LPs to keep a store with low overhead open.”
This article appeared in print as "Revinylized: Vinyl is going for a spin again, and Orange County is seeing a boom in area record stores”