My father’s first pressing of Roxy Music’s Country Life was the first time I ever saw breasts and bush. Merry Christmas from the White Stripes was my first seven-inch, gifted to me back in the Christmas of 2002. Eventually, when I moved in with my first long-term boyfriend, all 680 of my parents’ records came with me. Those albums were probably the only thing I took care of. For the remainder of our stay they lived in milk crates in the living room, between the rows of VHS tapes whose ribbons were adorned with bootlegged Simpsons episodes and the futon which harbored the shittiest cat on the planet. The Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only in It for the Money would soundtrack our 420-friendly dish cleaning routine, and at least once Bob Dylan calmed us down after a fight. While the needle dragged across the grooves emitting his crackling croon, we came to the realization that maybe, just maybe, adulthood isn’t what we thought it would be.
There are a lot of those big round discs strewn about my past. Vinyl records were always there, and they always will be. The now-ragged boxes have made their journey farther and farther from home, from apartment to apartment; their number has almost doubled thanks to the revival of vinyl. Who would’ve thought, some 26 years ago, that records would be experiencing one of the most fascinating resurgences in musical history? Sub Pop, a Seattle record label known for signing grunge band Nirvana, celebrated its silver jubilee this year and takes pride in the fact that it never stopped pressing records, not even once. Richard Laing, the head of sales over at Sub Pop, explained that although there was a time the medium’s popularity waned, “it’s been steady and has increased since I joined [seven years ago]. Particularly in the last three or four years I’d say it’s become a bigger part of the makeup of our record label.”
Many other labels are reintroducing or upping their production of vinyl too. Record sales increased 33 percent in the beginning of this year alone (about 2.9 million sold in six months, compared to the 3.6 million sold in 2011) while the CD, knocking on death’s door for years now, diminished by 14.2 percent. Some chalk it up to a fad, but phono lovers attribute the recent rise to records’ stellar sound quality (which blows CDs out of the water). This year’s Record Store Day drew its biggest crowd to date, pushing vinyl LP sales numbers higher than they have been in 22 years, with Nielsen SoundScan recording 244,000 vinyl LPs sold on the week of April 21st. “This pales in comparison with the 765,000 albums that were moved by indie retailers last Christmas,” MStars News reminds us, “and only one Record Store Day release broke the Billboard Hot 200. Mumford and Sons' ‘Live at Bull Moose’ sold 3,000 copies to land at 174.”
But in a world where immediate consumerism runs rampant, why is this finicky niche expanding? For one, there’s the nostalgia factor for those who lived in the heyday of the LP or those (to whom the better half of record sales are attributed) who may experience “Golden Age Thinking,” a term coined by Woody Allen’s character in Midnight in Paris which is defined as “the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in.” In their minds, as a friend whose master’s degree focused on music collecting and nostalgia put it, “records also symbolize a time when the music industry was 'less corrupt,' music was 'better' and 'less derivative'—all quotations, because of course this is not the case, but that is the rose-colored glasses effect of nostalgia.”
Then there’s the fact that purchasing a record makes you feel more connected with the band: a physical item instead of a digital version (which you usually get anyway by means of a download code) gives you a sense of camaraderie, an artifact and a physical objet d’art. The CD, to the collector’s eye, is a meek way of collecting. There’s not much room for album art, liner notes or posters; the bigger the better. Bands can (and tend to) get more creative with what they give away with their records. With CDs, it’s always the same old 4.7 x 4.7” jewel case.
The lack of ties that bind the listener to the internet, television and other commercial drivers is another draw. Scholar Roy Shuker, in his 2006 paper “Wax Trash and Vinyl Treasure: Record Collecting as a Social Practice,”delves into the notion that Canadian teens are vinyl collectors because they are attempting to resist the trite mass-media approach to music in the 21st century.
Then there’s the notion of procuring something rare. Like Shuker, many consider rarities to be cultural capital. Laing told me that after all these years, people still contact Sub Pop about Nirvana’s “Love Buzz” single, which had only one pressing of 1,000. “There’s even a site online run by a guy who is chronicling every single person in the world who owns a copy. He’s almost there, too; it’s crazy. We still get people asking us for copies for outrageous amounts.” When it comes to common-day vinyl memorabilia, Jack White’s Third Man Records is the glimmering beacon. Selling records by novelty or packaged in new and exciting ways is their forte. And when those records hit the web, sellers are able to flip them for a pretty astronomical profit. Despite the fact that there is little to no nostalgia connected to their pieces, they’re selling for a lot of money.
Take, for example, White’s “Sixteen Saltines” 12-inch vinyl that’s filled with a blue liquid. Right now on eBay they are selling for over $500 each. White’s flexi disc of “Freedom at 21,” which he and his team released by balloon from their base in Nashville, broke the record for the highest priced flexi disc of all time, going for $4238.88. “As far as can be discerned, this is the highest price ever paid for a flexi-disc record, topping out usual benchmarks from obscure Japanese hardcore singles of the early 80’s [sic] and Beatles fan-club Christmas offerings.” The Third Man team posted on their site, “Of 1000 balloons launched, only a handful have been discovered so far.” Are these buyers art enthusiasts, music enthusiasts or both?
I would rather hunt for a record than go on eBay and blow half a paycheck on an album. It’s fun to buy, swap and trade albums with enthusiasts, and there’s something special about bonding over records with family and friends. This year I was given two books of big band 78s which, upon further inspection, contained a signed Woody Herman record. My weekends wouldn’t be complete without the record store circuit, where I justify every purchase with “I’ve always wanted this!” Then the pièce de résistance: listening to barely audible stand-up albums curled against the speaker while attempting to hold back laughs that end up spritzing the floor with wine. Discovering rarities and new albums is a rush. If you’ve never gone vinyl shopping, it’s that same feeling you’d experience when you were browsing at a movie rental store; you know, before those things went belly-up.