Local music stores cashing in on resurgence of vinyl records

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Neil Johnson
Monday, February 25, 2013

— Behind the counter at Black Circle Records, a turntable was spinning an original vinyl pressing of Van Halen’s 1978 debut album “Van Halen.”

The shiny, black record was playing nice and loud.

As front man David Lee Roth tried to trump guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s machine-gun riffs in the closing seconds of the album’s last track, “On Fire,” storeowner Tim Townsend cranked the volume up a notch.

Roth’s trademark wheezy squall filled the room of the independent record store at 772 W. Main St. in downtown Lake Geneva. “I’m on Fire!” Roth squealed over and over as the song faded out.

It was as though a young, cocky incarnation of Roth was trying to swim out of the past to hammer home a point: Vinyl record albums are alive and well.

In fact, Black Circle Records owner Tim Townsend would argue, they’re smoking hot.

His vinyl collection has everything from rare singles by The Beatles to early albums by Yes, Cream and Blue Cheer. He’s got mint vinyl pressings of KISS and Ted Nugent albums, even some of their lesser-acclaimed 1980s releases.

Townsend is a lifelong collector of rock ’n’ roll, blues and jazz records on vinyl. Originally from the Chicago area, Townsend has bought thousands of vinyl albums over the last 30 years. He’s kept his records in nearly mint condition, cleaning them and caring for them meticulously.

A year ago, Townsend decided to take a leap. He opened Black Circle Records to share his love of vinyl with consumers. The records are no longer his private stock. Now they are his business.

“At first it was hard. The albums are my babies, all of them,” Townsend said.

The small, clean store is jam-packed with thousands of vinyl albums that range from The Beatles to Cream, Kiss and ZZ Top—with records such as Mott The Hoople, the MC5 and Blue Cheer to fill the spaces between.

Retro trend

Townsend’s business model—all vinyl and nothing but vinyl—would have been an anomaly 10 years ago. Now it’s a growing trend in music sales.

According to music sales tracker Nielsen SoundScan, vinyl albums accounted for just over 1 percent of all album sales in 2012, making it a niche segment of the record industry. But it’s clearly a growing niche.

Vinyl records accounted for $4.6 million in sales in 2012, according to SoundScan. That’s an 18 percent increase over sales in 2011, and it’s the highest sales total for vinyl since SoundScan began tracking the industry in 1991, at the height of the compact disc era.

The bulk of vinyl album sales are made at independently owned music stores, a trend that excites small music merchants such as Black Circle and Wisconsin-based The Exclusive Company, which has a store in Janesville.

Along with product diversity, vinyl records offer small music sellers hope in a topsy-turvy industry in which digital music sales have left sales of physical albums trampled underfoot.

Kristen Sherman, a sales associate at Exclusive in Janesville, said she remembers when the vinyl record market began getting clobbered in the mid-1980s by sales of music on CD and cassette tape.

“The industry said, ‘Wait until vinyl completely goes out. Then the price of CDs will drop,’” Sherman said. “Well, when vinyl went out, CD prices only doubled.”

Ironically, price points for CDs and new vinyl albums have flip-flopped.

At Exclusive, psychedelic rockers Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ newly released album “Push The Sky Away” was available on CD format for $10.99 or in limited edition CD format (with gatefold collector box and companion DVD) for $14.99.

The price for the vinyl version of the same album: $19.99.

It’s almost as though some consumers have hit the reset button on their preference for musical media.

Sherman said some local music-listeners choose to buy vinyl albums, or box sets on vinyl re-released on heavier, 180-gram records, because they’re symbols of purism, rock and roll fandom or audiophile credibility.

Consumers believe vinyl sets them apart from CD-buyers and mp3 downloaders.

“It’s a lot more about having the big, square album. The big art. The big record. It’s the item,” Sherman said.

Taste at a price

Record enthusiast John Denny was picking up a few new vinyl jazz albums he had held at Exclusive.

Denny, who lives in Rockford, Ill., said he owns about 4,000 vinyl albums and has a 10-year-old turntable and speaker system he uses to play them on. For him, vinyl sounds best, and he prefers the size and dimensions of the physical product.

“I love the full sound of records and the feel of the album and the liner in my hands,” he said.

People who haven’t bought vinyl before and are looking to get in the groove can get a good used turntable, a used receiver and used speakers for $200 or less, Townsend said. He said used equipment from the 1980s and earlier will hold up for years, although replacement parts can be hard to find.

Used vinyl records are affordable, sometimes between $3 and $10 depending on the shape they’re in. Townsend said buyers should inspect used records for scratches, oily fingerprints or a warped shape. Those flaws can affect how a record sounds when it’s played—particularly on inexpensive equipment.

“Some scratches will buff out or clean off, but others, they’ll just skip or jump or you’ll chew up your record needle.”

Feel of a ‘lost art’

Denny said he only buys new vinyl albums. He’s excited about the resurgence of vinyl the last few years, but he said consumers buying newly released music on vinyl should research record labels for authenticity and quality.

He said some major labels doctor new vinyl records by adding extra instrumental tracks designed to give the music a more full, organic “vinyl sound.”

“It just sounds false. It really doesn’t fool you,” Denny said.

That’s one reason why Townsend says he sticks with original vinyl releases.

“Original vinyl’s such a raw, pure sound. You get everything that came out in the studio just like it sounded when the band put it down. It’s raw. It’s pure sound. You get the band, and that’s it,” he said.

To prove the point, Townsend gingerly pulled out a copy of Supertramp’s 1974 album “Crime of the Century.” Touching just the edges, he eased the record onto the turntable and carefully set the needle on the track “School.”

As the music came in quietly, an occasional pop and crackle of static was audible in the background. Then, as the song progressed, the imperfections seemed to be overtaken by waves of piano, drums and echoed guitar.

The music flowed from the wall speakers. Sounds seemed to float and reflect off of different parts of the floors, walls and ceilings, weaving and wrapping around objects in the store. It was like a warm bath in outer space.

“See? You hear what I’m talking about?” Townsend said.

Sometimes it’s more about the art.

Townsend pulled out a copy of Elton John’s LP “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.” The cover features a cartoonish, illustrated portrait of Elton flamboyantly dressed at the piano and songwriter Bernie Taupin stuck inside a glass globe ornament. They’re surrounded by a hyperkinetic field of Technicolor animals.

“This was from the era where records were their own concepts. The songs told stories that stretched out through the music, the whole album. It wasn’t just a single,” Townsend said.

In the digital music age, album covers such as “Captain Fantastic” have become lost relics, afterthoughts, Townsend said.

“Forget the music for a minute. The cover, the art, the liner notes, the sleeve, the posters, everything, you could sit and experience the whole album just looking at it,” Townsend said. “It’s like … a lost art form.”


Last updated: 8:07 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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