Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Viva la Vinyl

From the way Marc Tucci describes it, last November’s closing of Dance Tracks, a vinyl store on East 3rd Street, was just the beginning. A half year later, he helped his friend – and former owner of the shop – lug a massive vinyl collection to Jersey City. At an estimated 30,000 records, the entire collection filled 200 boxes and two UHaul trucks. It wasn’t merely the volume of the collection, but the depth, that made it so impressive. Tucci, who works at the DJ training school Dubspot, describes it as a “piece of music history” that traces genre progression from soul to disco to house to techno. So with all that material on hand, what does his friend plan to do with it? “Digitalize it and sell it,” Tucci says with a laugh.

Such a course of action seems sacrilegious, but vinyl no longer has the same place that it once did. What was once the preferred format is now a niche market, and the gap between LP and CD sales is enormous. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, in 2007, there were 1.3 million shipments of LPs, compared to 511 million shipments of CDs. However, shipments of LPs increased 36 percent compared to 2006, while shipments of CDs dropped over 17 percent. The rise of legal digital downloads, such as iTunes or Amazon.com’s digital store, has also reshaped the pie.

But like the resilient polymer that it is composed of, vinyl refuses to go away. The format has been eclipsed by technological advances – initially CDs and most recently, MP3s and iPods – but has advantages that have enabled it to withstand changes in the music industry. Audiophiles praise its superior sound quality: vinyl is played continuously, while digital formats use compression, distorting volume levels. There’s also vinyl’s physical presence, with large, impressive album artwork and a size that’s unmatched by sleeker, modern formats. The downside is its unwieldiness, as turntables and record players are large, expensive devices. Still, vinyl has endured, even as CD sales plummet and new technologies are developed.

One such development is causing more and more DJs to trade in their turntables for laptops. Even Dubspot has abandoned traditional methods of beatmatching, instead using digital programs such as Serato Scratch Live and Ableton Live. Serato syncs a DJ’s scratching of a “blank,” placeholder CD to the digital sound file, removing vinyl from the equation. Ableton simplifies beatmatching by displaying tempo information, in some cases automatically transitioning tracks.

“They’re definitely missing a piece,” Tucci says of Dubspot’s students, who are trained exclusively in digital formats, but he believes, “It’s not better or worse on vinyl. It’s different.”

For many, the differences are an advantage. Instead of having to carry a bag of records, aspiring DJs only need a laptop – akin to trading a stack of CDs for a slim iPod. And although programs like Serato are just as expensive as real turntables, Tucci says that they are much easier to fill, whether through legal or illegal downloads or file-swapping with friends. The result was lethal to Dance Tracks, which offered six turntables for customers to try out records, but couldn’t recoup enough from sales to survive.

“People just stopped buying vinyl - it’s too heavy, too cumbersome,” says Tucci. “Serato was a savior to them, but it also killed.”

But the recent rise in LP shipments suggests that vinyl is making a comeback. Others say it never left in the first place.

“It never really went away,” says Duane Harriott, who has worked at the record store Other Music for eight years and DJed for 15. He says that many of his friends began as simple music enthusiasts, starting out as collectors and fans of vinyl. Eventually, they began DJing. Harriott describes 12-inches as the best format for techno, house and older hip-hop records, comparing the sound quality to seeing a movie in a theater and a CD to renting a DVD and bringing it home.

The analogy doesn’t quite hold when it comes to economics, since projecting a film in a theater costs far less than manufacturing vinyl in bulk.

“The music industry was trying to phase it out,” Harriott says of vinyl. He notes that CDs have a far greater profit margin, since they are much cheaper to make. But despite a 43 percent drop in vinyl sales between 2000 and 2006, according to Nielson Soundscan, it has bounced back in the last year.

As a result, even large retailers such as Best Buy have begun testing LP sales. “They see the trend and follow,” says Harriott, but believes that larger chains are catering to an older demographic, who are looking for the Eagles or Lynyrd Skynyrd on the cheap, rather than the latest in independent releases.

Such customers would be better served visiting Other Music, which faces Tower Record’s former location on 4th Street. The store has survived, in part, because its selectivity, including indie rock staples, as well as more eclectic genres such as reggae and world music. But Dan Hougland, who has also worked at the store for eight years, has a description of the store that might offend snobbish music lovers.

“This store is a boutique,” he says, noting the absence of listening stations, and the store’s location near Broadway, a major commercial artery. “That classic model is taking a beating,” he says of more hole-in-the-wall-type shops.

In February 2007, Other Music opened an online digital music store, but Hougland says that digital sales don’t make up a significant part of the store’s earnings – for now. Meanwhile, he says vinyl sales have remained steady, despite a mixed attitude from larger labels towards the format.

“Sometimes the artist will insist that major labels put out a vinyl,” he says. “It’s definitely someone twisting their arms.” However, independent labels, such as Merge, Light in the Attic and Victory Ricords, have embraced the format, often offering a free digital download of an album bundled with the LP. Merge is even offering reissues on vinyl, most recently the Magnetic Fields’ The Charm of the Highway Strip and Spoon’s Girls Can Tell and A Series of Sneaks. Relatively big names in the indie world, but a far cry from the Eagles.

Ed Christman, senior retail correspondent for Billboard, explained that releasing vinyl can be mutually beneficial for smaller labels and smaller stores on an episode of WNYC’s “Soundcheck” last August.

“People are looking for every niche they can to grow their business,” he said. “If you’re a small label and you put out vinyl you’re not competing against the majors so much, although the majors are starting to become aware of the trend and are starting to get into it. Whereas vinyl is only two-tenths of one percent of overall sales, at that small label it could be two or three or four percent of sales. At an independent record store, vinyl could be as much as eight or ten percent of overall sales.”

Vinyl’s age can also be an advantage, as particularly rare records have become collector’s items. Even obscure tracks can be invaluable as material to sample while DJing. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s trapped on vinyl, stuff that falls through the cracks,” says Other Music’s Hougland. Some artists have created albums entire albums from vinyl samples, including DJ Shadow’s classic Endtroducing… and the Avalanches’ Since I Left You.

It’s clear that vinyl has advantages, but even some supporters have expressed uncertainty about its future.

“It looked like it was when the DJ as superstar-artist first came back and everyone wanted to do that, but vinyl sadly is not making a comeback.” says Miss Eleanor, host of the minimal techno show, Bentwave, on WNYU. (She spins mostly vinyl on her show, but occasionally uses CDs.)

While blockbuster DJs such as Paul van Dyk and Tiësto continue to command a large following and draw a crowd to their sets, there is a disparity between attending a packed show and purchasing – or following in the footsteps – an artists’ work. Lesser known artists are even more marginalized when it comes to translating a live following to sales, and the results have hit electronic-based stores hard.

“Most of the great record stores that paved the way for the New York dance scene are now closed,” Eleanor says, citing Throb, Eight Ball Records, Temple Records, Liquid Sky, and Breakbeat Science as casualties, in addition to Dance Tracks. These stores were notable not only as shopping destinations, but some also released electronic music on their own imprint.

Vinyl also has limitations when it comes to publicity, which may partially explain some labels’ hesitance to embrace the format.

“Vinyl has always been a club outlet,” says Justin Nichols, a former project manager at Astralwerks and six-year veteran of the music industry. He cites Astralwerks artists Basement Jaxx, Hot Chip and the Chemical Brothers as bands who have benefited from remixing and DJ-based exposure. He says that the label maintains a DJ servicing list with 150-members, who are sent vinyl promos during a marketing campaign. However, publicity is limited when it comes to the format. “Only a couple magazines will do reviews off vinyl,” he says.

Vinyl’s status as a tastemaker has also diminished in clubs. While “white label” bootlegs remain popular, buzz proliferates more readily online. The French electronic duo Justice, for example, became a viral sensation with their distinct music video for the song, “D.A.N.C.E.” The single also spawned legions of remixes, but instead of pressing them onto vinyl, remixes circulated on various mp3 blogs. Meanwhile, Justice toured while using laptops.

“Not that many people hear music in clubs,” says Nichols. “The majority of people are just there to have a good time. They don’t care if the DJ is using vinyl or not.”

He also says that labels wouldn’t be more inclined to sign an artist simply because he or she used vinyl. Factors such as online presence, size of fan base and quality of music are more important, he says. “How something is created doesn’t matter. The end is result is what does,” he says.

A similar mindset emerges on the hyperactive online music blogosphere, the current tastemaker of choice.

Jeff Meltz is an active member of the blogosphere, as a photographer and founder of the music blog, thecultureofme.com. Along with most bloggers, Meltz saturates his site with mp3 downloads. While he appreciates their convenience, he finds the entire package lacking.

“There’s nothing physical to keep,” says Meltz. “You put it on your iPod and never play it more than once. Vinyl is the only remaining art form of music as a physical thing.” He says he owns hundreds of 7-inch singles and 12-inch records, but he’s aware that perceptions are changing. He cites one of his acquaintances, the DJ rekLES, who was named best DJ in New York by The L Magazine and Time Out New York – despite the fact that he only uses CDs.

Vinyl remains an anachronism, but an enduring one. In a music industry that’s increasingly based on intangibles, such as internet buzz and digital assets, physical records seem like an anomaly. Josh Madell, co-owner Other Music, alluded to the “fetish” factor in WNYC’s “Soundcheck.” The feeling of opening the sleeve and putting a needle to the groove is an experience that’s far more organic than clicking on an mp3 or pressing play on an iPod. There’s a greater connection between fan and artist, says Madell, because vinyl is a more physical experience, even if imperfections such as scratches or crackling exist.

But in other ways, vinyl’s longevity is a predecessor of the internet’s D.I.Y. mentality. The effort of crate digging – searching out old forgotten releases – is a firm rejection of musical hegemony. The experience of discovering an artist and sharing it to with the world – or at least an immediate circle of friends – is far more visceral when the format is LP. Still, one can’t deny the convenience of the internet and the potentially massive exposure that can be gained.

Thus, Madell imagines a future of vinyl and mp3s, with CDs falling out of favor. In some ways, it’s already happened. Gloomy music industry talk always focuses on CDs, because they remain the dominant format, but in many ways, CDs are already more antiquated than vinyl. Instead of paying for the physical product, customers are essentially paying for the labor behind the music, as the artist, producer and record labels all receive a cut of the profits. But that slim, silver disc is disposable, and the minimal amounts of artwork and liner notes included are also unlikely to entice more than a few looks.

Vinyl, by comparison, is all about the physical product. In some cases, it’s less convenient to listen to, but the packaging and presence of it makes it worthwhile. In some extreme cases, vinyl is a collector’s item, and even the music is secondary. “They buy it for posterity and they download the album to listen to,” says blogger Meltz.

Whatever the individual reasons, vinyl continues to stick around, and it doesn’t look as if it will be leaving soon.

“I don’t think it’ll ever go away completely. There will always be collectors,” says former Astralwerks project manager Nichols. “I’m still a vinyl fanatic.”


Chris said...

Does Beatmixing (the dj) lose some of it's credibility when being done using software?

Roland said...

Depends who you ask, I guess. I'm amazed by people who can beatmatch real vinyl. But as someone who wants to get involved in that stuff, I think it's really expensive to start out. Marc really made a good point: software like Serato costs as much as the turntables, but mp3s are way cheaper than vinyl records. To answer your question, I'm definitely more impressed personally by real beatmatching, but I also don't have the cash to start doing it, unfortunately.

Btw, there's a good article on Serato here: http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/livewire/arts_entertainment/thats_so_smooth/

Thanks for stopping by!

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