On April 20, for the sixth year in a row, vinyl enthusiasts and collectors across the nation celebrated Record Store Day by flocking to small, indie music stores to pick up free limited and promotional records.
And it wasn’t a gathering of tie-dye-clad baby boomers quietly rifling through 30-year-old selections. The Groove, a house converted into a record store in Nashville, Tenn., hosted a unique party to celebrate the vinyl event. Chrome Pony, a local indie band just returned from South by Southwest, supplied the live music, while graffiti artists sprayed their artwork on a dividing wall in an alley behind the band. The enthusiastic crowd, enjoying free beer, was mostly young.
The celebration at The Groove and thousands of other stores illustrates a huge shift in the music industry. Vinyl record sales are at a 15-year high, and according to Billboard.com, shot up from 990,000 in 2007 to 4.5 million in 2012.
The skyrocketing sales are at the center of a perfect storm for vinyl enthusiasts—younger listeners are discovering older music and are driving a push to return to a more “real” sound and listening experience.
Kyle Davis, 22, the drummer for Chrome Pony and a recent graduate of Belmont University, sees a pattern among musicians and within the music business.
“A lot of people my age are going through their parents’ record collection, realizing music from the 60s and 70s was great,” he said.
Meanwhile, their parents, who grew up changing needles, worrying about cartridges, and adjusting the speed on their turntables ask their kids, “Why bother?” The answer, according to Davis, is pretty simple: “A lot of people think it sounds better.”
While CDs and mp3s are often clearer and always more portable, music lovers are not convinced they sound better. The general consensus is that vinyl offers a warmer and more open tone.
Monya Elfi, president of IDK Media, wrote for the Huffington Post about how iPods and portable music may have made music more convenient, but also distanced the listener from the raw sound. “There was a certain sense of deep involvement and personal connection to the music attached to the entire process of buying and listening to a vinyl,” Elfi said.
The experience of rifling through countless records, taking a chance on a new band, admiring the artwork, and reading the lyrics is only the beginning. After listeners have gone through the trouble of ensuring the vinyl and the turntable are clean, selecting the speed, lifting the tone arm, and ever-so-gently dropping the needle on the record, it’s unlikely they’ll want to stop listening any time soon.
“People make it a point to sit down, put on a record, and listen to an entire record. … There’s no option to hit ‘next,’” unlike listening on an iPod or computer, Davis said.
But music lovers coming to vinyl for the first time will discover it’s not necessarily a cheaper way to enjoy their favorite tunes. While it’s not difficult to walk out of a music store with two or three records for less than $10, the turntables needed to play the records aren’t as affordable. Low-end models, which don’t offer the best sound quality, start at about $100 and usually come with a built-in USB output so listeners can make digital copies of their records.
Beyond that, many vinyl enthusiasts would probably argue “decent” sounding turntables start at around $300 and can go much, much higher.
Take, for instance, VPI Turntables Industries, whose new model was touted by CNET as the best sound of the 2013 New York City Audio Show. According to the company’s website, turntables start out around $1,500 and go up to $15,000.
While some new turntables can cost as much as a new car, younger people are still finding ways to play vinyl, even if it means blowing the dust off long-forgotten equipment in their parents’ attic.
Meanwhile, those same parents are immersing themselves in the digital world, complete with mp3s and social media. This role reversal has Davis laughing about the unique way vinyl is able to pull younger people into a new world, out of the technology to enjoy music their parents enjoyed in their youth.
“My mom loves Facebook,” Davis said. “I love her old records.”