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Resurgence in vinyl records–Domain for sale

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Resurgence in vinyl records

The magic of vinyl has worked its way into the hearts of music lovers.

DID we see it coming? Probably not and even the sternest of analogue scribes would not have been able to foretell its recent uprising. But that’s really what’s happening at the moment.


Believe it or not, 20 odd years after it was claimed that the vinyl LP (long play) had passed its use-by-date, records are returning … and in a big way, too.

Nope, we’re not talking about having to scour some dingy storeroom of a former collector, or turning up at thrift shops or second-hand stores to pore over a mouldy selection of titles. We’re talking about brand new records (by present mainstream artistes, even) pressed and shipped to music stores for the current generation.


Just imagine, while we’re so far ahead in the digital domain – even the longevity of the CD has been severely threatened, and downloads continue to be the rage and predominant way of listening to music – the LP record has plotted a course right back into the consciousness of the music listener.

Sure, well-maintained, used records can be found in specialist hi-fi shops but finding the latest titles in regular music stores has been an alien concept. But that might all change soon enough. In fact, you can already find titles at MPH and Tower Records these days.

Supersize me: The smaller artwork on CD sleeves can barely compare to that of the vinyl LP.

The rising tide

The global conglomerate Amazon.com – which arguably has the most extensive CD inventory – launched its own LP record inventory last October, increasing its selection to 150,000 titles across 20 genres. It’s obvious there is money to be made here, which is why Amazon has embarked on this venture.

According to Nielsen Soundscan (an information system that tracks sales of music and music video products throughout the United States and Canada), record sales in the US represent a fraction of total album sales at 0.2%, compared to 10% for digital downloads and 89.7% for CDs. These figures could be grossly misinterpreted since LPs’ turnover tends to be greater at smaller indie outlets where they do better than CDs. Even then, a staggering 990,000 vinyl LPs were sold last year, up 15.4% from the 858,000 snapped up in 2006.

The percentage of sales increase of LP records has exceeded that of the CD today with WEA Corp, the American distribution company for Warner Music Group, reporting a 30% increase in LP sales last year. The sale of vinyl records has soared six-fold between 2001 and 2005. Artistes like Arctic Monkeys, the Raconteurs and Pete Doherty now outsell CDs by more than two to one, reports Virgin Megastores.

Apparently, a large population of purchasers include the younger generation, who probably never saw, held or played a record in its heyday. Yup, dusting off Dad’s old record spinner has yielded quite a few thrills.

Sure, audiophiles or listeners a little more serious on the sonic side of things have rarely veered from their analogue allegiance, but this is clearly a time for the converts.

Does this mean the once ubiquitous compact cassette could be the main format once again? Hardly likely, given its finite life span, what with its deteriorating tape oxide and all.

So the question that begs to be asked is, how can a format that was considered inferior to the compact disc’s exquisite digital technology be making waves once again?

The revolution: Some 20 years after it was claimed that the vinyl LP had passed its use-by-date, records are returning … and in a big way, too.

Personal notes

The advent of technology has always yielded backlashes. Take, for example, the music-making process: musicians are returning to vintage musical instruments and recording techniques for audio recordings these days. The vinyl revolution is no different and there are sound reasons for this.

Though this may be a hotly debated topic, an LP in good condition sounds warmer and provides greater ambient detail in recordings compared to CDs or digital downloads. It’s also a commonly known fact that MP3 files produce thinner sounds, especially when they are compressed into a lower resolution.

When it comes to artwork, there is just no comparison between what you’d find on a CD sleeve and an LP equivalent. Yes, size does matter. A larger surface naturally means more details on the artwork and some LPs are truly sights to behold.

And compared to downloads, by owning an LP, you get the sense of owning a piece of the artiste – represented by the record, the sleeve and details on the liner notes like the period during which the album was recorded, the musicians involved, the people behind the production, the instruments used, lyrics … minute details to some but indispensable information for the serious music enthusiast.

The vinyl LP has made itself the only one true high definition audio format. Cast a blind eye on the failed and now dead SACD and the “plodding along” DVD-A format.

The great news for new collectors is, unless you favour schmaltzy late 1990s pop, you can pretty much get any title on LP – used or brand new.

Of course, LPs will never win in the “convenience” argument. Records attract dust and grime, will not allow you to skip tracks, and forces a listener to get off his seat to flip sides every 20-odd minutes or so, but the “feel” it imbues is worth it.

That’s the way I like it

That’s the way I like it

THE majority of the current generation listen to music through digital means, be it via the ubiquitous compact disc or downloads. That’s pretty much the scenario here anyway, but while it is a rare breed, a younger crop of listeners has been enlightened by the sight and sound of the analogue LP record.

Hard to fathom, perhaps, but three discerning music listeners share their fascination and love for the vinyl record.

Guitarist Smack, 26, of new post-punk local outfit Killur Calculateur got into records when he was introduced to the format during a gigging tour of Europe. “The vinyl culture is really big there. All the new bands make vinyl pressings of their albums and thus was born my appreciation for it,” he says.

The situation wasn’t too dissimilar for 30-year-old sales executive Boon Tan. “I got into it seven years ago while I was working with an event organiser and record store. They mainly carry electronica titles; this was when my collection began. I am not a collector and don’t usually go for out-of-print titles. I collect what I like. I’m just an enthusiast,” he says.

EJ, a 27-year-old working in the entertainment industry, was influenced by what he had read in hi-fi forums. “They talked about the so-called vinyl magic and how people actually enjoyed music better on vinyl. So I bought my first TT Goldring (cartridge) and progressed from there,” he reveals.

Record collector Smack: ‘All the new bands (in Europe) make vinyl pressings of their albums and thus was born my appreciation for it.’

Works of art

Quality sound is perhaps the most common (and obvious) reason for vinyl indulgence, but there are other quantifiable aspects to the experience that contribute just as significantly to the joys of the format. Due to the sheer size of the artwork, LP record covers are stunning works of art. And the liner notes and gatefold (folded covers) sleeve designs are just as inviting.

“The whole vinyl experience is something else … it’s the whole package. From the crackles at the start of the record and the warmth of the sound, it truly needs to be experienced,” Smack insists.

“Yes, the bigger artwork is extremely attractive, especially on classical and jazz records, where the liner notes are also lengthy and interesting,” echoes Boon.

“There is pleasure in making the effort to play an LP. I remember furiously rewinding out cassettes to hear a particular part in a song. Call it mental placebo, but LPs make you pay attention to stuff,” EJ suggests.

Titles

Smack’s listening diet on records includes screamo bands, hardcore and more. “I also listen to Portishead and alt-country stuff like Ryan Adams and Wilco,” he says.

Boon’s sonic taste buds opt for something different. “I’m open to all kinds of music but classical and jazz are my preference.”

It’s basically rock for EJ. “I don’t make a distinction but I tend to listen to rock the most. 1980s pop and motion picture soundtracks would probably be next in line. LPs I will probably play until I drop dead include The Libertines, The Cars’ Candy-O, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Portishead’s Roseland NYC Live.”

Record buying is highly enjoyable and Smack says he’s prepared to go either second-hand or brand-new. “It depends on availability. I’ve ordered on the Internet before and I’ve also gone to Amcorp Mall (in Petaling Jaya) to buy second-hand ones.”

Likewise Boon says: “Usually jazz and classical records are out of print and labels seldom want to reissue old titles on vinyl. But with some of the new bands, you can actually get new pressings.”

Converts

Collecting records can be a life-long endeavour and every collector works at his own pace. Smack has 20 odd titles in his collection while Boon is the proud owner of a 300-piece collection. “As of now, I have around 50,” shares EJ.

While any turntable is capable of playing records, the more discerning tend to favour belt-driven players. Smack opts for an old JVC while Boon has complete faith in his Technics SL 1200. “I use an entry-level Clearaudio with Goldring cartridge,” EJ enthuses.

Given their respective ages, it’s not surprising that all three were avid CD and cassette fans before arriving at their vinyl allegiance. “I am an 80s kid, so naturally, I listened to both formats,” Boon owns up.

While it’s not obvious, EJ has a theory on why vinyl might be reaching out to the younger audiences. “For the locals, I generally think they are either in pursuit of better sounding material or are playing it as a novelty. With listeners in the US, it’s probably the former. It also helps that used records are more affordable there; at least that’s the impression I get from reading the forum threads. It’s a fun and affordable way of discovering music.”

Smack has his own take on the situation, though. “Because certain bands are releasing LP titles first, fans want that sense of exclusivity and cult-type following. Bands like The Mars Volta have also released LP versions of their albums which are different from the CD, and fans want this uniqueness.”

Analogue immersions

Analogue immersions

NOTHING quite like getting the low-down on all things vinyl from a seasoned collector, and that Adrian Wong certainly is. In fact, he runs his own specialist hi-fi store, Audio Image in Petaling Jaya, with his main wares being those of the analogue realm … yes, LP records and turntables.

It is said, for example, that when a brand new record and CD of identical title are compared on modest systems, sonically, the LP is bound to come up tops.

“I suppose it is right to say records sound euphonically superior to the more clinical-sounding CDs, but records are obviously not in the forefront. CDs have greater potential in retaining bass information whereas records capture the air and finer details better. As for collectors like us, we also know which records sound good, so we naturally spend more time listening to them than the poorer pressed ones,” reveals Wong.

Records have survived all these years because of their durability.

“Records do not deteriorate with age. They will still sound good 100 years from now. CDs do not provide perfect sound forever; I’m sure you’ve seen ones with worm-like lines in which the aluminium foil has been eaten away. Records have stood the test of time.”

Wong also reveals that the highest-paying industry in the 1950s in America was the music industry. Some of the greatest think tanks were scientists and engineers, especially those working on sound. And when NASA was formed in the 1960s, all of them went over.

“That’s why recordings from this period are virtually incomparable,” he explains.

If sonic details remain contentious, then there can be no doubt that there’s something more exciting about looking at an LP cover than CD.

“LP covers are so beautiful, partly because the artwork is so much bigger and you get to see more detail. The inner sleeve and liner notes provide a wealth of information as well.”

You’re not going to find the finest detail on all CD sleeves or music downloads, especially info like the engineer involved in the recordings (down to the tape machine operators, even) or the season in the year the band recorded the album. Apparently, even LP covers (minus the record) go for sale.

Pushing sales

But this whole vinyl rebirth is more than just about nostalgia or attractive artwork. It all boils down to sound, and surprisingly, it’s the younger generation (perhaps a backlash of the iPod brigade?) who are pushing sales figures over the edge.

“People getting into vinyl are obviously serious about sound. The titles that move quickest with the younger people are indie band titles. That perhaps explains why a lot of bands release LP titles first, before making CDs and downloads available, because most listeners would like to listen to something before anyone else. This definitely plays a part in LP sales picking up.”

Although this is all much more than a fad, Wong feels LP records will never become the predominant format it once was.

“There are already new formats, particularly digital downloads. Besides, space is at a premium, so if you think CDs take up space, LPs take up even more,” he concedes.

One thing’s for sure though, turntable sales have sky-rocketed. In fact, turntable manufacturer Rega has sold 10 times more turntables recently than it did 10 years ago.

“The resurgence in turntable sales can only be good news.”

Wong provides a brief but useful buying guide for records and turntables:

Records

  • Always try to buy a record of an artiste from the artiste’s country of origin. This is because the artiste’s label will have access to the first generation master copy, from which other LPs are cut.
  • Look at the spindle marks (the hole at the centre of a record) and condition of the record. Scratched records and ones with numerous spindle marks will indicate how frequently they have been played.
  • Go for widely spaced grooves on records (which means records with minimal playing time per side). Widely spaced grooves sound better.

Turntables

  • Choose a belt-drive turntable over a direct-drive as it sounds better.
  • The turntable’s tone arm should have anti-skating compensation device to reduce tracking error.
  • Get an MM (moving magnet) cartridge, as it is easier to achieve good sound because it is more forgiving compared to an MC (moving coil) cartridge.
  • Opt for a turntable with 33 1/3 and 45rpm playback capability.