Here's an experiment to try at home: Put a CD (in its case) on your coffee table. Say, a Beatles or Stones album.
Then put a vinyl LP (in its jacket) of the same album next to it. (Surely there's a Beatles album in your attic that you replaced years ago.)
See which one a passerby picks up first. Smart money says it's the LP.
Compact discs are a lovely invention. They're small, portable, incredibly cheap to produce and, as millions of teenagers and increasingly enraged record companies are finding out, very easy to convert into audio files and put on the Internet.
But vinyl. . . well, vinyl is just cooler. From the tiny grooves upon which your turntable's diamond-tipped needle rides to that sleeve with a full square foot of cover art to liner notes you don't have to squint to read to that warm, organic sound, vinyl is just more fun. No, LPs aren't as convenient, and no, you can't play them in the car. But still.
Despite 20 years of record labels swearing that CDs provide "perfect sound forever," there are thousands of consumers who will swear on a stack of vintage Blue Note LPs that vinyl is so superior an aesthetic experience that there's just no comparison.
This weekend, music junkies of varying degrees of fanaticism -- many from as far away as Europe and Asia -- descend on the the semi-annual Austin Record Convention. Some will buy CDs, some will buy LPs, some will buy both. But the heart and soul of the show is still, as the Avengers' classic punk song "Thin White Line" put it, "black plastic discs going round/And round and round and round."
Spin the black circle
Among serious fetishists, there's never been any debate that vinyl records are superior to digital sound. But has this prompted a vinyl resurgence? Maybe, maybe not. The number of units sold is so small that any shift in sales can wildly sway percentages. Citing SoundScan data, Geoff Mayfield, Billboard's director of charts and senior analyst, said vinyl's share of album sales this year is 0.23 percent, compared with 0.20 percent a year ago. Jon Kunz, owner of local retailer Waterloo Records, says new and used LPs comprise 4 to 5 percent of his business; 12-inch singles kick that up to 6 to 7 percent. But at specialty stores such as Alien Records, which caters to techno fans and DJs, "about 60 percent of our customers are just buying vinyl," according to manager Chris Tropiano.
But Waterloo and Alien cater to "serious" music scenesters. In the overall retail landscape, we're essentially talking less than one percent of the market here -- "a niche within a niche within a niche," as Brian DiFrank puts it. And if you should stop by DiFrank's store, Whetstone Audio on Guadalupe Street, he will be happy to invite you into that niche by reopening (or, if you're young enough, opening) your ears to the pleasures of vinyl. An old record pops and cracks like a fireplace until the music kicks in. Then you'll hear the attack of the pick hitting the guitar strings. You'll hear the kick drum that could have used a touch of oil before the session started. You'll hear Vic Chesnutt on a system that costs $18,000.
"I'm not selling boomboxes to college kids," DiFrank says.
What he's selling, he says, is quality. DiFrank attracts a range of customers -- guys who won't stop tweaking their systems, people who are constitutionally contrarian. Then there are the people who just love good music, like Craig Schilling, a project manager at Dell who owns some 2,000 LPs, 1,500 CDs and another 1,800 CD-Rs.
"I grew up in the '70s buying albums," Schilling said. "When I was a little kid, my mom, who was a music lover, had a little phonograph and she taught me how to play albums and let me play them at an early age. She emphasized the importance of being careful with them and respecting them, so they almost had a totemic significance for me. They were these mysterious black discs with music on them and album covers and the whole bit."
Austin is filled with collectors who feel the same way. Fabulous Thunderbirds drummer Mike Buck says, "Vinyl is my passion." A well-known local authority on blues and R&B, the soft-spoken 51-year-old can often be found working at Antone's, poring over the latest albums someone has brought. He has about 3,000 albums and "roughly" 10,000 45s.
"I've made my peace with CDs, but vinyl simply has more personality," he says. "I enjoy listening to CDs in my car, but with vinyl, there's a history involved."
For Court Huber, assistant dean of the Red McCombs School of Business, it has less to do with history and more to do with sound. He can't stand CDs. Can't. Stand. Them.
"I have about thirty or forty CDs that people have given to me as a joke," Huber says (very pleasantly and good-naturedly, it should be noted). Compare this with the 23,000 LPs he has at his home in San Antonio. Huber bought his first album, a Kingston Trio record, in 1958 and began collecting a year later at the age of 10. He focused on rock and pop in the '60s, moving on to new wave acts like Elvis Costello. He turned his attention towards jazz in 1992. "Of the last 10,000 pieces I've bought, probably 8,000 are jazz."
Huber simply finds digital sound offensive to the ear. "To me, CDs are not music, they are a facsimile of music," he says. "The problem with CDs is that they were sold to America as this perfect, ultimate sound. (It's not,) it's a hard, brittle sound."
Huber's business professor side admits that CDs are a better product than LPs. "I consider CDs to be the McDonalds of music media. They're very convenient and easy to deal with, but not if you care about the food."
For Huber, as for many audiophiles, good sound is simply a search for the truth. "It's like removing layers of the onion down toward the center or having Vaseline on your glasses. There's more magic in the sound of vinyl than people know."
Recent attempts to pump up digital sound quality with SACD or DVD audio are doomed, DiFrank says, because they're merely incremental improvements. Super Audio CDs, for example, simply use direct stream digital technology to follow the original sound wave more closely than traditional CDs. Jeff McCord, music director at KUT-FM, 90.5, recently heard SACDs at a friend's house and was impressed. "It's clearly the closest thing to vinyl I've heard," said McCord, in the midst of his station's hectic pledge drive. "They got very, very close to vinyl. They definitely felt more live, more in your face, like vinyl does." Still, he says, if you have the right (read: pricey) equipment, "the overall aesthetic quality of vinyl has not been beaten by CDs."
Schilling allowed that digital technology may one day come close to vinyl quality, but, "It'll never be the same. The format's never gonna die. There's an emotional aspect to a vinyl record. Whenever I play records for friends, I get the same reaction -- 'Wow, I'd forgotten how good records sound.' You'll always be able to tell the difference, on an emotional level if not an acoustic level. Records are always going to make you feel different than a CD."
Vinyl to sample
Bob Irwin couldn't agree more, and he should know. Back in 1989, major labels had long since created the booming CD market by reissuing old albums with mediocre, hastily mastered sound. Irwin, a former buyer for the Albany, N.Y.-based Records N Such retail chain, took a longer view. He started Sundazed Records, a label that specialized in audiophile vinyl and carefully remastered CD reissues.
The label thrived, and Irwin found work as a consultant, helping to launch Sony's Legacy reissue label. These days, he oversees the remastering of albums on Sundazed, Legacy, BMG and Verve, mastering many of them at Sundazed's studio in upstate New York.
"It's not easy to make a great record compared to making a compact disc," Irwin says from his office. "It's much more labor-intensive. There are five or six steps of quality control that you don't need with digital media," from cutting a lacquer master -- an increasingly lost art -- to the delicate electroplating that goes into making the metal stampers that physically press the record.
As far as good, old-fashioned wax goes, Sundazed specializes in the sorts of projects that make collectors drool, from a mono version of Bob Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde" to a double LP version of Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."
Irwin thinks catering to the vinyl buyer might be the easiest way for the brick-and-mortar retailers to survive. Though it's not the sort of statistic you can support with SoundScan numbers, Irwin says, "As far as I can tell, the record stores that are doing well are those that have killer vinyl departments."
Could the audiophiles be solely responsible for that? Unlikely. So who is creating the demand?
Pat Thomas runs 4 Men With Beards, another label that specializes in reissues of classic albums. The label's name is a pun, a play on the stereotypical record collector's look: "Most of the guys who buy the stuff are guys who have beards," Thomas, says. Hence, their output is largely "for men with beards." But though his and his audience's taste runs to classic stuff like Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield, he freely admits it's the young DJ and hip-hop crowd, that's driving the reissue market. "There's whole generation of kids who want stuff like jazz, funk and soul," all of which can be sampled for hip-hop tracks or worked into eclectic DJ sets.
Irwin and Thomas say that most of their titles sell from 2,000 to 5,000 copies, with the occasional hit coming near or breaking five figures. But that's about as good as it gets. Indie rock, which almost single-handedly brought the 7-inch single back from the dead in the '90s, no longer supports the vinyl medium. Phil Waldorf, owner and operator of Austin's Misra Records, which puts out Texas bands such as Centro-Matic and Shearwater, says he will only release a record on vinyl that's he's sure he can sell out of -- and even then that means only "300-500" pieces.
Travis Higdon, who owns and operates Austin indie rock label Peek-A-Boo Records, started his label putting out singles. But not anymore.
"It's gotten really hard to sell," he says. "MP3s have just totally replaced the 7-inch. There's just no point to making them."
As for LPs, he only does them for acts he's sure can sell, say, a one-time pressing of 1,000 copies. But he wishes he could do them for every band. "It just doesn't feel like a real album unless it physically is an LP."
Diamond needles or jewel cases?
Pat Thomas doesn't fetishize the LP. "I'm in a room with about 6,000 LPs and 6,000 CDs," Thomas says from his home. "Being a vinyl junkie, I was anti-CD for about a year. But when Rykodisc (Records) put out those Bowie CDs with all the bonus tracks, I thought, 'Yeah, sure, why not.' "
That seems to be about right. Both formats have their advantages. LPs have better sound and better packaging; it's impossible to imagine the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's" acquiring its totemic power if it was originally framed by the puny confines of a jewel case. CDs, on the other hand, are more portable, less susceptible to damage and contain a lot more music per square inch.
But the latter is a mixed blessing. Perhaps the greatest crime CDs have committed against popular music is to give artists too much freedom. Back in the heyday of the LP, an artist was forced to say what he or she had to say in about 40 minutes. As a result, good artists put out albums that were tightly constructed and compelling from start to finish. Today, with 70-plus minutes to play with, artists stuff their albums with half-cooked tracks that wouldn't have made the cut back in the '70s. (Yes, in those halcyon days bands occasionally made 70-minute LPs. They were called "double albums," and most of them were terrible.)
No wonder so many young fans download individual songs and have no loyalty to the album as a format; these days, sitting through an entire CD is, too often, a chore, not a rite. And that, perhaps, is the final irony of the CD revolution. CDs have made it possible for people to surround themselves with more music that, paradoxically, they listen to less. You listen to an LP. You pop in a CD.
The needle ... and the damage done by the digital revolution
Here's an experiment to try at home: Put a CD (in its case) on your coffee table. Say, a Beatles or Stones album.