Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Heavy vinyl pressing of band's albums part of wave of high-quality record reissues

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com
The 180-gram pressing of the Ramones' 'Rocket to Russia' is quite rigid compared with a Dynaflex 90-gram pressing of Harry Nilsson's 'Nilsson Schmilsson.' Alberto Martinez photos american-statesman

The first four Ramones albums "Ramones" (1976), "Leave Home," "Rocket to Russia" (both 1977) and "Road to Ruin" (1978) arrive in stores today pressed from the original master tapes on 180-gram vinyl, each retailing for $17.98.

This might seem a small thing and in some ways, it is. This music is not new.

But it is unimpeachable. Four of the best rock records of the 1970s, sounding as good as they possibly can in 2011, on the medium for which they were recorded. The Ramones, especially these records, are a universal solvent. It's all in there — the bedrock of '70s punk and '80s hardcore built on bits of girl group pop, Beatles' singles, glam rock, power pop, liquefied into one of the more original sounds of all time. (People who tell you they play guitar like Johnny Ramone are lying; the end.) If you have never heard them and own a turntable, walk, don't run.

These records are wonderful in and of themselves, but their existence also fits into a larger trend. With music easily available in digital form online, it can be tough getting people into a record store at all. Reissues of classic albums (or initial offerings of new albums) on heavyweight vinyl is one way to do it. These are records for people who really love buying records.

And more people are loving buying records. "Since we opened in 2005, our vinyl sales have increased about 30 percent each year while CD sales have stayed flat or dipped a little," said End of an Ear Records owner Dan Plunkett. "Our vinyl and CD sales are at about 50-50 now."

Waterloo Records owner John Kunz says that that vinyl comprises 20 to 25 percent of the store's music sales. "We never got out of vinyl and as things were going out of print on vinyl, we would tell companies, 'Don't let it go out of print, it's a mistake,'" Kunz said, "It's been in the past five years or so that they have been listening."The phrase "180-gram vinyl" refers, as one might imagine, to the weight of the vinyl LP. For most of the time that LPs have been produced they have ranged between 90 (extremely thin and flexible) and 200 grams (you could eat dinner off it). The general rule is heavier vinyl means better sound and less wear on the record.

But vinyl is a petroleum product. In the 1970s, as both oil prices rose and the popularity of mail-order record clubs rose, the thickness and quality of LPs made by some companies dropped off the table, resulting in very thin records, some as low as 80 or 90 grams; they often sounded comparatively lousy and warped easily. These days, most LPs hover around 130 to 140 grams. With the vinyl revival of the past decade or so, record labels have been producing more and more "audiophile" records of new and old recordings at 180 grams.

The problem, of course, is higher cost.

"Depending on the quantity being pressed, the additional unit costs can be as high as an additional $2 or closer to a dollar," said Matador Records co-owner Gerard Cosloy, who has released records from everyone from Sonic Youth to Liz Phair to Pavement. "There are other elements that might or might not figure into an expensive vinyl package: gatefold sleeve, print stock, any extra items you're tossing in."

So an 180-gram pressing can easily tack several dollars onto the price of a record, a price many record companies, large and small, figure the collector is willing to pay. That is: If you're buying a new record at all, you might as well buy a nicely pressed one.

"I think the sound thing is a bit of a myth," said Phil Waldorf, co-owner of record label mini-conglomerate Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar/Dead Oceans, whose newest hit is the Bon Iver album, which was released in a standard 140-gram pressing. "But (the vinyl revival) used to be very niche. As it becomes more popular and people want more of it, it's going to be harder to lay down $25 or $30 for an album when they can buy three or four used ones."

Ah yes, the used market. In Austin, a town blessed with a ton of record stores, a beginning record collector still can find a ton of records that just need a decent cleaning for 99 cents apiece.

Vinyl reissues are always going to be competing with the used market. And record nerds go crazy when they see deluxe reissues of Billy Joel's "The Stranger" when perfectly decent used copies of the same record fill bins everywhere. That's vinyl that could be used re-pressing something that's been out of print since the Nixon administration.

Add to this the weird punch line of these Ramones records: They have been on 180-gram vinyl for years.

Before more and more major labels jumped on the vinyl revival bandwagon, they would license certain titles to smaller companies to do a vinyl pressing. Sometimes the companies had access to original master tapes, sometimes they did not.

The Ramones albums were licensed to a company called Scorpio, which pressed them using a digital master, which was a generation removed from the original. Priced at $11.99, they sold well for years. (And yes, the new versions do sound better, as good as they've ever sounded.)

"I always keep those records in stock," said End of an Ear's Plunkett. The South First Street shop is a local favorite among serious record nerds. "For my store, they are one of those blue-chip bands."

Price is increasingly a consideration. "At Matador, we recently began reissuing a number of catalog titles on thinner vinyl, designed to sell for closer to $10 than $20," Cosloy said. "This was in response to fan demand — not everyone is dying for the 180-gram vinyl. If a record is poorly recorded and mastered, you're not necessarily hearing all the benefits. I have plenty of records that are thinner that still sound really great."

Even Plunkett, who has plenty of customers who buy the heaviest, most expensive vinyl they can, including dinner-plate thick 220-gram jazz records, is on the fence about 180-gram records. "I don't know how much of a difference it makes," he said. "There's a perception that it does, and if it's the only kind around and you want the record, you will probably buy it."

We'll see if this holds true for Ramones albums that sound better, but cost a few dollars more. Of course, many older Austinites already have them.

"(The vinyl revival) is the best generation bridge I've ever seen," Kunz said. "You see 17- or 18-year old kids finding out their parents and grandparents are a lot cooler than they thought."

jgross@statesman.com 912-5926