For Mitch Hull, that first visit to The Vinyl Countdown was like a kid walking into Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory, only the walls weren’t covered with tasty sweets. They were covered with vinyl – the 180-gram vinyl that is used in the making of a new wave of record albums.
“I’d never been anywhere like it,” says the 21-year-old Oral Roberts University student. “I had fallen in love with albums, but had no idea there were album stores around anymore, until I walked in here. Albums. Albums everywhere!”
That’s right. Record albums – or LPs, as some might call them – do still exist. And they don’t just exist. They’re flourishing all across the country and at a handful of Oklahoma retail shops that specialize in what many people may have thought was a lost product.
“No, records aren’t dead,” says Justin Sowers, co-owner of Guestroom Records, with locations in Oklahoma City and Norman. “In fact, despite what a lot of people may have thought, records never went completely away when compact discs and iPods came onto the scene.”
Nationally, the manufacture and sales of vinyl records is back on the rise, after years of significant drop-off that began sometime in the late 1980s. It was during the latter part of that decade that American music enthusiasts – for the most part – ventured away from vinyl, latching onto cassette tapes and then compact discs because of convenience and portability.
Although recent years have been brutal for the music industry as a whole, record sales have skyrocketed. A lone bright spot in a struggling music industry, vinyl sales have nearly quadrupled in the last five years while album sales in general have plummeted. In 2006, vinyl record sales totaled 858,000, according to Billboard.com. In 2010, the last full year of data, vinyl sales came out to 2.8 million – an increase of 326 percent over those four years.
Vinyl is impractical in so many ways – bulky, fragile and expensive.
Even in the “lean” album years of the 1980s and ‘90s, there were a few die-hard fans who wanted nothing but their old record albums. Their reasons varied, but many still argue that the sound quality of vinyl was never that inferior to cassettes and/or compact discs.
“There’s something unique about vinyl that the other music forms don’t have,” says Dave Bynum, owner of Tulsa’s Vinyl Countdown record store. “Admittedly, the old albums and the old style turntables had some pop and hiss to them, and I think that was one of the things that led some people to look for what they considered cleaner music.
“But people who truly love music and people who want to have a musical experience like nothing else choose vinyl, because vinyl has a warmth and a depth to it that CDs and MP3s just don’t have. There’s something to the whole music experience with vinyl that is special and that you can’t get any other way,” he says.
Hull, too young to remember when vinyl was in its earlier heyday during the 1960s-70s, agrees.
“As I grew up, I’d listen to my parents’ old LPs,” he says. “People like the Stones and Led Zeppelin. Then I came in to the Vinyl Countdown right after they opened, and it was like walking into heaven on earth. I couldn’t believe it. There were records everywhere – old ones, new ones, and I just can’t get enough of them.”
Sowers says that a few record stores managed to survive even during the ‘80s and ‘90s by selling used albums to collectors. Albums were also popular at flea markets and other discount vendors, but the mass market for new albums never completely died, thanks to America’s independent music companies.
“There have always been new albums coming out,” Sowers says. “They just weren’t with the big label companies and they weren’t usually the big name performers. It was mostly independent producers and what we call local and regional artists – but there were new albums still coming out.”
Analog music (for albums and even the old 45 single play records) is recorded as sound waves etched, or pressed, into the grooves of a vinyl record album. As the needle of a record player passes through the grooves, it vibrates in a manner corresponding to the etched-in sound waves, Sowers explains. Those vibrations are then amplified and played through speakers.
Digital music – such as CDs and MP3 titles – starts as analog sound waves but it’s then converted and stored as sets of numbers – about 44,000 numbers for each second of music. When it is played back, the numbers are re-converted back into a bitstream that “approximates an analog wave.”
Sowers and Bynum also noted that today’s LPs have a much better sound than “traditional” albums, because the old records were 100-gram products and today’s records are 180-gram.
“It just gives you a deeper, better truer sound,” Bynum says. “I still think even the old albums had better sound and more character than digital music, but the new albums are really sweet when you put them on a turntable and sit back.”
Both Bynum and Sowers understand that albums will always suffer from the fact that they aren’t very portable – and we live in a portable world. Both men admit quickly they own and listen to MP3 players and both have extensive CD collections. But their preference, as music lovers, is vinyl.
“Vinyl may be delicate, and it may not be as portable or whatever people say,” Bynum says. “But vinyl will always be the choice for people who truly love the experience of music in its truest sense. There’s nothing like vinyl records and there never will be.”