In the age of streaming music and digital downloads, vinyl records have made a comeback.
Vinyl sales in the U.S. grew by an estimated 52 percent in 2014 to 9.2 million copies, according to a Nielsen report. The sales were the highest since the monitoring group began tracking vinyl in 1991.
Local independent record-store owners said they’ve experienced the trend first hand. Vinyl doesn’t only draw customers seeking some nostalgia, it offers a warmer sound, beautiful artwork and a “cool” factor customers can’t necessarily get with digital music, they said.
Record Store Day, which occurs nationwide on the third Saturday in April, has helped drive growth in vinyl.
Chris Brown, an employee at Maine and New Hampshire-based Bull Moose Records, co-founded Record Store Day in 2007.
Brown said they started Record Store Day to celebrate independent stores and reassure customers that stores would be around for some time.
Record Store Day began with 300 participating record stores and has expanded to include more than 1,400 stores across the U.S.
Stores typically offer limited edition records, band performances and special sales during the event.
Brown said the percentage of unreleased material by bands keeps rising, along with out-of-print vinyl, because of Record Store Day.
“We are getting really good studio material and demos coming out,” he said. “We made record collecting fun again with the special editions. They are fun things for the fans to chase after and collect.”
The growth of Record Store Day has made the independent music store sector much more visible, Brown said.
Records were a popular medium in the 1970s, but dropped because of the invention of cassette tapes and CDs. Once the industry introduced digital music, many big-box music stores shuttered because of declining sales.
“The chain stores were having a problem, and they were closing, but what was happening at the indie store level is that we were doing really well and growing,” Brown said. “That’s around the time that the resurgence of vinyl really took off.”
Rise in popularity
The draw of vinyl records is different for every collector. For some, it’s about the sound quality. For others, it’s the experience of sitting down and listening to the record.
“You don’t carry your record player around in your pocket,” Brown said. “When you sit down and listen to records, it’s not fighting for your attention.”
Some people also like the idea of having a physical item as a keepsake or to display in their home, similar to books on a bookshelf. It’s a way to communicate to people who we are by sharing the music we enjoy listening to, Brown said.
“Every major artist will release their album on vinyl,” Brown said. “The packaging gets more elaborate and beautiful – kind of like an art piece.”
Independent record stores accounted for more than 5.2 million vinyl sales in 2014, making up 57 percent of all vinyl sales, according to Nielsen.
Kimber Lanning, owner of Stinkweeds Records in Phoenix, said the 28-year-old store has participated in Record Store Day since its inception. She said vinyl sales at her shop are through the roof.
Lanning attributed the growth to several factors.
“I think it’s about the experience of the record store. This is a place where people can feel welcome, share ideas and their love of music,” she said. “Vinyl sounds warmer. People are inspired by packaging, and younger kids love the retro aspect of it. And used records are really affordable. We sell records for $3 to $4.”
Mike Casey, owner of Record Revival in central Phoenix, said he opened his store 18 months ago. He said although running a record store generally isn’t profitable, he’s noticed a surge in vinyl sales. He said his shop draws customers from all ages.
He said a lot of people raised in 1970s and 1980s are drawn to records because they remember their parents playing music on vinyl.
“It’s nostalgic. It’s something tangible that you can touch, feel, smell, share and learn about,” he said. “I still find myself wanting to sit down, look through my stack of records and listen to them.”
Scott Robenalt, owner of Asylum Records in Mesa, said he’s also noticed that it’s not only older generations who love vinyl, but younger generations buy records, too.
“There’s a whole new generation of kids that are learning about records, which is great,” he said.
Robenalt said with downloaded music, audio engineers remove the “unnecessary” sounds to make the file smaller. As a result, listeners lose 70 to 80 percent of the sound quality.
“People are starting to find out sound (on vinyl) is better,” he said. “It’s a warmer sound. You hear it the way it was meant to be heard.”
The future of record stores
Brown said there are parts of the country that don’t have decent independent record stores. He said he thinks more indie stores will shift to online ordering in the future.
“What we are starting to see in the last couple of years is indie stores getting really good websites,” he said.
Casey said a decent percentage of his customers order online through his eBay store.
Some stores, such as Asylum Records, benefit from traditional foot traffic.
Robenalt said since moving his store to downtown Mesa from Tempe, he’s seen an increase in customers.
“We get 400 to 500 people a week that come in and go ‘wow, I didn’t know this was here,’ ” he said.