Something To Hold On To
Vinyl Lovers Slow Down and Get Real
Here’s something that may have slipped past you while you were desperately making sure your Instacart orders went through: Vinyl record sales revenues, prepandemic, were set to top CD sales this year.
It’s true! Vinyl albums, like the ones in your basement, or attic, or parents’ garage are suddenly oh-so-hip again. CDs, meanwhile, are going the way of the dodo.
Here’s the good news for local vinyl junkies: The Merrimack Valley is a terrific spot to indulge in your addiction. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, in fact, a case could have been made that the center of the Bay State vinyl universe was … downtown Lowell.
At least three stores seriously dedicated to vinyl recordings of all genres, sizes and eras are located within a five-minute walk of each other.
There’s Vinyl Destination in Mill No. 5 on Jackson Street, Ron’s Radical Records (aka RRRecords) on Central Street, and the venerable Garnick’s on Middlesex Street … a trio dubbed the Vinyl Triangle by local wags.
Locally owned new and used record stores are also alive and kicking in other parts of the Merrimack Valley, including Methuen, Littleton, Haverhill and Manchester.
No doubt your next question is the same one I have been asking myself for some time. Why?
The vinyl resurgence is not confined to grizzled old guys looking for obscure blues and jazz albums, though they are still around, and Vinyl Destination owner Dave Perry freely admits that they were once his core customers.
“I would say two-thirds of my customers are 40 and under, and half are 20 and under,” he says. “More women than ever come in and shop, and that’s fun to see. It’s not a boys club anymore.”
Garnick’s has been around since 1934. Bob Garnick reckons his shop has 100,000 singles and over a half-million albums in stock.
“We get a lot of kids now who are 12 to 15,” he says. “It’s amazing how much kids know now. We have 17-year-olds coming in and asking for Miles Davis records.”
Yup. Even the Spotify and Apple Music crowd is into vinyl these days, buying newly pressed vinyl albums and digging into used copies of classic rock artists, especially “Rumours” era Fleetwood Mac.
Which brings us back to that same question. Why?
Jim Sullivan, a longtime local music scribe who has written for both Boston dailies and several national magazines and is now a contributor to WBUR-FM’s online arts and culture magazine “The ARTery,” has a simple answer:
“I don’t know.”
But after a brief pause he begins to unravel the mystery, and he thinks it’s tied to his own original love of vinyl.
“I enjoyed the tactile experience of physically holding an album,” he says, “and reading the liner notes and looking at the cover art and maybe reading the lyric sheet. It was the whole package, the whole presentation. You felt like you were buying into something grander than just grooves.”
“In a throwaway society,” adds Greg Frediani, owner of The Vinyl Vault in Littleton, “people like to cling to some things you can actually hold on to.”
The vinyl resurrection is, to me, one of the funniest jokes in a year that has provided few laughs. A little background information is in order.
I was a full-time music writer for decades. I wrote for the Boston weeklies, both Boston dailies, and a spate of newspapers and magazines across the country.
I was one of those scribes in the ’80s who screamed bloody murder when the major record labels foisted CDs on the general public.
They were indestructible, we were told. They aren’t. They will last forever, the labels said. They don’t. OK, so they could include twice as much music as two-sided vinyl albums.
But to me, the sound quality was inferior — they have a cold metallic edge to their sound, instead of the warmer tones of vinyl.
The kicker then was that your typical CD cost pennies to make but retailed at more than twice the price of an average LP. By the late ’80s, CD sales topped vinyl, and the labels made tons of money from the sale of new CDs as well as classic albums because consumers began replenishing their music libraries in the new format.
Have you, by chance, recently priced a new vinyl release? In an Alice in Wonderland world of reversal, it now can be more than twice the price of a CD.
Ah, but the sound quality of the new vinyl is unmatched, some say.
Perry disagrees. “It’s not better,” he insists, “and in some cases it is more flawed” than older, used “vintage” vinyl.
Still, Perry has a handful of regular customers who only purchase new vinyl. Some are even more particular and will plunk down as much as $400 for a “new” first pressing of, oh, a classic Velvet Underground disc, for example.
So who are the hottest artists in this vinyl revival?
“Rumours” is Perry’s best seller — a newly pressed copy sells for $22-$25, and a good used copy goes for $12-$15.
If he gets copies of the David Bowie band Tin Machine, they are usually gone in a day. The Beatles are always in demand. The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East sells out quickly.
Garnick says the Eagles are tops in his store. Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis are in high demand.
Newer artists are getting attention, too. Perry sells a lot of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. “A great name until you have to write it on a stock card,” he mutters.
“Vinyl is here to stay because that’s how [new] bands get paid,” Frediani says. “I think artists will continue to support vinyl because they get paid real money for vinyl and not [the] pennies” they get from downloads and online services.
I’ve always felt there is an appealing ceremony for people in playing a vinyl album. In this digital age, access to most music involves a couple of touches or pressed buttons. Playing an album requires taking it out of the cover, holding it carefully by the edges, putting it gently on a turntable and then placing the needle on the album. Then, of course, you need to turn it over after you’ve played side one.
As Perry puts it, “You commit to records, you just have a fling with CDs.”
“You make the time to listen to vinyl,” Frediani says. “It forces your world to stop so you can actually listen start to finish.”
“I think there is a prestige element to owning vinyl now,” Sullivan says. “If you tell people these days you have X number of CDs, they’ll say, ‘Why?’
“But if you own vinyl, you are now part of a club, and you get to talk vinyl with other vinyl hounds.”
“These kids who live in a digital world these days can do all these things without touching anything,” Perry says. “They can get all the music they want through a wire. But it’s just not the same as playing a vinyl record.”
Garnick says his big problem these days is finding enough used vinyl by popular artists. “Getting the customers now is easy,” he says. “Getting the records is hard.”
“That 5-inch plastic disc that bullied everyone for so long is out now,” Perry says. “Vinyl just went underground for 20 years. But now it’s back.”
Garnick’s Television & Appliance l Lowell, Mass. l (978) 459-0766
Ron’s Radical Records l Lowell, Mass. l (978) 454-8002 | RRRecords.com
Vinyl Destination l Lowell, Mass. l (978) 866-6825
Vinyl Vault l Littleton, Mass. l (978) 486-0804 l VinylVaultMA.com