Archaic Relics of Music Biz Past

The Death of Vinyl: Reports Have Been Exaggerated

Pye Studios, Glen Cove, New York, November, 1996: Cheap Trick have almost broken a sweat as they attempt to claw their way from beneath 15 years of bad business decisions, errant managerial advice, and being backed into some uncomfortable corners by label executives. Judging by what's emerging from the studio monitors, they're succeeding: It's the same raw, crushing mix of Townshend/Yardbirds power rock and Lennon/McCartney melodicism that made the group its name in the late Seventies, cut on vintage 48-track analog machines being tamed by Steve Albini's notorious technical expertise. Here's the catch, though: What emerges from those monitors will only be available on a 7-inch, 45rpm single. Yes, that wasn't a stutter: a little record with a big hole, issued on Seattle's storied Sub Pop label.

"They called us up," enthused Cheap Trick singer Robin Zander, who, even in his early forties, looks like he stepped out of 16 Magazine. "They were interested in doing something, and Steve Albini is from our neck of the woods. It was like, `Vinyl? Yeah, let's do it!'

"Nobody wants to do vinyl anymore," Zander grouses. "I like vinyl, and I miss it. I've collected it for years. I used to love buying picture sleeve editions and picture discs. I've got tons of
7-inches on labels like Stiff Records, which we all thought was the coolest. We wrote a song about Stiff Records, `Stiff Competition' [from '78's Heaven Tonight].

"So," smiles Zander, "when we get a chance to do vinyl, of course we'll do it!"

Apparently, a lot of musicians, when given a chance to "do vinyl," will, whether it be venerable rock & roll institutions like the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, or more recent indie-bred acts like Soundgarden -- and let's not forget your average neighborhood punk band making its first dent in the marketplace via a homebrew single. Then there's the jazz or classical aficionados who'll swear blind their noise of choice never sounded better than it did on an old, well-preserved Blue Note or Red Seal pressing. (Or even on a recent, $30-60 Japanese pressing: One industry source states audiophiles so shamed Nippon Sony's president through a vigorous letter-writing campaign that he was forced to rescind orders to dismantle the nation's last vinyl pressing operation.) Thanks to these factors, and the success of releases like the vinyl editions of the Beatles' Anthology series, major labels have found themselves rethinking (if grudgingly) their positions on that moldy, rumbling, embarrassing, archaic relic of music biz past, the record.

One look at the Record Industry Association of America's (RIAA) year-end statistics for 1996 will back that up. Sure, when you stack the figures up against those of 1987, it's nothing. That year, the manufacturers' unit shipments (which are measured in millions, net after returns) showed LPs and EPs coming in at 107 units, vinyl singles at 82 units, CDs at 102 units, and cassettes at a whopping 410 units. The 1996 figures register LPs and EPs shipping 2.9 units, vinyl singles at 10 units, CDs at 778.9 units, and cassettes at 225 units. Shockingly -- if only to the president of Major Label Records, Inc. -- this proves that yes, CDs are holding steady, while cassettes have seen a 17.48% drop in sales between '95 and '96. And the LP? Its percentage change between '95-'96 is a rise of 31.8%.

Translation? The CD may have been a godsend, in that it's made music even more portable and convenient than the cassette -- and with the advent of good, cheap portable CD players and CD boomboxes, who needs a Walkman anymore? -- but at the end of the day it seems there are still many consumers who aren't gonna give up their records. It's as much aesthetic and psychological as anything else.

"It's bigger," says Jim Ransweiler of Scooch Pooch Records, a Seattle label that has released records by a number of Austin acts, including Jesus Christ Superfly, the Hammicks, Dead End Cruisers, Gomez, and Lord High Fixers (who are one of the label's best-selling acts and whose work with Scooch Pooch is strictly vinyl). "The artwork's bigger, it's more fun to handle... it's just there. Whereas a CD is compact. You just throw it in! I dunno, it's just too technological!

"And with 12x12 artwork, you have a lot more space to play with images. It's not so shrunk-down. Coming from a fine arts background, I just prefer the bigger area. When I was in photography, I printed everything 30x40."

illustration by Roy Tompkins

Rise Records' Craig Koon concurs. "I personally like it because you get this object with heft in it, and you can turn over this piece of paper with either seven inches or 12 inches that you can stare at. It's an actual physical object with some weight and depth. With a CD, you don't even get to see it while it's playing! You have a little flimsy piece of paper and a piece of plastic. Sometimes, taking out a CD booklet is more of a hassle than it is to read what's in it! Frankly, if I can get a album on vinyl, even if it's available on CD, I'd rather have it on vinyl, just to have the nice artwork and the object."

Bob Coleman, co-owner of local garage punk/experimental music specialist shop Thirty-three Degrees, thinks the purchasing tastes of indie rockers and garage mavens may have something to do with historical sense. "I suppose it's kind of a traditionalist thing. Maybe there's some nostalgia in there somewhere. The 45rpm 7-inch is sort of the birthplace of rock & roll. There's something really iconic and too heavy about that to throw it away."

British writers have always talked about this syndrome in conjunction with rock & roll's attendant sociology: the Fetishization of the Object. Maybe this is why whenever I greet visitors at home, I show off autographed Clash singles and Johnny Thunders LPs like some great new set of Parisian lithographs I've just picked up from some chi-chi gallery. Then there's the odd case of my roommate, who hasn't owned a stereo or turntable in years. Yet there's been many occasions when I've barged into his room and found him holding the handful of battered records he still owns, staring at them woefully. It's almost as if I've walked in on a private moment with the latest issue of Bondage Babies in 3-D.

And as long as people have fetishes, there will always be merchants ready to feed those fetishes. An informal survey of local shops still selling vinyl shows the format selling neck-and-neck with CDs, especially in indie rock circles. But there's a faction that, as Antone's Records manager Kerry Tartack notes, is "just sick of the high price of CDs. Plus you can buy turntables again. We get a lot of people coming in, saying, `I've just bought a turntable!'" True: Not only are newly-manufactured turntables becoming available again, it's also easy to troop down to Goodwill and find a cheap used turntable in fairly good condition, one dropped off by some foolish yuppie who bought a CD player believing the "vinyl is dead" hype. And if you visit Sound Exchange or Antone's (which Tartack jokingly refers to as an "antique store"), you can probably pick up said yupster's old collection real cheap. ("Used vinyl has just gone through the roof!" whistles Koon.)

Despite what those RIAA stats may lead you to believe, however, the 7-inch remains popular; remember, those figures are compiled solely from participants of SoundScan (those machines that read an album's bar-code), leaving mom-and-pop shops out of the picture -- prompting Stashus Mule owner Lou Cicci to remind us that, "Indie 7-inches are rarely bar-coded." How, then, can the RIAA accurately gauge the 7-inch single's market share? They can't, really, leaving merchants of DIY product true to their designation. That's fine, because the 7-inch isn't going anywhere. Travis Higdon of local indie Peek-A-Boo Records, home to Austinites like the 1-4-5s, Teen Titans, and Silver Scooter, rattles down the single's advantages in a succinct fashion: "Seven-inches are really cool and cheap, and they're easier to distribute."

"It seems to be a really appropriate way to express what people do," says Coleman, whose 7-inch stock at Thirty-three Degrees outstrips Waterloo Records' (who, curiously, would not make themselves available for comment) and at least equals Sound Exchange's. "The two-to-three minutes pop song? That's what that format was created for and that's what came out of it."

"It's a lot cheaper to put out a 7-inch than a full-length," says Scooch Pooch's Ransweiler. "We can get it out there and get some exposure for bands so they have something to take on the road -- so it's not like, `Oh, we've got this demo tape.' It's something physical, something that somebody else has put time and effort into, not just the band. It kinda `validates' the band to a certain extent. It's like, `We're not the only ones who say we're great! Someone else thinks so, too!'"

Still, for all their popularity, singles are a money-losing proposition. "If you do a Xerox cover and black vinyl, yeah, you can make your money back plus a little extra," says Ransweiler, who began Scooch Pooch primarily as a 7-inch operation (although they have branched into full-lengths and CDs of late). "But, if you do full-color sleeves, which we like to do -- and so do most other indie labels -- you wanna make it look like something that'd make somebody say, `Hey! I wanna buy this for the artwork!' Then, maybe it's a kickass band on it. To do that, you have to spend a lot of money."

Yet, beyond the obvious nostalgia and indie rock markets for vinyl consumption, there is a phantom market few outside of that little universe consider: dance music and hip-hop. Though both genres are completely technology-based, technologically generated forms, their primary means of dissemination is not the CD, but rather the 12-inch vinyl single. "Vinyl is easier to manipulate," says Koon. "The CD sampling technology isn't strong enough yet to facilitate scratching, and it's easier for deejays to mix beats from vinyl."

"On top of all that," muses Los Angeles New Times music editor Robert Wilonsky, "how do you think they constructed a lot of that music in the first place? Sampling. And in the early days of hip-hop, there weren't James Brown CDs to take cut-and-paste samples from and piece together grooves. That's why you heard all those scratches and hisses and pops: They were taken from old records."

Chris Hernandez, who clerks at local dance/hip-hop specialty shop Alien Records, believes deejays and fans are as tradition-bound as any indie rocker or rock fundamentalist. "There are CD mixing devices, and they actually have read-outs which can help you match beats easier than you can with turntables. But there's a lot of older stuff that you can't get, except on vinyl.

"There's a lotta parallels with the punk rock world. There's a lot of indie dance labels and a lot of indie hip-hops labels that'll do 1,500-copy run-offs of their single, and they'll get distributed through the U.S. and U.K. or whatever. A lot of dance or hip-hop hits on major labels started off as independent records. They just got picked up by a major label after they had sold so many copies.

"But the vinyl is what breaks the record. If you don't have any vinyl for deejays to play, your record's going to go nowhere. There's a whole deejay subculture that's fanatical about it. Fifteen hundred copies of a record? People are scrambling to get it! Turntables have been around so long in this world, it's like an institution. You just can't replace vinyl with a CD."

Still, majors dipping a toe into that dance/hip-hop world (electronica, anyone?) would like to think so. Hernandez grouses that majors are pretty good about pressing vinyl on hits for major acts like Mary J. Blige or Tha Dogg Pound, seeing the records zoom up the charts, then deleting the vinyl six months later. "So, then, all people can get domestically is the CD. People will go so far as to buy the import vinyl, which will stay in print longer. But we have to charge $17 for it, because it's so expensive for us to buy. Then they come to me, asking, `Why's it so high, Chris?'"

The nuts and bolts of it is, yup, the CD's convenience and quality have ensured its predominance, but vinyl will not be replaced in people's hearts and minds and shelves, to the point where the record business must now acknowledge and accept that. You can blame it on economics, on tradition, on fetishism, art statements, aesthetics -- any number of factors. Maybe Peek-A-Boo's Higdon has the secret in his own peculiar observation:

"One thing that I've always thought that's interesting about vinyl, from an aesthetic perspective, is that you can actually hear the music without any amplifiers or anything. If you put the needle up on the record and just put your ear up next to it, you can hear the music come out like a real small voice. You can't do that with a tape or a CD. I don't know how it's done. It must be magic. It's pretty cool, I think."

Indeed, it is.

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