Don’t call it comeback

Meet some of the fans who have been keeping the vinyl record market alive and well

Vinyl junkie Jeff Howse surrounded by his collection.

Vinyl junkie Jeff Howse surrounded by his collection.

Photo By Tom Angel

“I guess I’m more of an active listener,” says DJ Jeff Howse, host of KZFR’s Random Pick show. “There’s the whole ritual of getting a record and listening to it on your turntable that just seems more interactive somehow.”

While Howse, who has over 10,000 records to choose from at home, admits that living literally surrounded by crates and stacks of vinyl can be “overwhelming at times,” the magic that he first felt as a kid when he discovered his mother’s old box of 45s still motivates him to pursue his obsession. This often means frequenting yard sales and out-of-town record-selling events (he once drove to L.A. for the opening of its Amoeba record store).

Howse credits DJ culture with keeping vinyl interest alive and says that even though he can relate to the convenience of CDs—especially in cars—there is something about vinyl that honors the character of the music. And if it deteriorates faster than CD? “Some music lends itself to pops and crackles,” he insists.

“But unlike some people, I think it’s safe to say that CDs and records can coexist peacefully in this world.”

Ray Coppock, owner of Melody Records.

Photo By Tom Angel

Beginning in the 1980s, a medium that was smaller and more practical than vinyl began flooding the market with bold promises of indestructible, superior sound quality—"as close as possible to actually being there.” When these new compact discs arrived en masse, record quality subsequently went into the crapper, with flimsy, flexible new vinyl being slowly phased off retail shelves throughout the decade.

Compact discs took over big, but that doesn’t mean that vinyl went the way of the Branch Davidians. Now that millions of people are “illegally” copying or downloading their own tunes, times are tougher for the CD market, while vinyl fans have experienced something of a revival, as new releases arrive at increased rate and higher quality than decades past. Vinyl has become a growing niche market, one currently dominated by collectors, DJs, hip-hop heads and indie rockers. Just ask Ray Coppock over at Melody Records, who began selling and buying records in Chico back in 1979.

Coppock got his start going to swap meets in San Diego but says he was never a serious record collector—that kind (as portrayed in Terry Zwigoff films) who scoff at anything less than mint condition. He’s just always had wide-ranging tastes, and vinyl allows him to listen and share a variety of the typically older music he loves.

“I think the main way [the market] has changed over the years is that today I can’t make a living selling only records,” he explains, acknowledging his overflowing stacks of CDs. “The whole existence for music stores is a little iffy now with burning CDs and downloading. But vinyl is a solid niche that I don’t think will ever really go away.”

With its thrift stores, yard sales and music shops downtown such as Melody, Tower Records, Underground and newbie specialist Fulcrum on Broadway, Chico maintains decent vinyl presence for a town its size. Talking to various shoppers, it seems a great deal of the allure comes not only from a sense of nostalgia or preference for vinyl sound, but also from decreased costs compared to CDs, with most records averaging anywhere from $1.50 to $14. For the music junkie who needs his regular fix, this price range just makes good sense.

But as evidenced by the new hip-hop and rock records at Tower and Fulcrum or the vintage reissues at Melody, new vinyl product is making a comeback, and costs are rising toward (and beyond) those of CDs.

Rene Stephens, proprietor of the new Fulcrum Records.

Photo By Tom Angel

Tower clerk and local DJ Matt Loomis says that new albums are more expensive because they use heavier vinyl—180 to 220 grams—and are often released as double sets because record companies don’t like “squeezing 17 to 18 tracks onto one vinyl LP.” He adds that most DJs tend to prefer the wider, deeper grooves that allow them more creativity working as an artist on a turntable.

“A lot of people are starting to use CDs with deejaying, and that technology is still improving,” Loomis says. “But you can still do a lot more with different scratching techniques by using a record.”

Bruce Thompson, service department manager at Sounds by Dave, explains that the current vinyl market is basically divided between professional DJs and the home consumer, adding that he is amazed at the renewed interest.

“We basically started this store on records, and now it’s come back again,” he explains. “You used to have to go to Sacramento to get turntable supplies, from needles to cartridges. But we carry [the parts] now because there is so much interest not only from DJs, but also from the home consumer market.” What is driving the home consumer interest, Thompson says, are people who want to burn their old albums, even tapes, to CD.

“That way you save those old albums from ever degrading,” he says.

Tim Livingston, director of sales and publicity for Sundazed Records in upstate New York, agrees that the market has been steadily improving.

The Sovtek 6550WE

“Of course you have your audiophiles, but a lot of young kids are just starting to discover some of the older, more influential bands, from The Stooges and MC5 to the Meters,” he explains.

Sundazed, along with Norton Records, is one of the premier companies re-issuing older vinyl classics, from relative unknowns such as The Chesterfield Kings or psych rockers The Gurus, to a host of popular and obscure ‘50s and ‘60s soul, garage rock, jazz and blues artists. Livingston says that sales are aided by word of mouth and magazine reviews in specialty trade publications, and that a large portion of his business comes from mail orders and online sales.

"[What we reissue] all depends on what we can get the rights to,” he says. “But everyone here knows music and contributes ideas for future titles. …. The market seems to be continually expanding.”

For those who care about such things, the underlying debate has always been about the difference between digital and analog technology. By definition, a digital recording cannot capture a complete sound wave—CDs take snapshots of analog signals at certain rates (usually 44,100 times per second) approximating the sound through a series of steps with differing accuracy. But original sound by nature is analog. So when you listen to a record, you are getting the sound’s original wave form fed directly into your amplifier with no conversion. While many listeners might not recognize the difference, others can, and they often characterize the vinyl sound as “warmer,” with tones that range more fully.

“The example I use is the first time I heard the Stones’ Between the Buttons on CD,” says Tower manager Lynn Brown. “The Stones’ sound was built on that warm tube amp sound, and the CD just compressed all the tone out of it. But CD technology has improved, and now if you have the right player you can get amazing-sounding CDs with higher sampling rates.”

Despite the increased quality of digital recordings, the vinyl audience continues to grow. According to Billboard stats, vinyl LP sales were up 6.4 percent in 2002, even as the overall market was down 11 percent—although that still means vinyl accounted for less than 1 percent of total sales.

Rene Stephens, a recent Chico State grad who opened Fulcrum Records in 2001, sees many Chico kids come into her store to purchase hip-hop, indie-rock or dance vinyl. Stephens says that 70 percent of her stock is vinyl and that she special-orders at least one turntable (or cartridge) per month. She also notes that much of the new vinyl she sells offers incentives that separate it from the CD product, from limited pressings to additional songs, stickers or posters.

“Over the past five years, the quantity of vinyl being released has quadrupled," she says. "I think a lot of people look at CDs as sort of disposable garbage. Vinyl is more personal, more special because it’s something you take care of."