Though web services like iTunes and Spotify make buying a physical album unnecessary, more and more Americans are turning to a format long thought dead.
Records on vinyl have gone from hipster pastime to mainstream trend.
Major retail chains like Urban Outfitters and Barnes & Noble now sell newly pressed albums by contemporary hit-makers like Adele and Taylor Swift. SoundScan, a Nielsen measurement of music sales, reported 13.1 million new records sold in 2016 — more than in any year since measurement began in 1991.
It’s a trend that has surprised even Josh Ferko, who has managed several record stores since graduating from Penn State in 1973.
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“I think it’s a great reaction from people to the whole streaming world,” Ferko said. “I’ve stuck with it because I’ve always believed in it as a format.”
Ferko buys records to sell at Stax of Trax, a shop-within-a-shop that he has managed for almost 15 years at Webster’s Bookstore Cafe in downtown State College.
He said the care vinyl records require, as well as the way they are packaged, appeals to those used to digital libraries.
And, if you ask him, they sound better too.
“If you play records on a decent sound system, it’s the best music can sound,” he said. “There’s no comparison.”
To ears that have been through their share of rock concerts, like Joe Apfelbaum’s, vinyl doesn’t necessarily sound better, but it does sound different.
Apfelbaum buys used records to sell at Chronic Town, a State College cafe and hookah lounge that also sells newly pressed records. He teaches integrative arts at Penn State.
Apfelbaum said he used to work at a record shop in Norfolk, Va., that, like many others, went out of business when the music industry adopted the compact disc as its format of choice.
CDs were more expensive to buy than the vinyl that was rapidly disappearing from shelves, he said.
“We weren’t selling enough CDs to keep the doors open. People rebelled against them,” he said. “The only record stores that survived in small towns are like boutiques.”
Larger stores in bigger urban areas, like Planet Records in Cambridge, Mass., which opened in 1983, survived the shift in formats. But it wasn’t until the late 2000s that owner and founder John Damroth saw his customers buying records again.
“Suddenly, we had an outlet for all the stuff I had more or less been hoarding for a while,” Damroth said. “I wasn’t sure it was real, but it has stayed strong.”
Ferko said he has seen small comebacks for vinyl records over the years, but nothing quite like this one.
“When women started buying records again, I saw that as a real turning point,” he said. “At one point, it was mostly guys. It was a ‘guy’ thing to collect records. And when I saw women come in, I knew that it was a real resurgence.”
The resurgence started with independent rock bands releasing new albums on vinyl as a way to distinguish themselves, Apfelbaum said.
Major labels and artists followed suit, he said, which has caused its own problems. The country’s few remaining pressing plants are finding it difficult to fill orders from retailers on time.
New vinyl records can cost more than their digital counterparts. For example, hip-hop artist Drake’s “Views,” 2016’s top-selling digital album, costs $13.99 to purchase digitally from iTunes, and $34.99 to buy on vinyl from Barnes & Noble’s website.
But investing in a collection, Apfelbaum said, is something in which collectors young and old take pride.
Ferko said introducing friends to your newest acquisitions is something that remains special.
“You pay more attention to what you’re listening to (on vinyl) compared to streaming in the background,” he said. “Handling it, having to flip it over ... you are more tuned in to it.”
It’s a tradition practiced in the living room and at the record shop.
“The oldest reason to be in the music business has always been turning somebody on to something they didn’t know about,” Apfelbaum said. “There’s not a whole lot of that going on anymore.”
At Chronic Town, Apfelbaum said customers will often ask him for the names of artists whose records he spins in the store.
“Record stores used to be a community thing,” Ferko said. “And the good ones still are, of course.”
Matt Guerry is a Penn State journalism student.