Record Store Day event wears its grooves on its sleeve

Once thought to be the format for obscure indie bands to make and kooky music lovers to collect, vinyl records are experiencing a resurgence no other music format has ever seen.

“I don’t think anyone could have predicted vinyl to become the format du jour,” Jeff VanFossan, of downtown’s Music Underground, said. “It’s much more than a fad now. It’s the dominant format for independent record stores and the preferred format for the serious music lover.”

Record Store Day is a national celebration of a once-vintage format and its vibrant music-loving community. Shops around the country will host daylong parties to salute the warm, welcoming sound of the thin, black discs.

“The difference between past years and this year is that before there were artists that were certainly pro-vinyl and put out singles and so forth,” VanFossan said. “Now everybody does it.”

No longer the niche hobby it used to be, vinyl is being pressed for bands new and old. Last year, the entire Beatles catalog was reissued. Pop singer Justin Timberlake’s latest record has been flying off VanFossan’s shelves since its release in March.

More than 700 independently owned record stores across the country participate in Record Store Day. The main draw for collectors is the special-edition vinyl releases that shop owners sell during the annual festivities.

“Bob Dylan seems to put out an unreleased 45 each year (for Record Store Day),” VanFossan said. “There’s a 45 release of Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’ on pink vinyl. We also got Flaming Lips.”

Last year, a dozen people lined up outside Music Underground before it opened to take advantage of the special editions — a “mini Black Friday” as VanFossan called it.

The chaos is orderly. National Record Store Day organizers make shop owners sign a contract saying they will not overprice the special edition records, they will not sell them online or before the big day and they will not keep the records for themselves — they are collectors too, after all. It’s an agreement that promotes the hobby, the community and the music.

Each of the shop owners interviewed for this article is psyched about vinyl’s revival and share the mantra: It’s all about the music.

Josh Ferko, owner of Stax of Trax at Webster’s Bookstore Café, always has been a music nut. His interest in vinyl started with his first record, by the Yardbirds, and exploded while in college in the late 1960s. He’s been working, managing and/or running record shops ever since.

“For me, if you sit and listen to a record on a stereo system with great speakers, it’s better than anything,” he said. “It’s tangible. There’s a mystique.”

Ferko sells used records. His bins feature a wide range of classic albums from many eras and genres. Forgotten gems in thrift shops and people’s old collections become Ferko’s merchandise. He travels the area scouring collections and yard sales. The thrill of the hunt is sometimes as sweet as listening to the record. His hard work is evident in his inventory that includes variety such as Etta James, the Beach Boys, Patti Smith and Run DMC.

Although Stax of Trax is not an official Record Store Day location, Ferko said he also will be celebrating with special deals throughout the day. Stax of Trax provides an opportunity to find everything from ultra-rare collectible releases from vinyl’s peak years to classic records, often at prices lower than most iTunes albums.

“It’s incredible to walk into a store and start digging. That’s the experience,” Ferko said. “You hear something in the store and you ask, ‘What’s that?’ And you start talking about it with someone. That’s what it’s all about.”

The dependence on nostalgia is slowly evaporating. With used and new record shops popping up around the country, record enthusiasts — from new fans to audiophiles — are finding more ways to get their real-life music fix. Although they are not as ubiquitous as they were in the 1980s and ’90s, record shops aren’t just in major cities anymore.

Little Amps Coffee Roasters, a record/coffee shop in Harrisburg, opened just under two years ago. It is holding its first Record Store Day. Caleb Smith, who oversees the record sales, said he has a day of activities planned and pointed to the passion people have for music for the success of vinyl’s resurrection.

“There is a feeling of preciousness with new music,” Smith said. “You go in and see some band that you’ve never heard of before and you take a chance. The counter guy will tell you that if you like this band, you’ll like that band. It’s a community. There’s more of a human connection.”

Smith’s shop sells mostly new vinyl. He focuses on a diversity of varieties such as dub, reggae, independent releases and classic reissues. He also has a section of records from bands that have played, sometimes at the store, in Harrisburg.

The bands today are not trying to live in the past. In fact, they are finding new ways to provide the convenience and sound quality their fans want. For example, the once-feared mp3 is now embraced. Well aware that vinyl lovers also own computers and iPods, bands and their record companies are including digital downloads of albums with the purchase of the vinyl. It’s the best of both worlds.

“Now you have the option of pulling it off the shelf and you can still hear the warmth of the turntable,” Smith said. “And you still have the convenience of the mp3.”

VanFossan noted that today’s burgeoning music fans grew up with digital music. The experience of finding a sought-after album among the stacks and appreciating unique album art is foreign to them. But a hub for music appreciation and conversation is appealing, and today’s youth are finding their way to the record shop.

“We’re not selling Beatles records to people who grew up listening to the Beatles,” he said. “We are selling Beatles records to young kids who never bought Beatles records before.”