'It's psychological – there's a sense of wonder when the needle is placed on the record."
When Greg Davis first opened the doors to his Soundscapes music shop in Toronto in 1999, he didn't stock any vinyl. Some seven years ago, however, he added the analog, which now accounts for 15 per cent of his inventory. One thing he has noticed is that while CD buyers might purchase five or 10 albums per visit, vinyl buyers usually purchase one or two. "They're very selective," Davis says, noting that records are generally more expensive. "They're making a really specific choice. They see the purchase as a statement."
The big music industry story in 2013 was the decline in digital purchases, the first such dip since the iTunes store opened its portals a decade ago. On the flipside, people are buying vinyl in record numbers.
For the sixth straight year, more analog was sold than the year before. In 2013 in particular, the jump was Van Halen-sized: In the United States, 6.1 million vinyl LPs were bought – up 33 per cent from 2012. It's not just the fogies who grew up on vinyl who are buying the old-fashioned product. Younger listeners are also in on the RPM revolution.
"They want something tangible," says Ivar Hamilton, vice-president of catalogue marketing for Universal Music Canada, speaking of fans under 30. "They want the vinyl." Hamilton points out that Pure Heroine, the debut album from the 17-year-old sensation Lorde has sold more than 1,800 copies of vinyl in Canada. That's a significant number for a new artist. Reflektor, the double-LP from Montreal indie-rockers Arcade Fire, moved to the tune of some 11,000 vinyl units. "These are new consumers making these purchases," Hamilton says.
Most of the platters – 64 per cent – were purchased in independent stores, which is where many young listeners pick up concert tickets. There's nothing nostalgic to the vinyl experience for them. In fact, having grown up in the age of streaming and file-sharing, the idea of "buying" music at all is a foreign concept. But they're willing to plunk down the coin for the spinning LPs for a number of reasons.
For one, they likely want to help the artist. After the young music connoisseur uses the Internet to discover the music, the purchase of a physical product is a show of support, with gatefold editions in particular – with more room for lyrics, notes and artwork – being more substantial than a compact disc. In this sense, the experience is the opposite of book buyers who browse for books in brick-and-mortar stores, only to make their buy online.
Two, they may see the larger package as an artful souvenir – something they can frame and hang on the dorm-room wall. In the case of Arcade Fire's beautifully packaged Reflektor, the silvery cover art is of Rodin's sculpture Orphée et Eurydice.
Three, the lyrics and liner notes, in larger font, are more suitable for scanning as the music plays, thus deepening a sense of discovery and immersion.
In all of the above arguments for vinyl, ownership of an actual turntable is not even mandatory, as digital download codes often come with the round-and-round analog version. But it is when the tone arm comes into play that the fuller encounter happens.
Playing records is an active, intimate and focused experience. Emptying the disc from the sleeve, placing it on the turntable, setting the needle on the record and flipping it over when the first side is done – the listener is engaged in a way an iPod occurrence or a streaming situation cannot replicate. The vinyl event is a 360 degree one; it is for hunkering down.
Today's vinyl, furthermore, is not your dad's vinyl. Where Seventies discs were a flimsy 120 grams, newer editions of the same albums are 180 or 200. "A lot of things you hear now sound better than they did originally," Hamilton said. "It's warmer, and the sound quality is superior."
As well, greater care is put into the vinyl versions than, say, 10 years ago. "The days of simply transferring the CD packaging to vinyl are over," Hamilton says.
Better sound and a fuller experience, then. For more and more music fans, plattery is the sincerest form of flattery.
What goes around comes around
That vinyl revival is a well-documented story. But what records are people buying? Here's a list of popular and pretty platters from 2013.
Daft Punk's Random Access Memories
The dance-music revelation from the helmeted French electro duo was the year's top selling vinyl album, with just under 50,000 copies sold in the United States. Later in the year a luxurious box set was released, complete with an expanded record to a double LP and gold and silver foil labels.
Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City
The second most popular vinyl LP, with some 34,000 copies purchased. A white-vinyl edition came with a fold-out poster of the album art.
Arcade Fire's Reflektor
Universal Music Canada's biggest analog seller by a mile, with a whopping 11,125 copies sold in Canada. Second place? Bob Marley's Legend, with 3,818 units moved.
Third Man RecordsThe Rise & Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932
The rocker Jack White's Blunderbuss was 2012's top seller in the U.S. In 2013, he put out (through his Nashville-based Third Man Records label and retail outlet) a compilation of early jazz, blues and vaudeville music, encased in a handcrafted wooden cabinet.