Imagine if all of a sudden people started buying typewriters again. And not just old fogeys fed up with computers, but young, hip types in their 20s.
Then imagine that rather than display those noisy old contraptions in a nook of their apartment, they actually used them all the time, to the degree that sales of things like typewriter ribbons actually increased over the course of a year.
This is the music industry in 2010. Decades after compact discs came in and gut-punched the vinyl record industry into oblivion, and about 10 years after downloading knee-capped the old long-player into what seemed like permanent obsolescence there's one part of the businesses that's making a comeback:
Yep, the big old dinosaurs have escaped the record industry's version of Jurassic Park — knocking over a bunch of 8-track tapes on the way out — and re-emerged in all their cardboard, fancy-art, big-gatefold glory.
According to Nielsen SoundScan and music business statistics, 2.1 million vinyl albums were sold through November last year, the most since 1991. In 2006 and 2007, vinyl record sales increased 14 percent as CD sales plummeted 35 percent.
Pat O'Connor, owner of Culture Clash Records on Secor Road in Toledo, nearly hyperventilates with joy at these numbers.
"People are just turning on to the wonders and joys that is the record album," he blurted out. "I get excited — you'll have to excuse me, let me take a breath. People like the packaging where it's big and colorful and you might have something juicy in there, like a poster or something."
The same is true about a mile away at RamaLama Records on West Central Avenue, where store owner Rob Kimple said he has about 30,000 copies of vinyl albums and a steady stream of customers interested in buying, selling, and trading them.
"I've seen it grow and grow and grow each and every year — new stuff and old stuff, across the board — and there are people who come in and buy strictly vinyl."
‘A warm process'
Adam Wehrmeister, a 27-year-old Toledoan, came to vinyl music through a circuitous route that found him acquiring his dad's old Van Morrison, Neil Young, and Pink Floyd albums through a cousin.
Now, vinyl is his favorite medium for listening to music, whether it's new groups like his favorite band, the Mars Volta, or classic rock and jazz.
"That's all I listen to at home. I think the sound is better, it's kind of like you're in the studio on the other side of the glass listening to it rather than [the music] being compressed on a CD."
Lauren Hurd feels the same way. She's an 18-year-old Notre Dame Academy graduate who's now a freshman at the Ohio State University, and she listens strictly to vinyl in her dorm room. She has roughly 300 albums that span genres and decades, and she's a fan of Joni Mitchell and Velvet Underground.
The act of placing the record on the turntable, setting the needle, and then having to get up and either turn the record off or flip it over, adds to the listening experience, she said.
"It's a very warm process and you get more involved with your music. You don't just click something on and then forget about it," she said. "It's not the most convenient format, but I'm not looking for that really."
Compared to Wehrmeister and Hurd, the 40something Matt Donahue, a pop culture instructor at Bowling Green State University, is old school when it comes to records, but he's just as avid, both as a listener and collector.
He has several thousand albums, including a number that are out-of-print collectors' items, and he listens to them at home all the time. He also uses them on his art cars, plastering vehicles with vinyl albums as works of art. For him, the cover art, lyrics, and all the information printed on the packaging is important.
"I love the artwork, I think that is something that is totally irreplaceable. I think it's kind of unique, it gives you the opportunity to be a little more in touch with the music."
Diehard audiophiles insist that music played on vinyl sounds better, generally saying it's "warmer."
Is that true?
"That's a good question," Donahue said. "I'm not 100 percent sold on all that. I can't tell that much of a difference between playing a record and listening to it on CD."
According to Scott Caventer, a salesman at Jamieson's Audio/Video on Monroe Street, there is a difference mainly with older CDs that were made in the years of that format.
Simply put, the original methods used to convert analog (albums) to digital (compact discs) were not very effective. The result was "pretty harsh-sounding" compared to vinyl, he said. Those methods have improved considerably — he cited the new remastered Beatles CDs released last year as an example of how good the conversions sound when done properly — which has closed the gap in sound quality.
Inexpensive turntables can be found at places such as Culture Clash and Costco for less than $100. Jamieson's sells some that cost between $329 and $9,500, but Caventer said sales aren't that good at his store, which provides a bit of a reality check to the resurgence of vinyl relative to other music mediums.
Because, despite the increased sales, downloading MP3s remains the dominant method that most people — especially younger consumers — use to buy and listen to music.
Making music fun
Which returns us to the benefits of vinyl and this growing niche among music fans. Donahue said fans of hip-hop, punk, and electronica help drive the market because they've never been in the mainstream, and the record companies are trying to take advantage of those trends.
"The industry is definitely trying to gear things toward the hipster market and there's a definitely a lot collectors in the punk rock music scene, the hip-hop scene, and the electronica scene and it definitely seems to be growing," he said.
Increasingly, the big labels are putting out a limited number of albums on vinyl, which drives collectors to the products while satisfying folks who are looking for records simply to listen to and add to their collections.
The latter are people like Wehrmeister and Hurd.
"It's just part of the whole aesthetic of it and looking at it and saying this is mine, this is my whole collection," Hurd said.
"Music's my life," Wehrmeister said. "I don't play music, I listen to it and love it. The whole vinyl thing [makes] music more of an art form for me as a whole package.
Their perspective was echoed by Caventer.
"It's really the person who just wants to get back and have fun with music again. With MP3s and downloaded music, which is where it's heading, it's really sterile. The fun is finding the music there, the fun is not in playing it. With vinyl you're actively participating in the art of listening."
Contact Rod Lockwood at: