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Slow And Steady: Vinyl Survives

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Slow And Steady: Vinyl Survives

Music Articles

Slow And Steady: Vinyl Survives

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Just as the rise of mp3s and iTunes led to obituaries for the CD, the rise of the CD had many in the music industry forecasting an end to vinyl.

According to Nielsen SoundScan, vinyl counted for less than 1 percent of total album sales last year, but the venerable LP is not dead, as Jacob Ganz reports in the latest installment of our series on music formats.

JACOB GANZ: Vinyl has never really gone away. It's just meant different things to different generations. Today, that's mostly fans of indie rock. But even the people who service that audience are cautious when describing vinyl's resurgence.

Mr. ANDRES SANTO DOMINGO (Co-founder, Mexican Summer): I think vinyl is definitely growing, and it continued to grow. But I think there's definitely a ceiling as to where - I don't think it's ever going to become the prevalent format. I think that'll be crazy to think that.

GANZ: Andres Santo Domingo co-founded the record label Mexican Summer in 2008. Its biggest success story to date is last year's "Crazy for You" by the group Best Coast, whose music falls right into the current vinyl sweet spot: melodic, retro sounding pop.

(Soundbite of song, "Crazy for You")

BEST COAST (Band): (Singing) (Unintelligible) without you...

GANZ: The label began as a way of serving music fans who wanted something physical and collectable, but that audience seems to be limited. While the Best Coast record has sold over 50,000 copies, just 10,000 of those where on vinyl.

Santo Domingo says the small resurgence vinyl has enjoyed lately is a reaction and a complement to the options available online.

Mr. DOMINGO: I think that vinyl in a way represents slow, and I think that's something that's attractive about it also maybe on a subliminal level for consumers that are always on the Internet to get something that's really physical, maybe archaic in a way, but the complete antithesis of what the speed of consuming music on the Internet is. And as much as people might not acknowledge it, I think it does play a little bit into sort of appeal.

GANZ: We know how CDs, cassettes and mp3s are made and reproduced because we can do all those things at home. But vinyl is a little bit of a mystery.

Mr. WILL SOCOLOV (Owner, EKS Manufacturing): Here, you have a normal regular pressing plant.

GANZ: Will Socolov owns EKS Manufacturing, a vinyl factory in East New York, an industrial neighborhood of Brooklyn. EKS makes most of the 7-inch singles released by Mexican Summer. The process hasn't changed in 50 years.

Mr. SOCOLOV: The material goes in, basically, in these two large round molds. The stampers spin on that. Steam goes in when the press goes up...

GANZ: Vinyl records start out as tiny pellets of polyvinyl chloride, PVC, that get melted down and formed into a soft puck shape, then steam-heated and pressed between those two molds, each with a spiral ridge -negatives of the A and B sides of the record.

Mr. SOCOLOV: The record then tips over onto the spindle. And while that's happening, the next record is being made. A record is produced every 30 seconds.

GANZ: The machines at EKS have been around since the 1960s, and nobody makes them any more, which means that when something breaks, Socolov has two choices: get a new part specially made or cannibalize an old machine.

Mr. SOCOLOV: I know pressing plants that have gone out of business that people have bought not to get the presses. They bought it to get the parts.

GANZ: Not that there are many plants left to raid.

Mr. SOCOLOV: There used to be 40, 50 pressing plants in the New York area. I mean, there's three now.

GANZ: The contraction, Socolov says, started with the introduction of the CD, But through that era, one group kept the pressing plants in business: DJs who played dance music and hip-hop on the radio and in clubs.

Alain Macklovitch, better known as A-Trak, was born in 1982, the same year that the CD was introduced. He started DJing when he was 12 and won the world DJ championship when he was 15.

Mr. ALAIN MACKLOVITCH (DJ; Owner, Fool's Gold): What I fell in love with was really scratching, physically manipulating these pieces of vinyl, moving the record back and forth and making these crazy sound effects with it. So there's a tactile connection with the record.

GANZ: But those records can scratch or break. Macklovitch says that airlines would lose crates of his vinyl.

So when software companies introduced programs that allowed DJs to replace their crates of vinyl with digital files stored on a laptop, it wasn't tough to convince folks like Macklovitch to make the trade. But he hasn't abandoned the format entirely.

Fool's Gold, the hip-hop and electronic music record label he owns, has nearly 50 vinyl releases under its belt. This despite the fact that the format is a challenge to produce and expensive and success on even a modest scale is limited.

So how has vinyl managed to stick around at all?

Every person I talked to said something like this.

Mr. ANDY STACK (Drummer and Backup Vocalist, Wye Oak): Vinyl sounds better than digital. There's no argument.

Ms. JENN WASNER (Vocalist and Guitarist, Wye Oak): It looks better. It sounds better. You can hold it in your hand. It's a keepsake. It's something that you can remember and have and treasure for years.

GANZ: That's Jenn Wasner of the Baltimore-based duo Wye Oak. She and band mate Andy Stack self-released their first album in 2006 on CD, simply because that was the default format.

Mr. STACK: We produced a thousand CDs on our own, and we didn't even think at that point about vinyl, because it was cost-prohibitive.

GANZ: Then the band got signed to Merge Records, one of the country's most successful indie labels. Merge didn't put Wye Oak's first album out on vinyl or its second.

Mr. STACK: Over the years, we've been like, guys, come on. Like, give us vinyl. We work so hard. We want our music represented this way.

GANZ: Stack and Wasner say they've always understood the label's decision from a financial point of view. But that won't make it any less sweet next week when the band's third album comes out in three formats: digital download, CD and vinyl LP.

(Soundbite of music)

WYE OAK (Band): (Singing) (Unintelligible) do not close your eyes.

Ms. WASNER: I always have said that I'll never really feel like a real band until I can hold a record in my hands and look at it and play it. So I'm really happy to say that I'll be able to do that really soon.

GANZ: For NPR News, I'm Jacob Ganz.

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