Last year, Mt. Airy native Max Ochester found himself with a basement full of records—about 10,000 of them—and figured he needed to do something with its contents.
“I knew I wasn’t going to stop buying records,” he says on a recent Friday afternoon, “so I figured out a way to make money on top of it.”
Living in Brewerytown for the last four years, Ochester says he’d taken to the way the neighborhood had been developing—and wanted in.
He contacted the real estate management company that owned a tight storefront on 29th Street off Girard Avenue, which offered him a “good deal in a good spot,” he says. After hiring some local artists to beautify the walls, inside and out, he opened Brewerytown Beats, a mostly-used record shop that sometimes doubles as an event space for DJs and bands.
Ochester is part of a handful of entrepreneurs who’ve done what seemed impossible just 15 years ago: He’s making a living selling a commodity that was all but written off as old technology in the 1980s. Since then, of course, music collections have gone through a transformation—from cassette tapes to CDs to digital files. But for the better part of the last decade, vinyl albums have been making a comeback, slashing sales records and creating new demand for jobs in the U.S. where they’ve been vanishing: Manufacturing.
A quick look at the numbers behind vinyl’s revival shows that record sales have been on an upward trend over the last seven years—and show no signs of slowing down.
In the United States, approximately 988,000 new LPs were sold in 2007, and it’s only gone up since then, according to Nielsen Soundscan. By 2012, the number was 4.6 million records sold. In 2013, it was 6 million. This year, projected sales are expected to climb to 8.3 million, a 38 percent increase over 2013 and the largest since vinyl sales began climbing in 2007.
Earlier this summer, Jack White demolished sales records when he sold 40,000 vinyl copies of Lazaretto, making the week of June 18th the biggest for vinyl sales since SoundScan began tracking the numbers in 1991.
Lots of analysts and writers have pointed to the supposed “warmness” of vinyl’s tone, one that you can’t really get on CD or via MP3 download, as the reason for the renaissance. But a recent Pitchfork story anecdotally comparing each format’s sonic resonance attempted to put an end to that talking point.
“Few aesthetic experiences are as subjective as sound,” Mark Richardson wrote on July 29. “When an iPhone has a retina display with more pixels per inch, you notice it. But what we desire in sound is much more of an individual thing. Some people want ‘accuracy,’ and some people want a lot of bass; some people only care that it’s loud enough. Plus, we’re very good at fooling ourselves when it comes to making distinctions between sounds.”
Over in Chestnut Hill, Brian Reisman has been operating Hideaway Music for the past 12 years, a business he began during a national downturn in LP sales. The amount of “audiophiles”—a term everyone interviewed for this story used—who’ve stopped in for used records and trades underscores the wisdom of his decision.
“It’s just grown and grown, I guess, on a couple different levels,” Reisman says. “It’s like an audiophile thing. People like the sound. It’s a warmer sound, a more natural sound. But a lot of people don’t care about that. They just like the presence of the big record and the cover and things like that.”
“There’s this hipness and coolness of buying records, definitely,” Ochester of Brewerytown Beats says as Chuck Berry plays over small mounted speakers. “There’s the audiophiles and the collectors, too—they sort of fall in the same category. Some people, they don’t even buy. They just come in and check it out. Like, a lot of neighborhood people—they just like coming in and checking out the old records. It brings them back to their childhood. It’s pretty cool.”
So much of the average American’s life has moved online, and downloading music is easy, quick and painless, and you can take that music wherever you go, on multiple digital devices. Vinyl records are a living room-only sort of deal, perhaps regaining popularity as a backlash to the cheap, quick, digitized urn that is music consumption in 2014—not to mention the inevitable guilt that comes along with stealing music via Limewire or through BitTorrent downloads.
Colin McMahon has been co-running Sit and Spin Records in South Philly out of a former headshop for the last year-and-a-half, with co-owner Leora Colby. Begun as a DIY punk and metal record label, McMahon and Colby opened after part of a storefront on Reed Street became available.
“People like to have something tangible in the era of downloading everything,” says McMahon as I pay him for a much-needed copy of Dwarves’ 2004 The Dwarves Must Die. “I think that has something to do with it. For a lot of indie or underground artists, that’s the go-to format. Like even back in the ‘90s when it was kind of fading out, hip-hop and indie artists continued pressing vinyl … A lot of the old LPs, too—they have nice characteristics, like posters and stuff like that.”
Albums often come with some nice original art both on the outside and inside sleeves, as well as lyric sheets–again, reminders of many music lovers’ childhoods. Other than that, if you’re to believe Urban Outfitters’ store windows and online catalog, some people just like framing their record covers. The Philly-based apparel and accessories company has also taken to selling new records at its locations, alongside vintage-inspired audio players.
McMahon and Colby, for their parts, have done something unique in the realm of selling records: Besides a small section of used LPs, they almost exclusively sell punk and metal, an idea that seemed like a natural fit after the duo ran Sit and Spin Records as a label, often pressing anywhere from 300 to 1,000 records per band.
OK, but who’s actually printing this stuff? To keep up with demand, more companies are pressing albums today than at any point in the last 20 years. LP makers Brooklyn Phono told The New York Times last year they’re churning out about 440,000 per year. Rainbo Records in Canoga Park, CA, prints between 6 and 7.2 million. Quality Record Pressings in Salina, KS, puts out about 900,000 units per year.
More locally, in Pennsauken, New Jersey, former Philadelphia-based company Disc Makers, owned by the AVL Digital Group, has gone back into the vinyl business after a 15-year hiatus.
“Things have changed a lot at Disc Makers since that day 27 years ago when I first set foot in that plant at 925 North Poplar street,” wrote AVL Digital Group CEO Tony Van Veen on the Disc Makers blog in June. “Whether it’s nostalgia, or hipsters, or that warm analog sound, vinyl is back with a vengeance! And I think it’s here to stay for a while.”
Staff writer Randy LoBasso last wrote about the Penn Museum’s discovery of a 6,500-year-old skeleton. Follow him on Twitter at @randylobasso.
PW's Music Issue 2014