For the record – vinyl still has its own special, enduring appeal
Why do people still buy their music on old-fasioned vinyl records? ABBY BROWN visits some special Wellington outlets to find out:
THE carpet at Slow Boat Records in Wellington looks as old as some of the dustiest records on the shelves.
Walls plastered with band posters give the shop some insulation, but the real warmth comes from yellow paint, quaint music and friendly staff.
Slow Boat employee Jeremy Taylor is welcoming the return of the record store as a second home for music lovers. “I think we have seen a bit of a return of the record store as a part of the musical community,” he says.
“A place where people meet like-minded souls, make lasting friendships, and talk and share ideas about music and records.”
He hopes this will ensure independent music stores that specialise in vinyl records will retain a place in the heart of music lovers, despite competition from chain stores and downloading sites. He believes records give collectors something to hold onto, in both a literal and emotional sense.
Record buyers like the sensual aspect of being able to smell the dusty records, and hold the physical format in their hands. Their collection is almost artwork in itself. “I think some people certainly crave something a little more tactile and substantial than what MP3s are able to provide,” says Taylor.
Gavin Row is a record collector who haunts Slow Boat Records and Rough Peel Music. His record collection is between 200 to 300. “I like the format, the sound of the needle hitting the vinyl, the artwork, the gate way fold, the pull out poster,” he says.
Music reviewer Simon Sweetman agrees. “I value the physical format, the artwork, the interactive experience, the nostalgia factor. I feel it’s more of a product, an actual piece, something to retain, than other formats,” says Mr Sweetman, who loves records so much he documents every one he listens to on his blog, The Vinyl Countdown.
He says that, like record collecting, the blog has become a bit of an obsession. “The Vinyl Countdown is a series of reviews where I’m talking about the journey of the album as well as the music. I’m reviewing my record collection, good and bad, as much or more than I’m reviewing the music.”
A regular Slow Boat customer is Wellington artist Xoe Hall who recalls her dad teaching her how to use the record player when she was five. “I had fallen in love with David Bowie because he had two different coloured eyes”
Still enamoured with Bowie – her clothing range, Mortal Gods, features hand-painted images of rock stars of that era – she remembers choosing the title track, Space Oddity, and says it blew her small mind.
“That song when you are five is the most awesome song in the world. I used to go home from school and put that on, and dance, you know sway from one foot to the other, holding the record cover as my dance partner. That was my first love. That’s what I mean by romance, you can’t do that with a download.”
It’s not just the music on vinyl that attracts enthusiasts. Record gatefolds have been an excuse for record companies to indulge in some epic artwork.
Think Led Zeppelin IV’s inside gatefold with the mythic cloaked figure on the cliff. Think psychedelic- Cream, Hendrix, Pink Floyd. The bands all had artwork that was just as trippy as the music in the vinyl grooves. Even artists like rapper Kanye West, utilise the vinyl’s gatefold by having a three piece fold-out and pull-out poster.
Closer to home, Wellington band Beastwars also went dramatic with their gatefold. They commissioned Weta artist, Nick Keller, to create a huge double-sided gate fold for their debut record. One side is dominated by fire, the other by water. They deservedly won the award for best cover art at the New Zealand Music Awards.
Taylor says there’s a growing market for new vinyl releases, led by a demographic that grew up in a wholly digital age. “For the younger kids it’s a way of rejecting the iPod culture. Instead of carrying an iPod, you carry a record bag.”
Brown doesn’t have an iPod. He believes the process of going and buying music at a store is as exciting as listening to the record when he gets it home. Having limited spending money and the anticipation of the purchase make the experience more thrilling, in comparison to the instant gratification you get with downloading.
“You go to the record store, you only have 20 or 30 bucks, so you are limited to what you can buy. There is hundreds of records to select.You whittle it down to your favourite five. You have got to make a decision that can take 30 minutes. Then you can’t play it until you get home.”
Even the creator of the iPod, Steve Jobs, preferred vinyl over MP3s because of the sound quality. Musician Neil Young told a media conference, “Steve Jobs was a pioneer of digital music, but when he went home he listened to vinyl.” Young is critical of CDs, which he claims offer only 15 percent of the audio information contained on master recordings, and that MP3s are degrading music.
Brown says a thick, 200-gramme, 45 RPM, 12-inch vinyl, with its bigger grooves, gives the biggest and best sound. “Play that and your house will fall over.”
Vinyl buyers aren’t necessarily rejecting MP3s and CDs wholesale, however, and record companies and bands are combining the two. “The increase in new LPs coming with a digital download has made the LP an even more attractive proposition – almost the perfect format,” says Taylor.
Some bands, like Turbostill from Palmerston North, are utilising records, CDs and MP3s. Their latest seven-inch vinyl comes with a bonus CD with the same tracks. The band, influenced by AC/DC and Motorhead, were so committed to getting their first vinyl pressed that they sent it to a Nashville, Tennessee, company.
“It just sounds better and looks much cooler than a shiny piece of plastic,” says drummer Nathan Hickey.
The band made an initial pressing of 330 records, which sold out in a few months, and the second pressing of white and black marbled colour vinyl is selling just as fast. “A friend of ours works in the industry told me that most big international bands sell between 50 to 100 copies on vinyl in NZ, so we’re doing ok.”
Hickey certainly thinks independent music stores and vinyl will always have a place in the music market. “Vinyl is here to stay. Vinyl is a growing market and we’re proud to be part of that.”
Beastwars also have CDs and songs online at their website, to be bought and downloaded from there. “We do T-shirts that come with downloads of the album, too, for people who don’t like CDs and don’t own record players.”
Slow Boat utilises online ordering to sell both LPs and CDs.
Taylor: “We sell music both locally and overseas online every day, but I would say that vinyl sales are cream rather than the main body of what we sell. Also, the internet means we are often able to find a buyer for something that we may struggle to sell locally for what it is really worth.”
Rough Peel Music has started an online shop, too, after relocating from earthquake-damaged Lyttelton to Wellington. Owner Paul Huggins says he moved here because Real Groovy closed. “Real Groovy closing actually gave me more interest in opening,” he says. “It created a gap that I thought I could fill.”
He was aware of some the factors that caused Real Groovy to close, so made changes to his business model. One was the size of the store, which is why RPM is small and has less stock. He is focusing on products that could not be affected by piracy, like vinyl and t-shirts.
“Real Groovy Wellington was too big. They should have been looking to sub-let some of the space they had,” he says. “This without a doubt contributed to the downfall of the shop.”
Sweetman agrees that Real Groovy’s size became an impediment to success as downloading took off. “I think Real Groovy in Wellington had a huge store, too big to fill as the model started to change,” he says.
As to whether vinyl will be the saviour of his shop, Huggins says while it is their main seller, they don’t rely on it solely. He says between a third and a half of his sales are vinyl, which has influenced the layout of the shop.
When you walk in the door of the purple and black Rough Peel Music premises, you are greeted by a row of records. The record collection continues along the right-hand wall and down the back wall. The centre of the store is dominated by CDs, and a few more racks of records. Dotted around is merchandise, with t-shirts, books and magazines lining the left-hand wall.
Because RPM only recently opened, it doesn’t have the fashionably shabby, second-hand feel of Slow Boat. They are still in the process of building a relationship with customers.
Taylor of Slow Boat Records says that vinyl is recession-resistant, if not quite recession proof. “LP records are an excellent consumable, and even in tough times people seem to like to reward themselves with something nice, and LPs feel a little luxurious – maybe more so than CDs,” he says.
“Curiously, I think the recession has been good for record buyers. Vinyl represents a luxury that people maybe think they can afford. They are prepared to pay $50 or $100 for something, but they won’t buy that new car,” he said in a Dominion Post article.
Sweetman is sharing his love of records with the crowd at Meow café. He spins records while the crowd’s conversation burbles. The records crackle over the speakers, as he plays the easier listening songs from the last 40-odd years.
He is giving his infant son an education in music. His wife and son, Oscar, sit in front of the turntables for about an hour and a half of the four-hour set. Sweetman and Oscar will share a connected love for music, just like Xoe and her dad did.
Those are the connections that mean vinyl, and independent music stores, will always have a place in the market. It seems that Slow Boat is unlikely to be destroyed by recession, and RPM won’t be devastated by earthquakes. Records, with their nostalgia, their sound quality, and their artwork, will always be valued and shared.