While the allure of the compact disc continues to dwindle, the prospects for recordings on vinyl -- once considered the bulky, out-of-date second banana -- are on the rise.
According to Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks sales of recorded music, new vinyl sales nearly doubled in 2008, notching the format's highest total (1.88 million) since SoundScan began tracking in 1991. More impressive, however, was that two-thirds of those consumers bought their vinyl at an independently owned record store.
Digital sales through services such as iTunes are cresting, with more than a billion units sold last year, but the number of fans buying LPs in North America and abroad has made a sizable impact.
Vancouver Island merchants who serve that audience have noticed the upward swing. Most have seen a surge in vinyl sales, both new and used, which they credit to a growing appreciation for the format's intangibles, such as multi-panel artwork and the fluid, warm sound that wax provides.
"In the wake of digital music, people became apathetic about music in general," said Chris Long, an employee at Ditch Records and CDs on Johnson Street. "But people who have Led Zeppelin records and Pink Floyd records know that the music means something."
The second annual Record Store Day, a worldwide celebration honouring vinyl fanatics and the indie record stores that feed their passion, is the umbrella under which thousands will gather today for activities at hundreds of stores, including Ditch, Saltspring Island's Salt Spring Sound, and Mill Bay's Vinyl Encore Records.
The media are focused on the event's many promotional tie-ins, particularly the exclusive vinyl recordings by acts such as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, which are expected to fetch big dollars on the collector market. But to vinyl fans, the event proves all this LP mania isn't a fad.
With the decimation of the CD, and illegal downloading becoming a dominant facet of music consumption, profits are dwindling across the board. For many bands, vinyl is keeping the house lights on. Renewed interest in the format the music industry left for dead in the late '80s means that new releases on wax will find an audience, despite the occasional high price tag (new Neil Young pressings are notoriously expensive, often topping $50).
It's mutually beneficial. Dedicated consumers get from vinyl a sensory experience that digital files simply do not provide.
"I download music, and everyone else here downloads music," said Long, who works as a club DJ. "But there's something about the real thing that can't be replaced."
The idea of a band releasing its music on vinyl isn't necessarily profit-driven. Victoria rock act Jets Overhead is releasing its new album, No Nations, in multiple formats on June 2, including a vinyl release on Neil Young's Vapor Records. Guitarist Piers Henwood said the band is giving the vinyl version of No Nations, which will retail for under $20, the same amount of attention as its digital counterparts, despite the fact it will likely be a break-even prospect. "It's important because it offers something unique to fans. In the digital age, vinyl offers something of value."
The resurgence has made it to the shelves of London Drugs and Costco, which offer turntables equipped with a USB cable to covert LPs to digital files. Turn-tables are old hat at Sound Hounds and Q-Lectronic Services, locally-owned outfits which have sold and serviced audio equipment for years.
Q-Lectronic has plenty of turntables in the $200 range, but they also stock ones priced as high as $1,500. That might seem like a luxury item to those who pay $39 for a DVD player, but Q-Lectronic co-owner Rob MacMillan said awareness is on the rise.
"Investing in a better table has to do with the prices of new vinyl," he said. "Do they really want to put good vinyl on a piece of junk? Why wreck it?"
The benefits of good quality sound are lost on some listeners, Long said. Vinyl sales at Ditch have exploded over the past 18 months, but the increase has come primarily from males aged 40 and up. "We see fewer and fewer young people coming in to the store and getting into buying music. They are basically growing up not ever knowing what it's like to go to a record store."
Gary Anderson, who owns the Turntable in Fan Tan Alley, has seen the appeal of vinyl rise and fall during 25 years in business, the victim of fickle consumer trends. But never have music fans been splintered like they are today, he said. "You have three kinds of people: People who want original records, people who want cleaned-up and remastered records, and people who don't want to pay for any of it."
The social side to record collecting is part of the appeal, be it haggling over prices, details of a particular recording or who's better, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Over time, relationships develop. Customers will follow a store when it moves -- Lyle's Place, the city's highest-volume store, has been at three different locations on Yates Street -- and repeat customers are often customers for life.
"I've got customers I've known since they were single, who now have grown-up kids buying here," said Roger Pinfield, owner of Roger's Jukebox on Fort Street.
Word of mouth helps, too. Stars like Elvis Costello and Diana Krall frequent Fascinating Rhythm, an enormous Nanaimo shop bursting with more than 75,000 records; so, too, does CBC's Stuart McLean, host of The Vinyl CafÃ©, who named the store one of his five favourites in Canada.
Fascinating Rhythm owner Steve Lebitschnig has outlasted every retail giant in Nanaimo, from Sam the Record Man to A&B Sound. Lebitschnig said the key to his success is being an enthusiast more than anything else. He loves music, any genre in all formats, but his veins bleed vinyl.
"I've got stuff at my house in my basement, and I've got a back room and an upstairs at the store. It's overwhelming. But I have a hard time turning away stuff. If it's good quality and interesting to me, I figure it should be interesting to somebody else."
THE VINYL FILE
DITCH RECORDS AND CDs
(635 Johnson St.)
Owner: Jeremy Robinson
Years in business: 11
Number of staff: 4
Number of items for sale: "Impossible [to say]," according to Ditch employee Chris Long. "Totally impossible."
Most valuable item for sale:
In a Frozen Sea: A Year with Sigur Ros (boxed set), $250
Best part of the job:"I'm a techno [music] geek, so I get to help out on the orders, which is a huge part for me," Long says.
Current trend: Over the past 18 months, vinyl has seen a big resurgence at Ditch. But the demise of the compact disc has been greatly exaggerated, Long promises. "Even though CD sales are dropping massively, it's still not even comparable. For every three or four CDs we sell, we probably sell one LP."
(51 Commercial St., Nanaimo)
Owner: Steve Lebitschnig
Years in business: 20
Number of staff: 4
Number of items for sale: 75,000
Most valuable item for sale: "A couple a year come in that might be in the $500 range, but I've always been more interested in good music more than valuable records," Lebitschnig says.
Best part of the job:"It's a real gathering place," Lebitschnig says.
Current trend: Trends at his store are impossible to spot, Lebitschnig says. Sales are steady, which is good for business but bad for the owner's out-of-store life. "I take a week off each year, and might have one or two long weekends, but that is it. That's just not enough."
ROGER'S JUKEBOX RECORDS
(1048 Fort St.)
Owners: Roger and Sharon Pinfield
Years in business: 24
Number of staff: 2
Number of items for sale: 10,000 CDs, 8,000 LPs, 10,000 45s, 1,000 DVDs
Most valuable item for sale: Platinum presentation for Pink Floyd's A Momentary Lapse of Reason, $1,200
Best part of the job: "The search is always interesting," says Roger Pinfield. "You never know what you're going to see. You get disappointed, you get happy, but every day is different."
Current trend: Pinfield doesn't specialize in specific genres or formats, stocking as many 45s as he does CDs. But a large part of his business of late -- approximately 40 per cent -- has come via the sale of classical CDs. "I do everything the other stores don't do," he says.
(107-#3 Fan Tan Alley)
Owner: Gary Anderson
Years in business: 25
Number of staff: 3
Number of items for sale: 15,000
Most valuable item for sale: The Yardbirds, Heart Full of Soul, $200
Best part of the job: "People love to hunt," says Anderson. "That's the thing I pick out in people because that's what I love to do. It's like, 'What's in this box?' "
Current trend: Vinyl, and lots of it. The cheaper the better, according to Anderson. "The cheaper we bring them in, the more we move."
(770 Yates St.)
Owners: Rod and Janice Lyle
Years in business: 30
Number of staff: 10
Number of items for sale: 20,000
Most valuable item for sale: The Yardbirds, Hits of the Yardbirds, $200
Best part of the job: "When I come to work in the morning, I have no idea what I will be doing that day. I could even end up cleaning the toilets," says Janice Lyle. "Well, it's never boring."
Current trend: Lyle's Place is the most well-known music store in the city, so it's not surprising they stock everything from DVDs to 8-track tapes. "We always get someone coming in looking for them," she says of the latter, which are popular items for scavenger hunts.