Chapel Hill: Opinion

Vinyl Records: Our last, best hope?

Jay Reeves
Jay Reeves

The resurging interest in vinyl records offers a ray of hope for humanity.

It means more and more people are seeking authenticity in their lives. It means they value that which is tangible and lovely and lasting. It means they want something real, something they can hold in their hands, something that can’t be ripped or streamed or downloaded.

Mostly it means gems like “Buckingham Nicks” (1973) and “This is Carmen McRae” (1967) and the psych-soul-strangeness of “The Rotary Connection” (1968) – none of which have ever been re-issued in any format other than the original vinyl – are finding a whole new audience.

Closer to home, it means music lovers can enjoy local stars Dexter Romweber, Spider Bags and Skylar Gudasz in the full glory that exists only in the grooves.

And that is good news for civilization indeed.

Vinyl revival

Consider these numbers:

▪ 9 million vinyl records were sold in the U.S. in 2014 – up 50 percent from 2013

▪ Sales of vinyl in 2014 reached a 22-year high

▪ Vinyl sales have risen 600 percent since 2007

▪ More than 1 million records were sold in the U.K. last year – an 18-year high

This growth is even more remarkable when you consider that as recently as 1993 – when a paltry 300,000 records were sold – vinyl was universally written off as dead. Defunct. A quaint artifact like the Edison cylinder and 8-track tapes.

Wrong. Vinyl is back and better than ever. In fact, records are the only segment of the music industry that is booming. Other formats – compact disc sales down 14 percent, digital downloads down 11 percent, iTune sales down 10 percent – are going bust.

Power of the groove

But statistics don’t tell the whole story. They don’t even tell the best part. That requires a turntable, speakers and ears.

Analog simply sounds better. It has warmth, texture and dimension. It has a dynamic range that can’t be chopped into tiny little bits.

There is nothing quite like listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti” or the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” on vinyl. Or anything by Cal Tjader or Sarah Vaughan or Sly Stone or Wes Montgomery. You can hear the difference.

And there’s a reason for that. Most of the music from the Golden Age of Vinyl (1950s-’70s) was written, recorded, produced and mastered for analog playback. Sure, you can transfer it to another format. You can clean it up. You can erase every imperfection.

But guess what? Life is imperfect. It comes with a few pops and crackles. Sometimes a bit of surface noise. But given the real deal or the new, improved version – which is usually neither of those things – I choose to keep it real.

So go ahead and give yourself a cheap thrill.

Crank up the turntable and take a record from the shelf. Look at the beauty of the cover art. Read the poetry of the liner notes. Remove the record from the sleeve – gently, please – and place it on the platter.

Drop the needle and let the magic happen.

Jay Reeves owns Vinyl Perk in Carrboro. In his prior life he was an obedient son, lawyer and disk jockey at WKSP, South Carolina’s 1977 AM Radio Station of the Year. When he’s not playing records or making coffee, he enjoys boots, batons and painting things blue.

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