BACK TO BLACK: Vinyl makes comeback
For the first time in decades, vinyl is expanding its horizons.
Since vinyl was first invented in the 1950s, it remained a go-to form of music consumption. Even with the radio making music more accessible than ever, vinyl continued to boom throughout the 70s and 80s.
To some, records became an item of comfort. For audiophiles like Mark Merthe, owner of Decatur’s Wuxtry Records, vinyl became a way of life.
“The radio never played anything cool. When I was a kid, I didn’t want to listen to the bubblegum pop they were playing,” Merthe said. “I wanted to listen to bands like Cream and the Rolling Stones. Once I opened my own record store, I was able to do just that, and to help people find what they wanted to listen to.”
Over Wuxtry’s 40 years, the store was featured as one of the “Best Record Stores in America” in Rolling Stone and employed Peter Buck of R.E.M.
In Wuxtry, a small black and white comic is taped to the wooden door post. Surrounded by posters, it’s barely noticeable. According to Merthe, it’s one of the most important decorations in Wuxtry because it explains his love for vinyl. It reads, “Two things drew me to vinyl: the expense and the inconvenience.”
“When you put on a CD, you just press a button and then forget about it. When you put on a record, it’s like its own little ceremony,” Merthe said. “For a record, you get it out and you wipe it off and put it on the turntable and then you listen to it. It makes you focus on what you’re doing.”
Admiration and respect for vinyl is no longer restricted to older generations, as made evident by the many Decatur students who have started their own collections.
Freshman Katie Meyer has been listening to records since she was 14.
“My dad got me a record player for my 14th birthday. I’d wanted a record player for so long because my dad has a huge record collection and I was dying to listen to it,” Meyer said. “There was always this massive crate of vinyl in our living room, and it killed me that I couldn’t listen to it.”
In the short amount of time that Meyer has had her record player, her collection amassed to a blend of 150 of her dad’s original vinyl, as well as 10 to 15 of her own that she purchased from Wuxtry.
While Meyer continues to stick with the decades’ old tradition of collecting and listening to records, others have transferred to the newer trend of buying CDs and using streaming services as a means of music consumption.
Vinyl’s glory days were cut short when the CDs took over music sales. For almost three decades, much more portable means of music consumption replaced records. By 2009, vinyl sales bottomed out to an all-time low at 300,000.
In spite of a sizable drop in sales, the once antiquated 45s and LPs are far from extinct. Recent years have seen resurgence in record production, with sales increasing by almost 52 percent since the beginning of 2015.
Vinyl turned into a physical medium that’s picking up more and more momentum rather than plummeting into yesteryear. More current artists like Adele and Lorde have branched out and joined the ranks of classic rock bands by putting tangible records onto the shelves of larger retail stores.
Though digital downloads continuously dominate the charts, millennial audiophiles like Meyer still turn to their record players when they can.
“The thing about vinyl is that the sound is so much clearer and can get so much louder than the average phone or computer without distorting it in any way,” Meyer said. “The sound is a lot richer and deeper. If the artist added any kind of dimension to the song, you’ll hear that on vinyl.”
With vinyl back in demand, more and more local independent record stores are popping up in hopes of piecing together the best vinyl selection for past generation music lovers and the newer millennial audience alike.
Michael Tyson, owner of Sunbrimmer Records in Avondale Estates, hoped to do just that when he opened the store in early 2014.
“Opening my own shop has been a dream of mine since I was in college,” Tyson said. “What we try to do with Sunbrimmer is curate our selection. We hope to have something for everyone, but also to stock records that are a little more difficult to find.”
Independent records stores like Sunbrimmer and Wuxtry are now forced to compete with well-known chain stores like Urban Outfitters and Barnes and Noble that now carry vinyl in their inventory.
“Back in the heyday of records, people would go to larger retail chains and ask for the Beatles’ White Album,” Merthe said. “The person working behind the counter would say that the Beatles don’t have a “white album” because they didn’t know that the customer was talking about their self-titled album with a white cover. These are the things that people in smaller-scale stores just know.”
Because of this, many newer vinyl consumers believe that those who shop at local businesses like Sunbrimmer have a superiority complex when it comes to records.
“I don’t know if I would consider record collecting so much as prestigious as I would a pleasant and enjoyable pastime,” Tyson said. “There are all sorts and types of folks that collect vinyl, but at the end of the day I believe that it’s simply fun.”
While Tyson believed in collecting vinyl for fun, a stereotype has been attached to those who collect vinyl. Some try to dispel the rumors.
“Everyone thinks that people who buy vinyl locally are stuck-up indie people. That’s just not true at all,” Meyer said. “I do believe that for a lot of people owning vinyl is a fad that makes them seem cooler, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop listening to it.”
Whether it’s from a major retail chain or a local hole-in-the-wall, at the end of the day, it’s about the music.