Vinyl Turns the Tables
Seattle's Wax Revival
Reports of vinyl's death remain grossly exaggerated. In fact, judging by the retail environment in Seattle these days, and the prevalent attitude among the city's hipsterati, vinyl's enjoying a robust comeback. The National Association of Recording Merchandisers reports that sales of new and used vinyl records have jumped by more than 300 percent since 2000, according to an article by Joseph Manez in Albany's Times Union. Reissue specialist independent companies like Soul Jazz and Sundazed Records are shifting serious units; Sundazed owner Bob Irwin claims he did $500,000 in vinyl sales last year. "Our demographic is not just [audiophiles]," he told the Record (Bergen County). "We are aggressively selling our vinyl to the 20- to 35-year-olds."
While MP3 file sharing, digital downloads, and iPod sales are all ascendant, a parallel zeal for good ol' long-playing platters rages right along with those 21st-century pastimes and playthings.
Proof? Fremont used-vinyl emporium Jive Time Records just set up shop at 411 East Pine Street, less than two blocks from recent Belltown transplant Wall of Sound, Seattle's premier experimental- and world-music source. Respect reps indie hiphop at 13th Avenue and Pine Street. Platinum serves area DJs spinning mainstream hiphop, house, breaks, drum 'n' bass, and techno on Pike Street and 10th Avenue. A block east, Zion's Gate shares Platinum's focus, but goes deeper, and delves into reggae, dub, and death metal. Everyday Music (Broadway Avenue and John Street) recently expanded and has tons of used vinyl of all genres and a surprisingly large stash of collectibles. Downlow (Denny Way near Bellevue Avenue) mainly caters to the city's house-music massive. Over in Queen Anne and Fremont, you can scan the bountiful vinyl bins at Easy Street and Sonic Boom's Vinyl Annex, respectively. Then there are Bud's Jazz Records in Pioneer Square, rave central Frequency 8 on Broadway Avenue on Capitol Hill, and punk-rock mecca Singles Going Steady in Belltown. Electric Heavyland recently opened in Wallingford, offering a healthy supply of cassettes and vinyl. Even the U-District Tower has started selling new and used vinyl. Crate-diggers haven't had it this good since the great vinyl dump of the mid-'80s.
The fruits of such diligent spelunking can be heard in nearly every club, bar, coffeehouse, and restaurant in Seattle, as DJs have become as de rigueur as energy drinks. You can't swing a record bag without hitting a DJ 'round here.
Of course, DJs have long been convinced that vinyl rules. In fact, seeing a DJ pull out a CD is like watching a baseball batter go to the plate with a toothpick. Ever hear DJs boast about their CD collections? Of course you don't; it would be akin to taking pride in venereal warts. Many other music heads--most of 'em younger than the CD itself--are devoting more shelf space to records.
Scott Giampino--AKA DJ Self-Administered Beatdown--holds a funk/soul night Thursdays at the Triple Door and isn't exactly young, but he echoes many waxophiles' thoughts. "[Vinyl's popularity is] part novelty and part trend right now, but [it] can sound 100 times better than a compressed batch of 1s and 0s that comprise CDs."
Alan Bishop of local experimental-music legends Sun City Girls concurs. "I've always preferred analog music over digital music. There is more room in analog sound to distort, manipulate, and work in the extra areas of sound dimension. Digital sound has a finite cap on levels and cannot be distorted without 'clipping' (that cheap-ass buzzing sound) and is much more of a controlled technology, an illusion of perfection."
Earlier this year, Giampino experienced every music fanatic's worst nightmare: He lost his entire collection in a fire. Nothing hurt him more than seeing his vinyl and jukebox go up in flames; the vaporized CDs he quickly got over.
Reita Piecuch, a manager at Everyday Music, has noticed people's blasé attitudes about CDs, too. An avid vinyl collector who remembers listening to an ultra-rare Non 7-inch single as a 5-year-old, Piecuch rarely witnesses shoppers enthusing over compact discs, but often observes "the euphoric glee expressed by dudes that have found an LP they've been searching for for ages; [it] far surpasses anything emoted by people who buy CDs." She adds, "I really like the historical aspect of vinyl collecting--it's hard to get too excited about something that dates back to 1982, at the earliest."
Bishop, who co-runs the Sublime Frequencies and Abduction imprints, issues both LPs and CDs in deference to market realities. "We work exclusively in small, limited-edition pressings, so 1,000 LPs will sell out as quickly as 1,000 CDs," he says. "There seems to be a bit more interest in vinyl recently, but the access to CD mobility still rules the market. It's more expensive to create vinyl projects because there are far fewer vinyl manufacturers around today. Everybody manufactures CDs."
Shortly after the compact disc debuted in 1982, record-industry execs and some pundits predicted the demise of vinyl. The format had its defenders, but most consumers gladly switched to CDs and ditched their vinyl collections. Two decades later, LPs and 45s have become hipster fetish objects to the youthful and talismans to aging music heads. Long after CDs are consigned to history's dustbin, I predict vinyl will still be around, and may even save an unworthy record industry that wanted it to die quietly. Does Giampino think this theory holds any water?
"I couldn't agree more and have said so on many occasions," he says. "Vinyl has found that niche situation where there are plenty of folk out there that still make it, buy it, listen to it. CDs are just a convenience. There is nothing cool about them."
Bishop champions analog recording media, but is pragmatic about its status. "We can talk all day about how vinyl (or analog recording quality) is superior to CD/digital quality, but remember: It's never about what people want or what's better quality--it's all about what people are told they are supposed to want, and what they must settle for, unfortunately!"
"The music/electronics industries have created what people prefer," Bishop continues. "Vinyl is the 'difficult' medium. It doesn't matter to industry moguls that vinyl collectors are more passionate about their music. It's the commoner they are after. If I only released vinyl, they would have no choice. If a label releases both, CDs will outsell them."
As the RIAA sues citizens for downloading copyrighted music and retail giants like Tower file for bankruptcy (though it has rebounded impressively since its February declaration), vinyl specialist shops thrive. When a wax-only establishment like Jive Time expands in this gloomy music-retail climate (Capitol Hill fixtures Fallout and Orpheum folded in 2003), something extraordinary is afoot. With his Fremont store doing healthy numbers, JT owner David Day enthuses about his Capitol Hill store's prospects.
"We buy so many records, we can't get 'em out fast enough," Day says, "so instead of moving the Fremont store to a bigger location, we decided to get a second store of a similar size. We almost think of these two small stores as one big store."
Some people think it's crazy to open a record store in 2004. What inspired Day to move Jive Time to Capitol Hill?
"We think there are lot of potential customers here who don't make it to Fremont often. It seemed like the obvious location, because it was far enough from Fremont to feel like we weren't competing with ourselves. I originally considered Broadway, but I really like the feel of the Pine/Pike corridor. There seems to be a lot more optimism down here. A lot of new businesses are moving in; we wanted to be a part of that."
Wall of Sound co-owner Jeffery Taylor thinks Jive Time's arrival is "going to be good for the neighborhood. It'll be nice synergy."
Ironically, vinyl may end up being music retail's savior. It's hard to imagine anyone getting passionate about CDs or MP3s. Oddly, it's digital-age shoppers who are purchasing wax in droves, note the buyers at Easy Street, Platinum, and Zion's Gate. Day agrees.
"I'd say most of our customers are in their 20s and 30s. But sometimes we have these [teenage] kids coming in--their moms are bringing 'em in from the suburbs." Day says that Capitol Hill JT will emphasize punk, new wave, no wave, and post punk (Au Pairs, Slits, PiL, Gang of Four, etc.).
Due to Jive Time's emphasis on used vinyl, it's unaffected by the digital downloads that industry experts blame for siphoning profits.
"Our specialty is underground music that oftentimes isn't available on CD at all, and certainly isn't available on iTunes," Day says. "I feel like one reason records are so popular now is a result of that: People are nostalgic for the physical record and the cover and the analog sound. The fact that we specialize in vinyl has really helped us. That's why we're able to survive when other stores are closing."
"There ain't no money in CDs," asserts Respect's Jathan Hall. "Seriously, you can sell baseball cards better than CDs right now. Vinyl really holds its value. People just don't care with CDs. With vinyl, it's personal."
If anyone knows about that personal relationship and the local music-retail scene, it's vinyl-addict Mike Nipper (12,000 records and counting; he just purchased another three records while you were reading this feature). He opines, "Jive Time is tops. The JT posse works hard to keep the goods flowing, in and out. They are super pro-active when looking for/buying records; most store buyers just sit and wait for the records to come in. For the better records, you have to go to them."
Other principles that keep Jive Time afloat, Day says, are "having quality stock in at all times and putting out new records every day. I tried hard to hire really friendly, knowledgeable staff. It's not much different from any retail business. Maybe because of my background in graphic design and advertising, we're very conscious of how our store looks. It's very clean and organized, so it's easy to shop. There are always going to be people who prefer to go to a larger shop and dig through a lot of stuff to find those gems in the haystack. What we've done through our size is eliminate a lot of that. We put all the gems in one area."
"I hope we complement the existing stores here," Day continues. "I feel like we do. I appreciate that these other stores were up here before us, so we're going to be supportive of them. There are a few other stores in the area that sell used vinyl, but I believe having this many such stores creates more of a draw for the record collector."
Day's right. We sick bastards have a PVC paradise here. Now step aside--I need to grab that rare Magma LP.