Vinyl Surges, Accidentally and Otherwise

There are so many ways to track the resurgence of vinyl. You might read Michael Fremer's "Analog Corner" column in the print version of Stereophile, our sister publication, or his own site The Music Angle. Or you could read the recent series of blogs by Stephen Mejias about his sudden and intense immersion in record cleaning machines and all things analog. You might peruse this masters thesis by a student at the University of Amsterdam. And what's this? A turntable review in Home Theater Magazine! But my favorite recent clip is this Associated Press story about a retail chain that accidentally ordered a large shipment of vinyl and ended up selling it.

An employee of the Portland-based Fred Meyer retail chain was ordering a CD/DVD version of the new R.E.M. album. But he typed in the wrong code, ordering a boatload of the LP version instead. Some stores put the product on the shelves and the chain sold 20 copies the first day. Encouraged by this accidental experiment, the chain began testing vinyl sales at 60 stores in Portland, Washington, and Alaska. The response was so positive that, starting in July, all Fred Meyer stores that sell music will sell vinyl. The bestseller is Abbey Road by the Beatles, along with albums by the White Stripes, Metallica, and Pink Floyd. I once witnessed a twentysomething paying $30 for a battered used copy of Dark Side of the Moon in a used bookstore, marveling that I'd paid a tenth of that for my still nearly mint-condition copy. Citing Nielsen SoundScan figures, the AP story notes that vinyl sales are still only a fraction of CD sales, at less than a million vs. 450 million. But sales of LPs increased by a third from 2006-07 while CD sales continued to plummet.

The masters thesis by Maurice van den Dobbelsteen says he got more than he bargained for when he chose vinyl as his subject: "The biggest surprise of my research was the extent to which vinyl replay has boomed the last two years. I had expected to write about a vinyl subculture which managed to stay alive underground, building on audiophile and authenticity arguments. However, vinyl moving beyond a subculture and returning as a niche format of the mainstream completely changed the value systems that I thought I would find. Another surprise was how another societal change, moving to the internet, completely upset the modus operandi of the combined [recording and electronics] industries by empowering consumers to take the initiative."

Vinyl, he says, "has a permanent place in the mainstream as a 'classic experience,' rather than a strange practice by people who seemingly rejected new technology. Vinyl replay cuts through demographics, again incorporating members of all post-war generations."

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