Monday, July 28, 2008

A new generation of music lovers is starting to groove to the sweet sound of vinyl records, reviving sales of the kind of turntables their parents used to own. A lot of older technology has been swept away by the digital age, but old-fashioned analog audio is still alive. Record and turntable sales indicate there is new interest in the sound of vinyl.

“A lot of young kids are discovering vinyl for the first time,” said Chris Stiles, owner of DJ Hut, a record store in Dupont Circle.

Turntable shipments topped 32,000 in April, one-third higher than the 19,000 record players sold the same month a year ago, according to the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington. That’s less than 1 percent of total music-player sales, but the increase has not escaped the notice of store managers.

“When people started first finding out we were carrying them, they started purchasing them a lot more,” said Mario Luis, a merchandising supervisor at Best Buy in Tenleytown. “We couldn’t keep them in stock.”

Big-box stores like Best Buy and Wal-Mart, online suppliers like MusicDirect and Needle Doctor, and even the pop-culture retailer Urban Outfitters stock turntables, many with built-in USB ports. The ports make it possible to load analog music onto computers and convert songs into digital files with better quality than a CD or MP3. Prices range from $70 for a belt-driven Audio-Technica player at Wal-Mart to $24,000 for a top-of-the-line Avid from MusicDirect.

The average listener can get a very good player for $350, according to Josh Bizar, sales director for MusicDirect, an online supplier of turntables, needles and record cleaners. His company’s turntable sales increased 400 percent in the first half of the year, he said.

While the “cool factor” is partially driving the under-25 demographic to give analog a try, turntable vendors say listeners are convinced that the sound quality of a vinyl record is superior to that of a compressed digital file.

“We have always believed that an analog source is going to sound much warmer and more natural than any digital source,” Mr. Bizar said. “These younger users are really into the sound quality.”

Kenny Bowers owns more than 15,000 records, which fill a special room in his Minneapolis house. He loves records so much he has made preserving them his job. He manages Needle Doctor, a company that sells replacement needles and helps record-player owners care for their machines.

“There’s definitely more vinyl out on the market than ever before,” Mr. Bowers said. In addition, consumers are buying more needles and cleaning solutions from his company to take care of their records and players.

CD sales declined 15 percent in 2007, but sales of vinyl recordings are on the rise, according to Nielsen SoundScan, a research company that tracks music sales. Year-over-year sales of vinyl records increased 70 percent in March and could reach 1.6 million by year’s end.

The tangible nature of vinyl is also driving its growing appeal among MP3 collectors who are tiring of building virtual collections of digital files, some in the record industry say.

“An MP3 - sure, you can get it somewhere off the Internet, but all you’re getting is the file,” said DJ Hut manager and buyer John Johnson. “What we’re finding with young people is they’re just happy to see what they’re getting with their money.”

While most music collectors are busy building MP3 music libraries, some never stopped perfecting their vinyl collections.

Annapolis resident John Venitz stopped by DJ Hut to search for a vinyl version of a Chicago Symphony performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” which he recently bought on CD. He said he has been collecting records for years to play on the replacement turntable he purchased nine years ago.

“More people need to bring back vinyl,” Mr. Venitz said.

Recording artists such as Madonna and U2 are appealing to a younger generation of vinyl lovers by releasing recordings on vinyl as well as on CD and MP3. Other artists including Led Zeppelin, Wilco and Amy Winehouse are releasing remastered vinyl albums.

LPs appeal to people who are focused on listening to their music instead of keeping a steady stream of background music running, Mr. Bizar said.

“If you want to have a record collection that will last a lifetime, you have to have a real record player - a real turntable - one with a good needle on it that will not damage the record,” he said. “It will bring so much more music out of the grooves on it that it will leave your jaw on the ground.”

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