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Head for the turntable; the vinyl records are returning

BY GREG KOT • CHICAGO TRIBUNE • October 12, 2008

At a time when convenience and portability rule for consumers listening to music collections on MP3 players, the stodgy old vinyl album and turntable are making an unexpected comeback.

While CD sales continue a double-digit decline, sales of vinyl albums have doubled in the last year to 6 million and turntable sales increased 80% last year. The resurgence is being led not just by baby boomers nostalgic for gatefold album sleeves and the pops and scratches of favorite records, but by college-age consumers discovering the elaborate artwork of vinyl-album packaging for the first time, and entranced by the grittier, less-artificial sound quality.

"We're seeing the (vinyl) resurgence in all walks of life: from 50-year-old guys who want high-quality product to match their high-end stereos to 19-year-old kids who are sick of the minimalist Ikea design that has plagued dorm rooms for the last decade," says Ken Shipley, co-owner of the Numero Group, a Chicago label that specializes in reissues of underground soul music. "Vinyl is the new books."

This year, 40% of the label's income is coming from vinyl sales.

Sundazed Music, a New York-based reissue label, has seen vinyl sales surge 500% in the past three years. The percentage is far lower at major labels, but still significant enough to warrant not only reissues of classic titles but new titles as well.

Warner Brothers sold 12,000 vinyl copies of the White Stripes' 2007 release, "Icky Thump," and sold out a 5,000-copy run of a $115.98 vinyl boxed set of Metallica's latest album, "Death Magnetic." Nonesuch's vinyl version of Wilco's 2007 album "Sky Blue Sky" has sold 15,000 copies.

Matador Records, home to such bands as Cat Power, Yo La Tengo and Mission of Burma, is seeing a double-digit percentage increase in vinyl sales. "We can't press it fast enough," says Matador General Manager Patrick Amory.

"You have to get in line now at these pressing plants, which is amazing, because vinyl was virtually nonexistent two or three years ago," adds Bill Gagnon, senior vice president of catalog marketing at EMI Music. The turnaround time at pressing plants has doubled to two months because of high demand, says Robert Griffin, who runs the Scat label out of Cleveland.

"How many commercials have you seen that involve a DJ spinning a record?" he says. "Repeat with incidences on TV shows, movies. It's being presented as a cool thing, not anachronistic, which was the late '90s attitude."

Though Gagnon says vinyl will eventually make up about 4% of EMI's revenue; it's a profitable business that will have long-lasting appeal, in part because a younger generation is getting hooked on it.

The disadvantages of vinyl are numerous: tough to transport, bulky to store, easy to damage.

MP3 files have enabled consumers to essentially pack their entire music collection in a device the size of a cigarette box and listen to it anytime, anywhere. Clearly, digital is the future of music, and the reemergence of vinyl won't change that. But hard-core music lovers are a demanding bunch, and they still want a tangible connection to the music that a digital file can't provide.

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Does vinyl really sound better?

The short answer is, "It depends." That's not a cop-out, because sound quality depends on how the music was originally recorded and mixed, not just on the medium (compact disc, MP3 file, vinyl album, 8-track tape, cassette) on which it is played.

Analog recording stores a sound wave on a physical medium (tape or the vinyl record), with minimal loss of information. Original sound is analog, and a vinyl record gets the listener as close to hearing that original sound as physically possible. If the record gets scratched or dirty, it can distort and diminish the sound. Most music is recorded using digital technology, which means that the source information isn't necessarily going to sound better when it's played on an analog medium.

Digital recording converts the sound wave into a sequence of numbers, an aggregation of discrete data points gathered on a compact disc that is read by a laser beam.

Even at the highest bit rate, the original sound can only be approximated. Theoretically, however, CDs should never wear out, and the sound should be relatively consistent over time.

The conclusion: A recording will sound only as good as the way it is recorded, mixed and mastered. Many vinyl albums of older recordings sound excellent because they preserve the nuances of an analog recording session. All things being equal, vinyl will sound less artificial.

Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune

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