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Continued: Vinyl LP is back in mainstream rotation

  • Article by: JACKIE CROSBY , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 3, 2008 - 12:06 AM

Nearly killed off a decade ago by compact discs and digital music downloads, the mighty vinyl record is fighting its way back onto turntables across America.

Toe-tappers snapped up nearly 1 million records last year, a 15 percent increase and the highest level in three years, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Though the LP never lost its luster to many audiophiles and the handful of independent music stores that kept healthy numbers of them in stock, mainstream retailers now are getting into the act.

The most recent is Richfield-based Best Buy Co. Inc., which is launching a pilot project at an undisclosed number of stores.

"We've got an executive here who's basically responding to his own children and is sponsoring a test to see if there's a market," said Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson, 59, with a big belly laugh, adding, "As an old vinyl collector, this is close to my heart."

Best Buy, the nation's largest consumer electronics retailer, is predictably tight-lipped about the test, to avoid artificially tipping the scales.

But even if the retailer ends up rolling out record sales nationwide, as competitor Circuit City Stores Inc. did years ago, no one expects vinyl to drive Best Buy's earnings.

For veteran album collectors such as Scott Johnson, who recently picked up a fresh stack at Arc's Valu Village Thrift Store in Richfield, the long-playing record's rise from throwback to comeback is a welcome sign.

"Music sounds great on vinyl if you get a nice, decent copy," said Johnson of Prior Lake, who said he is in his mid-40s. "You get a warm sound. You get the liner notes, cool artwork. ... It's more fun."

Records nonetheless remain a drop in the musical bucket, pulling in just 0.2 percent of total sales last year. CD sales, which have dropped precipitously in recent years as consumers have turned to digital downloads to stock their MP3 players, still make up 90 percent of the market. And the music industry likes vinyl because it can't be download illegally -- something nearly six in 10 consumers did last year.

But now that younger music lovers have discovered that the iPod and the turntable can peacefully coexist, retailers are taking note.

Amazon created a special section last fall just for record-lovers, even though it has been selling records online for more than a dozen years.

At Half Price Books, second-hand sales of vinyl have increased every year since 2005, when sales shot up 11 percent nationally and 21 percent in Minnesota, spokeswoman Kirk Thompson said.

Half Price Books traded about 85,000 records at its seven Twin Cities locations last year, an uptick of 11 percent.

Credit goes to rap

Stop in at Hymie's Vintage Records, the Electric Fetus, Eclipse Records, Treehouse Records or Vintage Music Co., and you'll see "old fogy collectors as well as lots of younger kids" working their fingers over the rows of 12-inch-square record jackets, said Auralee Likes, co-owner of Hymie's.

Hymie's, on Lake Street in Minneapolis, is a mecca for record collectors. It sells mostly albums (and a smattering of eight-tracks) from its funky-colored store where a John Lennon towel hangs on one of its windows and "Pucker" the fox terrier greets customers.

"Rap is somewhat responsible for keeping vinyl records around, because the DJs use vinyl," said Likes, who owns Hymie's with Julie Wellman.

"The younger crowd hears the sample from the old records in the hip-hop, and then come in here and find out that this little sound is actually a whole album. ... It's like a library, you can learn so much."

At the Electric Fetus, the space for vinyls has nearly tripled in the past 18 months, retail manager Bob Fuchs said. While still a small slice of overall sales, vinyl has jumped from 2 or 3 percent a couple of years ago to 5 or 6 percent now, he said.

The Fetus will keep expanding floor space as long as customers keep buying. Considering that half of U.S. teenagers didn't buy a single CD in 2007, according to NPD Group, he might be on to something.

As part of a coalition of 30 independent retailers, Fuchs was none too pleased to hear that big-box retailers are taking interest.

"They'll get the exclusive Tom Petty or Rolling Stones LP because they have that kind of clout," Fuchs said. But "they'll miss the small things, because they don't have time to deal with them, nor do they have the knowledge."

More artists on board

More artists are giving LPs another spin as well, including recent releases from the Killers, Ryan Adams, R.E.M., Jack Johnson, Radiohead, Amy Winehouse and Elvis Costello. A growing number of artists also offer multiple platforms at once -- vinyl, CD and a coupon for a free download.

The multiple format satisfies the needs of some enthusiasts who claim that vinyl sounds better than digitized music (though there's some disagreement about that), and also gives consumers the portability they need to take music with them in their cars or while they jog around the lake.

But though many of those now scouring the record bins are trying to reclaim the vinyls they sold years ago, retailers say the resurgence of the record doesn't necessarily mean your dusty collection will be worth more.

Only LPs in mint condition get resold, and many aren't. And while Diana Ross might have serenaded you through your first love, only the rarest of records fetch much in the marketplace.

Then again, a picture sleeve 45-rpm record of a 1960s surfer-girl band the Honeys recently went for a couple of thousand dollars on e-Bay, Likes said.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335

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