Vinyl Heads

They're turning to needles, looking for purity

Late one placid Friday afternoon, a friend sends this enticing text message: "Just talked to the dealer. We are on for tomorrow. I'm supposed to call around three or four."

Sounds perfect. The next couple of days just got a whole lot more interesting.

But this particular dealer doesn't traffic in drugs. His substance of choice does involve needles, just the kind you drop in the vinyl grooves of LP records. You remember: those funny plate-sized plastic discs both consumers and manufacturers basically left for dead a generation ago?

Vinal Edge's Chuck Roast: "Most of our customers are freaks."
Daniel Kramer
Vinal Edge's Chuck Roast: "Most of our customers are freaks."
Bad CDs can become coasters. On the other hand, bad albums, like these at Montrose boutique Wish, can become hip wallpaper.
Daniel Kramer
Bad CDs can become coasters. On the other hand, bad albums, like these at Montrose boutique Wish, can become hip wallpaper.

Turns out they weren't dead then, and they're certainly not now.

More phone tag the following afternoon. My friend, whom we'll call "Bill," leaves a message for the dealer, who of course sees customers by appointment only. If he trusts you, he calls when he's got the stuff you need. While we wait for him to call back with a time and location, Bill tells me a few stories of crazed vinyl junkies rumbling in parking lots, breaking into hotel rooms and vehicles and foregoing food or rent to afford their habit. Houston, he says, is a good town for collectors because there's a lot of product here — especially blues, soul, funk and '60s psych — and the stock doesn't get picked over quite as fast as in towns like Austin or L.A.

The phone rings. It's him. "He's running late." Figures.

Bill and I walk the few blocks down Westheimer to the dealer's place of business. He greets us in the driveway, requests this article refer to him only as "DJ Shorty" and directs us into a bunker-like back room, where, among amplifiers, stage costumes and a half-­century's worth of turntables, are thousands upon thousands of records. "Here, take a few free samples," Shorty says, handing over a few Christmas 45s. In Spanish.

After Bill examines some new soul 45s, Shorty invites us upstairs, where he lives with his girlfriend and their cat, to pick over his private stock; Bill is interested in a rare album by Billy Gibbons's pre-ZZ Top band the Moving Sidewalks. Shorty has been living and selling here for 20 years. Some of his best customers come from as far away as Japan; a guy from France was in the other day. "He bought a bunch of '60s twang," Shorty says.

He used to load up a van — later, he'd hire people to load it up for him — and hit every record convention in an arc between Austin, Wichita, Memphis, Baton Rouge and Houston. Since eBay, though, he just goes to the ones in Austin and Houston (the next one here is October 14 at the Hilton Southwest, 59 and Hillcroft).

"You know how video killed the radio star?" he says. "eBay killed the record ­convention."

But not the record collector.

Let's not get carried away. Vinyl is hardly proving to be the panacea for the music industry's much-publicized problems, or even a Band-Aid. As a mass-market format, its day has long since come and gone. In 2007, vinyl is barely a blip on the Recording Industry Association of America's radar.

But then there's this: of the non-MP3 formats, vinyl sales and vinyl sales alone are not in free fall. In fact, they're up nearly 20 percent over 2006. "That sounds impressive, until you realize the whole category is 0.2 percent of all albums sold this year," says Geoff Mayfield, director of charts and senior analyst for Billboard magazine. "But if you're an independent music store or smaller music-oriented chain, that could be meaningful for you."

Furthermore, Mayfield says that for the first time since point-of-sale data (i.e., SoundScan) began being kept, LP sales have surpassed cassettes. Remember those? If nothing else, vinyl surpassing its longtime nemesis this year counts as a moral victory. "Before CDs became the dominant LP carrier, cassettes were kicking LPs' butt," notes Mayfield.

Vinyl may be a niche format, but it's also a slam dunk. It's survived because the medium itself commands a loyalty — ­perhaps even reverence — CDs, cassettes and MP3s just can't match. Independent labels like Merge, Matador and Sub Pop have known this for years, and issue almost every new release on vinyl. Although it may not be vital to their bottom line, they know vinyl pays off in plenty of other ways.

"I wouldn't call it wildly profitable," admits Matador president Gerard Cosloy, who currently signs checks for Cat Power, New Pornographers, Belle & Sebastian and Yo La Tengo, among others. "But it keeps a very important part of our audience — the most serious fans, usually — involved. And they're the people that tend to turn others onto the stuff."

Cosloy says Matador's vinyl sales have increased steadily over the past five years. It's still rare for them to go over 7,000 or 8,000, he notes, but adds it does happen occasionally. Sub Pop Publicity Director Steve Manning echoes those numbers. That label's top acts, including the Shins, the Postal Service and Iron & Wine, may sell more than 10,000 vinyl copies of new LPs, he says.

Increasingly, labels are enticing purchasers of vinyl by including extras not available to CD buyers. Most new releases and reissues — another rapidly reviving vinyl market — are manufactured on 180-gram vinyl, a heavier grade adored by audiophiles for its warmer, richer sound quality (see "Good Vibrations: How records are made and played"). Ornate packaging, colored discs and bonus tracks are common, and coupons for free downloads of the album onto an MP3 player are almost standard at this point.

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