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Vinyl Heads

They're turning to needles, looking for purity

"People may want to have something of good quality to put on their iPods, but why make them buy the CD version if they've already purchased the LP?" notes Manning. Some vinyl releases even include a CD version of the album, almost as an afterthought.

Strangely enough, "that kind of mimics what you see with the [major-label] frontline releases," says Billboard's Mayfield. "Circuit City may have a couple of extra tracks on their CDs, or Target may have some video on theirs."

Other labels, including brand-new Houston indie-rock imprint Feow! Records, are thinking about cutting out CDs entirely and only releasing their product on MP3 and vinyl. Although the idea has only come up casually so far, co-owner Matt Brownlie says he and partner Jana Hunter are considering it. Obviously, any label that doesn't make its product available digitally these days is committing commercial suicide; even so, a cluster of files squirreled away somewhere on their hard drive just isn't enough for some people.

Jeff Williams: "Some of the best records are common."
Daniel Kramer
Jeff Williams: "Some of the best records are common."
DJ Sun, the General Patton of the decks, leads his twin Technics "tanks" into battle.
Jill Hunter
DJ Sun, the General Patton of the decks, leads his twin Technics "tanks" into battle.

"I would say most of the people I know who are really obsessive about music seem to enjoy owning and collecting vinyl," Brownlie says. "I think that for people who like to have something physical and tangible they can own, vinyl provides a better experience for that than a little jewel case with a CD in it. There's a lot more room to do creative packaging, and I think it's just prettier by default."

Furthermore, vinyl's renaissance has opened up an avenue of survival for independent music retailers, thought to be as endangered as the polar ice caps a few short years ago. Anything those merchants can do to get customers in their doors is welcome, as the RIAA reports music sales at "Other Stores" (mainly big-box retail) are up to 32.7 percent, trailing music stores' 35.4 by less than 3 percent. But, notes Mayfield, places like Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Circuit City want absolutely nothing to do with vinyl­.

"It appeals to places where guys come in and buy three or four albums at once, not where people just come in to buy something they heard on the radio," he says. "It's already lasted longer than people thought it was going to. It's a cockroach, it's not going away."

It only takes a short — well, not-so-short — drive outside the Beltway to see this firsthand. 

Near the intersection of Veterans Memorial Boulevard and Bammel North Houston Road, about a mile south of FM 1960, Vinal Edge Records has catered to ­underground-minded Houston music fans since 1985. Only the Kroger across the parking lot has been there longer; its immediate neighbors today are a dollar store, dry cleaner, tailor and Kim-Net Travel, which advertises getaways to Bangkok and Hong Kong. Across Veterans Memorial, three separate beauty supply stores share the same shopping center.

A tall, bespectacled student type at the register is buying Okkervil River's The Stage Names. He says something about heading back to school soon; from his age, that could be either high school or college. That album turns out to be the only new vinyl Vinal Edge sells all day.

The sales counter is to the left of the doorway, underneath a gorgeous poster for Concrete Blonde's Walking in London, and a long, rectangular wooden bin full of used CDs is on the right. Two more bins, full of new CDs, dominate the center of the room. Yes, Vinal Edge sells CDs. 45s, too — there are boxes and boxes of those on a table near the back. Also cassettes, DVDs, VHS, T-shirts, posters, concert tickets, carrying cases, turntables (one says, "call for quote on repair before diving in"), books, magazines, incense and whippets (little canisters of nitrous oxide kids have used as a cheap, and somehow legal, high for years).

Around the perimeter are ordinary cargo bins stocked with what owner Chuck Roast refers to as "priced vinyl." These LPs are divided into the usual genres — rock, metal, punk, alternative, retro, dance, hip-hop, country, blues, etc. — and they're in the distinct minority to the wooden crates and cardboard boxes lining the aisles. These containers may or may not be crudely labeled — "Tom Petty," "Cheap Trick" and "Stones" scrawled on the side, or simply "Jazz" — and they're everywhere, sometimes stacked three or four deep, four to six feet high. Customers bring selections from these boxes to the counter, where Roast or one of his two employees (he's there solo today) quotes them a price.

"It comes in faster than we can price it, so we generally let customers dig," he says. "I'm pretty sure we have more vinyl than anywhere else in town."

Fastened to the back wall are wire baskets of cellophane-wrapped new releases priced from $8 (Battles' Mirrored) to $30 (the White Stripes' Icky Thump). Most run $15 to $20: New Pornographers, Tori Amos, Bad Religion, Minus the Bear, Sunn O))), Interpol. Above these are the real jewels, Vinal Edge's rare and collectible vinyl. A box set by Helios Creed's industrial forerunners Chrome fetches $200; a copy of Who's Next, autographed by all four Whos, goes for $500 (an unsigned copy is $10). More budget-minded collectors might like Austin punk-blues pioneers Poison Idea's We Must Burn or the 1981 L.A. comp Hell Comes to Your House, with early work from Social Distortion, Christian Death, 45 Grave and Redd Kross. Those are only $40.

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