Vinyl Heads

They're turning to needles, looking for purity

A customer wanders in. He's Omar Mirza, 18, northside resident, UH student, first-time Vinal Edge shopper, budding hip-hop producer. Mirza has been buying vinyl about a month, he says. Clutching Lou Rawls and Temptations albums, he allows his vinyl collection is "probably about five so far."

The rest of Mirza's music right now is mostly MP3s, he says, "but you can't find a lot of this stuff anywhere online. I'm actually trying to learn how they made it — it's good to learn the history of things. The stuff on the radio right now, there's no thought and soul put into the music like there was then."

"I expect today to be pretty slow," Roast admits after Mirza leaves. "It's after the holiday, everyone's spent all their money, the kids are back in school."

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.

It's also pouring rain at the moment, but other customers show up eventually. Two kids way younger than 18 come in to pick up an Architecture in Helsinki CD one had ordered. "I still sell a lot of KTRU-type music," Roast notes. "But they betrayed the image because they were real young. Most of my customers are older."

Maybe so, but the next one is Ari, 16, who attends St. Agnes Academy and is looking for a present for her dad. She borrows his record player sometimes and "wanted to get him something different," she says, clutching Stevie Ray Vaughan's Couldn't Stand the Weather and Santana's 1969 debut. Ari herself likes Against Me!, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and local "powerviolence/grind" band Helicopter Thompson. She also prefers vinyl to CDs. "I like it because not many people are into it," she says. "My friends from around here who are in bands are, but my friends from school just listen to the radio."

Joel and Josh, athletic types in T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops, fit the Vinal Edge profile a little better. Ages 26 and 27, respectively, both hail from the northside. Joel likes metal, hard rock and the store's poster selection. Does he have a record player? "Not anymore. I'm looking for a new one." Josh does, but prefers classical and blues. On his last visit to Vinal Edge, he found a box of 72 classical records for $5. "It was like Christmas," he says. "I'm about to ask him if they have any more." They do, but it's Joel who lands the day's big score: an autographed Sepultura album for $100.

"Whenever we sell a record off the wall, that's a cool thing," Roast says.

Roast describes his business plan as a trident: walk-ins (his favorite), customers who order off the store's Web site and people who buy stuff from online auctions. He's not a huge fan of those, but it's hard to say no when someone's willing to cough up $700 for a limited-edition Joy Division single. Besides, he never sold much Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Fall Out Boy or other popularly downloaded artists in the first place, so Roast figures he's ­pretty safe.

"By being diversified in format and sales, we've found an even keel," he says. "I can see this going on for a while. It's been a good run. I just wish it paid more. Right now the only benefits are getting to go home with cheap music every day."

For anyone with more than a passing interest in music, which these days means anyone willing to look beyond the new-release racks at Best Buy or iTunes, this current uptick in vinyl awareness shouldn't be above-the-fold news. Forget how big a musical debt current favorites as far-ranging as Queens of the Stone Age, Alicia Keys, Spoon, the White Stripes, Gnarls Barkley, Sonic Youth, My Morning Jacket and Amy Winehouse owe older vinyl-age artists; those very artists, and dozens more like them, are themselves readily available on vinyl.

The latest releases by several of this year's Austin City Limits Music Festival headliners, from Bob Dylan and Arcade Fire to Muse and the Killers, rest in the vinyl racks at Soundwaves and Sound Exchange. And even in backwaters far removed from hipster oases like Portland, Brooklyn or Austin (like, ahem, Houston) people buy them — maybe not in massive quantities, but enough to make a noticeable difference. (Or at least outpace cassette sales.) Meanwhile, the Internet's arrival as an inescapable daily reality, from file-sharing to Pitchfork, Stereogum and the latest blogorrhea on Avril, Kelly and Pete Doherty, has plunged the music business into utter chaos.

No one even bothers arguing that point anymore, so is it really so strange for artists — at this peculiar historical moment, both the music industry's most exposed and insulated inhabitants — to seek both refuge and inspiration in the sounds, and media, of a similarly tumultuous era? Where did you think all this Summer of Love nostalgia came from, anyway? It's not all for Sergeant Pepper's, either.

Texas's own Roky Erickson, whose 13th Floor Elevators released the landmark Easter Everywhere on Houston's International Artists exactly 40 years ago, is a strong contender for musical comeback of the decade, and has sparked a psych-rock revival easily heard in the Secret Machines, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Black Angels. The Stooges, formed in 1967, were one of SXSW 2007's top draws. The Velvet Underground's Velvet Underground & Nico, released that year, has been one of Sound Exchange's top sellers all summer.

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