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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.
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.

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.

"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.

"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.

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."

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.

Even Chuck Roast concedes, "I can probably sell an Amy Winehouse record faster than I could the CD."

"You really haven't seen it much today," says Roast as he prepares to close up Vinal Edge for the day, "but most of our customers are freaks. Most normal folks don't go into music stores much anymore."

Well, most of the people who came into the store that Tuesday seemed normal enough. But Roast makes a convincing case. One of his best customers, he says, is a homeless man who supports his "habit" with government checks and as a pharmaceutical test subject.

"He spends the most money," swears Roast. "He keeps his records in this mini-warehouse or the pawnshop. He actually lives in that storage unit with his girlfriend right now."

Other Vinal Edge regulars include "Muscletooth," who's fond of Whitesnake, and "Sword Metal George," who likes the sort of records with cover art resembling a Conan comic book. "One guy buys boxfuls of shitty records just so he can fill up his shelves and make it look like he has an impressive record collection," continues Roast. "We've got a bunch of metal guys who like to call each other homos." He pauses for a moment.

"We thought about writing a book about this at one point."

Roast's clientele excepted, other Houston vinyl junkies seem normal. They have jobs, significant others, kids and outside interests. Naturally, they also have thousands and thousands of records — although, for some, not nearly as many as they once did.

"I have about 10,000 records, and I'm still collecting," says Carlos Garza, who does production for several of Houston's leading hip-hop names such as the Craft Beats. His life has changed a lot from the days his collection topped 50,000, he admits. "I'm married with kids, and you can only get so many records."

Houston's DJ Sun, who has built hundreds of live sets and a handful of original recordings from his vinyl archives, likewise has to balance his huge collection with his 12-year-old daughter, who visits often from Baton Rouge. "I wanted to give her her own room," he says. "She doesn't want to live among the records, but slowly I'm sneaking them back in."

And just as serious collectors are loath to reveal their preferred "digging" locations — though they agree resale shops, garage and estate sales, flea markets and even the classifieds are all good places to start — others hesitate to even call themselves collectors. Not yet, anyway.

"I'm the kind of person that collects things, and right now I've decided to start a vinyl collection," says Cley Miller, also guitarist and vocalist for popular post-high-school Houston indie rockers The Dimes. Born around the time vinyl's mass popularity began to wane, Miller has been combing the bins of Sound Exchange, Black Dog and Sig's Lagoon since earlier this summer for essentials like the Stooges, David Bowie, Ramones, Pixies and White Stripes. It was Television that sparked his interest in vinyl, followed soon enough by the Velvet Underground: "I thought they would sound better on vinyl, and they do."

Besides the fact that the CD is "dying," as he puts it, vinyl appeals to Miller for several reasons. "There's something about a vinyl record that's much more intimate," he says. "I love how it makes you listen to a record all the way through." Miller agrees with most that vinyl just plain sounds better than CDs or MP3s, and also likes the ritual of taking an album out of its sleeve, placing it on the turntable and dropping the needle. "There's a little more work than just popping it in [a CD player]," he says (see "Round and Round: DJ Sun’s turntable buying advice").

Still, Miller is no purist; he downloads music and still buys CDs. If a new release is available on vinyl, he says he'll probably buy that, but not always. "If it's something new, I'll be honest: I'll download it first and see if I like it," Miller admits. "If I like it I'll go out and buy it."

Jeff Williams, 31, might not fit the traditional collector profile either. For one thing, he works at NASA. His duplex in Montrose is immaculate. Not only does he listen to CDs on his two-hour daily commute, he owns an iPod. "I don't even think it works, though," he says. "I think the last time it was used was two years ago, when my girlfriend went on a plane trip."

Williams's collection is a relatively modest 1,500 to 1,600 albums, he reckons, not counting the piles in his closet he's actively trying to ditch. "I'll only keep about one of every 20 records I buy these days," he says. "Not everything you want to listen to forever." His shelves are thus highly streamlined into stuff he does like: '60s psych and free jazz, Kraut­rock, 20th-century composers such as Terry Riley and John Cage, ethnic field recordings, '80s New Zealand artists like the Clean and Alastair Galbraith. Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation may be the most recent, and well-known, album he owns.

"Music takes about 15 years to sort out," he figures. "At that point, you can figure out if it has any merit. I've been listening to a record from 1970 by this band from Dallas, Virgin Insanity. It's kind of tuned-out, like good lo-fi indie-pop from 1995. I play it for people and they can't tell when it's from."

"Who you are goes into your record collection," he continues. "I have a lot of different interests, none of which are very mainstream." Still, if others want to collect less obscure records, that's fine with Williams. "It's not just about super-rare, ultra-collectible records," he says. "Some of the best records are common. I'm sure that's how Beatles fans feel."

"You know these are a write-off on my tax return, right?"

DJ Sun has just left Half Price Books in Montrose, six LPs richer and around $30 poorer. He thinks the Rice Village store has a better selection, but he's not complaining. Sun is booked to spin somewhere six out of seven nights this week, and the most he paid here was eight bucks, for an LP he somehow didn't have: On Top, by Al Green's former producer and labelmate on Stax successor Hi Records, talented Memphis native Willie Mitchell. "This is going to be good," he smiles, studying it. Others didn't draw quite as enthusiastic a reaction, but Sun still bought them — they were from Ghana, and he's DJing an ­African-themed party at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston later in the week. "What I like about this trip today is I was here about a month ago and there's already a lot of new stuff," he muses.

It doesn't take an experienced hand like Sun long to separate the proverbial pearls from the pebbles. "If you've been in record stores long enough, you start to recognize covers subliminally," he explains while rifling through what passes for Half Price's jazz section. "They don't have much of one here right now," he sighs.

He makes do, though. The first record Sun pulls is by Fatback, because it happens to fit what he's looking for at the moment. "'80s-style boogie, happy stuff, lots of synth — see, this song 'The Girl Is Fine'..." he begins, before trailing off and sliding the LP under his arm. He quickly adds two more to the yes pile: one by the Jazz Crusaders, a collection of former Texas Southern University students once known as the Nighthawks — "I don't have this, so I'm definitely getting it," he enthuses — and a backup copy of boogie-oogie-oogie compilation Disco Nights. "The record I have is warped," he explains. "It's hard to bring into the mix. I'll play this record several times a month."

The Willie Mitchell, a keeper, captures his attention next, then Whitesnake. "This is in the wrong place, obviously," he laughs. Johnny Carson's old bandleader, Doc Severinsen, appears and gets a fair hearing. "I've been reading about him... late '60s...I'm going to go home and do more research," he decides. Sun does this a lot; later, records by early electro group Mantronix and Pearl Jam (that's right) merit mental notes for further study. After he decides he's carrying more than he cares to spend, so does that Fatback album. Tragically, at the 11th hour (more like the 37th minute) the Jazz Crusaders LP joins them, but he slips that one back in the stacks like someone who might come back later with second thoughts.

Sun's next stop is Sound Exchange, the two-story house on Richmond that serves as a beacon for legions of Houston-area vinyl devotees, whatever their area of interest. It's Sun's spot of choice for vintage vinyl, but his unexpected good fortune at Half Price has already sandbagged today's budget. So after barely 15 minutes in the store's chapel-like downstairs, he's ready to go. "They don't have much new stuff in," he shrugs. "I saw Superbad and knew I had that Bar-Kays song they used at the beginning, but I wanted it again, so I just went straight to the B's."

Maybe next time.

chris.gray@houstonpress.com

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