Even as the packaged compact disc approaches death, vinyl, the music medium it was supposed to have completely destroyed, is showing signs of a small but significant and growing comeback.
"Vinyl has totally made a comeback," says Thomas Escalante, a co-owner of Midtown record shop/novelty store Sig's Lagoon. "I've seen a big increase in sales, and a lot of it is from kids who only rip and burn CDs. And there's so much stuff on vinyl that's not available on CD, and will never be available on CD."
Also, when you bought a vinyl album, it satisfied several primal human urges. One was the quest/hunt -- you left your house and went out and killed that thing and dragged it back to your lair. Another was the fact that there was a "thing" to be dragged, a tangible object to hold and gaze at. Vinyl album covers were a similar size to many of Western civilization's great paintings and/or religious icons, and some of them were worthy of hanging on your wall, whether as an erotic adornment, a hallowed quasi-religious icon, an ironic or kitschy statement, or as a dartboard. And when you shelved a bunch of them library style, they brought a warm feel to a room, as opposed to CDs and their sharp, pointy and frail cases. A collection of them on display conveys only plastic sterility.
Furthermore, the pictures on the album cover shaded your thinking on what sounds were within -- you expected defiant innocence from U2's War, sleazy rock from the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers and a sort of epic, sprawling grandeur from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
"There are many of us who remember spending afternoons after school with the gatefold album that was just released by our favorite artist," says Paige Mann, a former sales manager at music distributors Southwest Wholesale. "Looking at the out-groove and discovering that hidden message that surely you were the first to find! Nothing like it!"
Album covers and sleeves also provided plenty of information about the music. CDs did too, only the print was off-puttingly small. "What I miss most about older formats is their ability to convey visual information," says Rosa Guerrero, a KTRU DJ and concert photographer. "Stories, photos, background, addresses, discographies. Even stickers." "Exploring lyrics and artwork and memorizing all the players on every track were just part of the experience," says Mann. "While I am completely open to the digital age, I find it hard to fathom downloading a new album ever equating to a musical event like buying an album back in the day."
And most importantly, vinyl just sounds better than CD. "I like the way records sound when played on a good turntable with a good needle the best," says David Beebe, a member of local cover band the El Orbits. "The initial sound of the needle touching the record, the crackle, it is why I listen to music," adds local musician and music journalist Kwame Anderson. "People who only know CDs and MP3s are being cheated."
With all that in vinyl's favor, perhaps the comeback shouldn't be perceived with surprise. What is puzzling, though, is that it's not just baby boomers and Gen X'ers indulging their lost youth. "There's people who never did make the switch to CD, and there's people who buy both, but tend to concentrate on vinyl," says Sound Exchange co-owner Kurt Brennan. "We're seeing a lot of high school and college kids who buy vinyl from us, and it's classic rock vinyl. But they have no intention of buying that stuff on CD. I'm wondering if they're buying the CDs online or through iTunes, but they definitely aren't coming in and buying the CDs. CDs just don't seem to be good value, and there's something about vinyl -- people will spend money on it."
Perhaps it is about money -- you can buy four or five secondhand albums for the price of one new CD. Beebe sees them as a cheap way to get a great education. "The cheapest and easiest way to get into great music is to comb the used record stores."
Brennan says people in his shops even pick up and hold records more reverently than CDs. After a brief honeymoon, CDs quickly lost their spell over the buying public. "Back when CDs first came out, it was like, you know, the future," Brennan says. "Space age and all that. But now you can make your own. If you could buy a 'make-your-own-record kit' for 50 bucks, with a glob of raw vinyl, and cut your own record, maybe people would feel the same about vinyl."
Hard-core CD collectors are a rare breed, Brennan says, but vinyl fetishists are very common. "We see people all the time on the other hand who walk halfway up to the register with about three CDs, and then they slow down, they start looking at 'em again, and they put two down and just buy one. But with records, people come up with armloads of 'em."
CDs are merely a means to the end of acquiring sounds. Album collecting, on the other hand, is a hobby in its own right. "Most of the customers who come in here don't even look around," Brennan says. "They are just looking for one CD. They come in and ask for a specific Marshall Tucker Band CD, we say we don't have it, and they are out the door. But people who buy vinyl start at 'A' and go to 'Z.'"
"Vinyl will always be the format," says Anderson. "Albums are meant to be listened to on vinyl; vinyl is the most romantic form of music listening. The album cover, especially the foldout, is like the caviar experience of music. Nothing will ever beat the opening of an album, the pulling out of the inner sleeve where the lyrics are, the removal of the vinyl from the paper or plastic sleeve -- it is a priceless experience."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.