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In a digital age, vinyl's making a comeback

April 26, 2009|August Brown

Likewise, Little Radio founder Dave Conway is counting on income from booking concerts at the adjacent Regent Theatre to help pay the rent at his shop, where the windows are decorated with rotating LPs as varied as vintage soul and new local acts like the alt-country band Everest.

"I don't think this is all that crazy," Conway said of his latest venture, opening in May. "Just putting these records up in the windows, you can see how excited people are. With all the cafes and bars here, a record store fits right in."

Over in Los Feliz, Vacation falls squarely in the area's tradition of impressively bearded young men hawking exotic imported albums. "We're banking on people liking vinyl for the long haul," said co-owner Mark Thompson, who also co-founded and runs the experimental-metal label Hydra Head Records. "With CDs, you have an obligation to keep a low price tier. But with vinyl, if you do awesome work, you don't have to worry so much about the cost."

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A high price

Though that is true for some collectors, others might think a $25 180-gram double-gatefold LP is more an indulgence than a necessity, especially in today's economy. And the high price of manufacturing, shipping and stocking vinyl won't be dropping soon.

Most of the equipment used to manufacture LPs is antiquated, and that limits potential cost-saving competition, said Don MacInnis, owner of Record Technology Inc., a Camarillo-based vinyl pressing plant that handles independent labels such as Sub Pop as well as major projects like U2's new album "No Line on the Horizon."

"I don't see the market ever getting large enough to start making presses again. Our newest machine was purchased in 1984," MacInnis said. "A big part of this resurgence will be temporary. Many people will soon realize the big pain factor of being a vinyl aficionado. You can make money at it if you price your records high enough, but it's not going to be big dollars."

Even some local devotees are skeptical about the new stores' prospects, given their lack of offbeat used vinyl (though Vacation carries a small selection). "It's all well and good to go out and buy the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Iron & Wine, but you need to have something different and exclusive going on to keep people coming back for that unknown quantity," said Scott Tarasco, an L.A. collector who spends hundreds of dollars a month on LPs. "Quality used vinyl flies out the door. There's got to be something in there that's going to throw me for a loop."

At Amoeba -- whose size and clout give it chain-store competitive advantages alongside its indie credibility with music fans -- new and used vinyl makes up no more than 20% of sales, according to founder Weinstein.

And even with the recent uptick in vinyl sales, the general outlook for music retail still looks grim. In the last year, total U.S. album sales were down 14% from 2007, a figure that includes a 32% gain in digital album sales, according to SoundScan figures.

But such dire statistics don't dampen the enthusiasm of the new retailers, who have faith that the crackle of a vinyl record is one of the few things music fans can rely on.

"To me, it's just awesome that there are all these other new stores," Thompson said. "It reassures me that I'm not doing something totally stupid."

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august.brown@latimes.com

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