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Vinyl revival

The resurgence of records stems from love and money

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Print this page by M.J. McAteer

Furnace MFG’s continued success rests in large part on the resurrection of vinyl not being a fad. So, what’s fueling a record revival now?

After all, records require careful handling and special equipment. They aren’t really portable or that convenient, and they aren’t particularly cheap — the cost of a turntable to play them on can be in the four figures.
The answer for vinyl’s resurgence seems to be a combination of love and money. But, first, as always, comes the money.

When compact discs, or CDs, arrived on the scene in the early 1980s, music companies saw a way to increase profits. A CD could be made in 1.5 seconds, cost about a buck to create and generally retailed for $19, says Eric Astor, the CEO of Furnace. Records were a lot pricier to produce. “So, the music labels killed vinyl,” Astor says.

Some 20 years later, digital downloads have made music CDs increasingly irrelevant. Broadband has made the sharing (and piracy) of music files so easy that sales of music CDs are in a tailspin, dropping almost 20 percent in 2009, according to SoundScan.
Astor says that Furnace’s music CD sales likewise have plummeted, by perhaps 40 percent since 2000, but that his company has found a bully market in making informational and promotional CDs for businesses and educational institutions.

Meanwhile, digital downloads, to the dismay of the music labels, haven’t proved to be all that lucrative, so cue the re-entry of the record. Although the sales volume is low, the profit margin on records is high enough to make them attractive to record labels again. They generally cost about $2.50 each to make and package, Astor says, and often retail for $25 to $50.  For example, Furnace recently produced a limited-edition box set of 21 7-inch singles by Green Day. Retail price: about $150. “Forty-fives are a collector’s market,” says Astor.

Tom Biery, general manager and executive vice president of promotion for Warner Bros. Records, believes that his company deserves much of the credit for the renewed demand for records. His label, he says, went “headfirst into the vinyl world.” As Warner Bros. made more of its artists available on discs, more people started buying. Biery estimates that about half of Warner’s catalog of artists currently is now on record. In a nod to today’s realities, however, many issues and reissues include a CD or a digital download card of the same music.  

As for the love, so-called vinyl heads say that the sound on records is way warmer than that on CDs or downloads and that the generations that grew up on digital music — records are analog — are discovering that.  “Digital is slightly shrill,” explains Michael Fremer, a contributing senior editor to Stereophile and the editor of an online music magazine called MusicAngle. (Furnace handled the production of his DVD, “It’s a Vinyl World, After All.”) 
Fremer, who has a collection of more than 15,000 records, explains that the sound on records is not compressed, either, as it is in the other media, so it is almost an exact reproduction of what was created in the studio. That appeals to recording artists as much as to their fans. “Artists are saying, ‘This [the record] is my statement,’ “ Fremer says.

Vinyl devotees also wax rhapsodic about the secondary pleasures of records that are missing from CDs and iPods — the physical enjoyment of handling and caring for vinyl, the artistry of album artwork, the tutorial of the liner notes.  No one says, “I remember when I bought that download,” Astor says, yet people often recall the circumstances under which they bought a particular record, say “Thriller” or The Beatles’ “White Album.” Further, for young people for whom listening to music usually has been a secondary activity, records offer a new way to experience music.    

CD Cellar, a two-store chain in Northern Virginia, didn’t even carry records five years ago. Now a quarter of its retail space is devoted to vinyl.   Michael Francis, a record buyer and clerk for the company, says. “Life is just too short to listen to stuff on a one-inch speaker.” 

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