Personal Business: HOME ENTERTAINMENT
GOOD GOLLY MISS MOLLY--LPs ARE BACK
In the music world, it seems that everything old is new again. Led Zeppelin is big.
So is Elton John. Even Tom Jones has recovered his stardom. But the retro trend goes beyond the musicians. A small but growing number of music lovers are rediscovering the joys of the long-playing record--enough to prompt the big labels to get back into the business of pressing vinyl.
Long since given up for dead by the major recording companies that turned the 1980s into the digital era, the old-fashioned 12-in. black disk is being brought back to life--at prices about 25% lower than today's standard compact disks. It's not just the aging Woodstock generation that's dusting off its Joni Mitchell albums: Generation X-ers are embracing vinyl as contemporary bands such as Pearl Jam insist on also presenting their newest tunes in the analog format.
There are many audiophiles who maintain that LPs sound better than CDs, offering warmer tones that more naturally mimic the original recording ambience. That's debatable--and certainly depends a lot on the quality of the playback system. But who can argue that liner notes are much easier to read or that covers are more enticing on records than compact disks?
All this renewed interest in records is spawning a massive reissuing of the classics on LPs, both jazz and classical, from the late 1940s on and rock and pop from the late 1950s on. Even hot new recordings from best-selling artists are being released on vinyl: Recent ones include Bob Dylan's MTV Unplugged session, Pearl Jam's Vitalogy (actually appearing two weeks earlier than the CD), and Michael Jackson's HIStory. "We had just stopped doing LPs, period," says Epic Records President Richard Griffiths. "Then we figured out for certain artists there is a market out there."
Sure, the numbers are small. Only 70,000 Vitalogy LPs were shipped compared with 5 million CDs. But according to the Recording Industry Assn., unit sales of vinyl LPs were up 58% in 1994--after a decade of steadily declining sales dating back to the introduction of the CD in 1982. "The industry declared the LP was dead before it was," says Michael Fremer, a longtime audio writer who is editor of The Tracking Angle, a new magazine devoted to vinyl. "People have records. They have turntables."
During the digital decade, it was writers such as Fremer and artists such as Neil Young who continued to rail against CD sound, which they found too clinical and harsh. Meanwhile, a small group of independent record producers, artists, and music dealers kept analog alive by buying up record catalogs in Europe and Asia, where LPs continue to be made, and securing the rights to reissue the output of such artistically critical labels as Blue Note in jazz and RCA in classical. "The jazz stuff sells very well because these are things that have been out of print for a long time," says Brian Dornbach, manager of the Record Exchange in Princeton, N.J.
Stores such as Dornbach's are treasure troves of vinyl, old and new. He stocks 100,000 mostly used LPs, carrying prices as low as 99 cents, with many recordings averaging about $4. New LPs run from $9 to $10, considerably below today's average retail CD price of $12 to $13.
WATER MUSIC. Then there are mail-order houses such as Acoustic Sounds (800 716-3553), whose 300-page catalog is filled with LPs from artists as diverse as the British folk group Pentangle ($25) to George Szell and the London Symphony Orchestra performing Handel's Water Music (a limited-edition reissue of the original Decca recording on specialty vinyl sells for $35). "A lot of people sold their collections, and now they call and want the old stuff back," says Acoustic Sounds owner Chad Kassem. Vinyl devotees such as Fremer even report success scouring garage sales and flea markets, where old albums can sometimes be found in abundance.
So, whether your tastes run more to Mario Lanza or Mariah Carey, it may be time to crank up that old turntable and get those aging records out of the attic. As long as they have been stored in a dry place, they should still be playable. And if you want to start fresh, consider some of the new, high-quality turntables that have come to market as part of the vinyl resurgence. Just think, it's not every day you can be both hip and nostalgic at the same time.Tim Smart