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In a digital age, vinyl’s making a comeback

Neil Schield knows the grim state of the music business as well as anyone; last May, he was laid off from a company at the vanguard of digital music distribution.

But this month, Schield began an unlikely second act: He opened a brick-and-mortar record store in Echo Park, with racks of tasteful inventory carrying price tags as high as $100 -- all presumed liabilities in an age when “digital” and “free” seem to rule the day. For added chutzpah, Schield’s shop, Origami Vinyl, exclusively stocks new vinyl LPs, presumed not long ago to be as dead as eight-track tapes.

Moreover, Origami is just one of at least three such shops opening in L.A. this spring; the others are Vacation in Los Feliz and Little Radio, a downtown storefront operated by an Internet radio station and concert promoter. The small boom is the result of a commercial rediscovery and appreciation of vinyl records among collectors and more casual audiences.

“Sometimes I wonder, ‘What am I doing?’ ” Schield said. But “it’s the only corner of the physical music business that’s growing.”

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If Schield needed any assurance that he was on the right track, it came even before Origami opened. As his staff was preparing the store one day, Pete Townshend, the legendary guitarist of the Who, paid a visit. Townshend had read a blog item about the shop and dropped by to see if it was open.

The return of the scruffy neighborhood record shop is as unexpected as the revival of vinyl. After CDs first hit the U.S. market in 1983, LPs were deemed largely obsolete. Later, consumers’ shift to file-trading and online retail outlets such as iTunes and Amazon.com gutted the storefront music business.

Between 2003 and last year, more than 3,000 record stores closed in the U.S., including such Los Angeles landmarks as Tower Records on the Sunset Strip. Independent shops such as Rhino Westwood and Aron’s Records in Hollywood accounted for nearly half the losses, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a database and marketing firm. Today, there are 185 record stores in the L.A. area, down from 259 at the beginning of 2007.

But as mass marketing of LPs faded, some listeners began rediscovering vinyl. It’s not just older fans who grew up with the decades-old format who attest to its tangible pleasures -- the arresting artwork, the labor of love that goes into flipping LP sides and the fact that many audiophiles say vinyl sounds better. Younger listeners raised on torrent files can see LPs as a kind of talisman too.

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“I’ve always marveled at every new generation of 15-year-old boys who go to the Doors vinyl section and say, ‘Wow, an original Doors LP!’ ” said Marc Weinstein, founder of Amoeba Music, the three-store chain whose Hollywood branch is among the largest independent retail record stores in the U.S. “Major labels should have capitalized on this years ago.”

Slowly they are, by pressing a growing list of vinyl catalog reissues and new albums by marquee artists such as U2. Nielsen SoundScan reported 1.88 million sales of new LPs last year, an 89% increase over 2007. And that figure is almost certainly conservative, as many independent retailers do not report their sales to SoundScan; the service says that more than two-thirds of vinyl albums are sold at indie operations.

Of course, to play a record, you need a turntable -- and the market has responded with low-cost models that are more versatile than their earlier counterparts. Crosley Radio, for example, specializes in retro-styled record players sold in stores such as Target, Macy’s and Urban Outfitters. Its basic model retails for less than $80; for a little more, there’s a version with a USB port that allows music to be uploaded to a computer. (In addition, many LPs come with free digital download cards.)

“By the end of 2008, over 50% of our business was in new vinyl, which amounts to millions of dollars a year,” said Matt Wishnow, founder of the New York-based online music retailer Insound.com. Its turntable sales increased 200% in 2008, with the company shipping dozens daily during the holiday season.

But online retailers are not the only ones profiting from the market for new LPs. Now, it may have reached a point where it can sustain the kind of small independent store once done in by downloading.

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Trying again

Origami Vinyl is far from the first attempt at a record store in Echo Park. In 2007, Sea Level Records shuttered soon after a car drove through its Sunset Boulevard storefront -- a metaphor not lost on many in the neighborhood.

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But Schield is hoping to fare better, with a new stock of blog-hyped indie rock and the classic hip-hop, folk and world music, set amid a minimalist-vintage decor featuring tungsten-filament lightbulbs and a spiral staircase.

Origami, which opened April 3, also does more than just sell records, serving as the daytime box office for the nearby Echo, Echoplex and Spaceland clubs.

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.

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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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