Originally printed in the Post and Courier in December, 2015. Read the article here.
In this digital age, media content mostly is accessed online. It’s vaporous stuff, really: strings of binary code that digital applications interpret and translate and that get sent along digital delivery corridors to consumers wielding “smart” devices.
It’s all so immaterial. The music and movies we rent are “streamed” to us, which suggests they flow away once we’re done. And they do. Even when content is purchased and stored, one bad bump or malicious intrusion from off could render that hard drive inoperable.
Not that the solid stuff of yore — VHS and cassette tapes, LPs, tube televisions, snail mail — were necessarily better. Tapes stretched, tangled, frayed and snapped. Records scratched and skipped. TVs exploded. But at least those items had weight and texture.
Alas, the days of tangible product now are gone. Or are they?
Old-fashioned records, for one, continue on a comeback trajectory, and a new Charleston store, The Vinyl Countdown, is poised to take full advantage of this odd retro phenomenon.
The store is the 40th birthday gift Aaron Levy gave to himself. It’s been open a couple of months on Upper King Street and already Levy is vocal in his optimistic outlook. Demand is high, and one in five customers make it clear they’re glad to have found an old-fashioned record store on the peninsula that is walking distance or a short bike ride from home, Levy said.
He secured a reasonable five-year lease, with an option to renew for another five years, and he’s selling product. A lot of product. Mostly records, but also record players, CDs, handmade album frames and more.
Still, you would be forgiven for any skepticism. Vinyl? Really? Isn’t this a bit, well, nichey?
The thing is, Levy said, that niche is growing exponentially. Billboard records sales of four formats, LP, CD, digital download and “other” (which means streaming).
CD and download sales are down a bit compared with the same period last year. Sales of “other” are up 13 percent. And LPs? Well, it’s worth quoting directly from a short Billboard story published earlier this year:
“According to Nielsen, U.S. (vinyl) album sales between January and March of this year were 53 percent higher than during the comparable period last year, driven largely by solid gains in catalog album sales. Current releases in the format are also performing well, up by 37 percent in the first three months compared with the corresponding period last time.
“In a wider-angle look at the market, vinyl album sales have grown by 260 percent since 2009, Nielsen reports, with vinyl unit sales rising to 9.2 million last year, up from 6.1 million in 2013.”
Interestingly, catalog sales exceed current sales, which strongly suggests that the generations who grew up with vinyl are returning to vinyl in significant numbers.
The upward trend is likely to continue. That’s what Levy is betting on at any rate, and increasingly it’s looking like a safe bet. He said a big boost came in 2007 with the advent of Record Store Day, an April event meant to celebrate independent music stores.
Some of his customers are merely curious, he said. Some are young people who love a good music quest. Others are collectors, and they can drop a pile of cash all at once if they find stuff they really want.
“And some of us are just old hippies,” interjected Cynthia Loftus, a Charleston resident and repeat visitor to The Vinyl Countdown. “You don’t know what a treasure it is for Charleston. Not everyone here is young.”
Is it nostalgia, then, that pushes her toward these grooved and groovy discs?
“Not nostalgia,” Loftus insisted, as if the idea of a longing for a now-inaccessible past somehow cheapened the record-buying experience. “It’s an interest in history!”
The Vinyl Countdown now is the only record store on the peninsula. Honest John’s TV Repair and Record Shop closed in September after 45 years in business. Millennium Music closed in 2008, and 52.5 Records called it quits in 2010. Urban Outfitters on lower King Street sells clothes and fashion accessories, but it does have a bin of LPs that typically lures curious college students.
Levy said there’re a lot of LPs he can’t keep in stock: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Queen, Dylan, Black Sabbath, Steely Dan. And the self-contained record players sell fast, too. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the newer LPs often come with access to the MP3 versions of the same tunes. Buy the record, get the downloads, too, at no extra cost. Best of both worlds.
Big vinyl sellers at other stores often are the usual suspects: Adele, The Beatles, Stone Roses, Amy Winehouse. Charleston’s tastes are a bit more eclectic. Adele sells well here, too, but so does local band Susto (currently No. 1 at The Vinyl Countdown), Beach House (No. 2), Courtney Barnett (No. 3), Wilco’s latest (No. 4) and others, such as Protomartyr, Kurt Vile and Dr. Dre.
The really expensive ($200-$500) LPs are on display just out of reach.
Kaitlyn Weathers of Charlotte and Sydney Underwood of Chatanooga, Tenn., were in the store last week killing time before their good friend’s engagement party. Weathers found a listing for The Vinyl Countdown on Trip Advisor, she said.
Her reasons for adoring LPs mostly are musical.
“I like to listen a lot to vinyl because a lot of stuff is meant to be a whole-album experience,” she said. With CDs or MP3s, it’s easy to skip around, but once you lay a record on the turntable, delicately, holding only the edges with the palms of your hands, and set the needle in place, you tend to leave it there until the side finishes. That’s typically five songs. And if you like the songs, you flip the disc over to listen to the other side.
Musicians were acutely aware of the LP’s potential to help them tell a story. That’s why the “concept album” featuring some unifying element became so popular. (In rock ‘n’ roll, that practice began in earnest, arguably, with The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967, though artists such as Johnny Cash and the Beach Boys produced concept albums earlier).
Underwood, too, likes LPs for this reason. She and Weathers also like them because certain very cool artists, such as Jack White, value records for their acoustic quality, hip factor and against-the-grain commercialism.
But mostly, they like shopping for vinyl because it leads a collector on a search-and-discovery adventure, Weathers said.
“I enjoy the hunt, that’s fun.”
Levy said he was in a good position to open the store. He’d been collecting records all his life and had accrued an enormous collection. A musician, he also was tired of playing live gigs and wanted to find something else to do with his life, he said.
He figured he had three choices: medical school, a neuropsychology degree or a record store.
“I chose the one I was already the most prepared for,” he said.
He found a couple of investors, identified a good property, transported his stuff from a storage unit to the store, bought a computer and point-of-sale system, ordered new product, built out the retail space and hired an assistant.
Voila, Levy was in business. Now he’s got a stake in the vinyl renaissance, and he’s hoping the resurgence will continue to gain strength.
“Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd, right?”