Cam Bentley walked into a Fort Lauderdale record store this dreary afternoon, head nodding to Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” streaming from iPod to headphones. She walked past the CDs to the Soul section of the vinyl department – stacks and stacks of LPs stuffed between Alternative and Blues – on an earnest hunt for the same song on wax.
A daughter of the digital age, Bentley only discovered the joy of vinyl a year or so ago after she wandered into a retro record store in Tallahassee, where she was finishing up at Florida A&M University. She had an uncle’s turntable at home, so the journey back to the analog era was just a matter of finding a favorite artist’s 12-inch. And then, among the crates of albums. she found another Jackson album, “Thriller,” its iconic cover featuring the star lounging in a dapper white suit and black shirt.
Bentley, 23, already was in love with chapters of music made before she was born. Now, she’s been wooed further by the crackle and pop and warmth of vinyl’s storied history.
“I listened to that album and that was it. I love that you can hear everything on an album. Somehow you feel like you are listening to the real thing,” says Bentley, who is military-bound and makes regular trips to Radio-Active Records in Fort Lauderdale in search of albums by the Dazz Band, Heatwave and Stevie Wonder. “Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong decade.”
Like a bygone artist, the black disc – once the domain of purist deejays and nostalgic baby boomers who never let go, and the enduring force behind indie record stories – has made a comeback, now enjoyed by hipsters and youngsters who grew up grooving to sounds on little gadgets but seem willing to set aside technology for more authentic moments with music. They are attracted to the tactile experience of the treasure hunt, of plucking through stacks for a particular title, of absorbing the cover art, of removing the sleeve, of gently coaxing the needle into the groove and anticipating the first promising seconds of sizzle.
And it’s not just the vintage stuff that is luring music lovers to record stores. Contemporary artists from Adele to Lady Gaga are pumping out new music on vinyl, often with a download included. And other artists are reissuing their greatest hits on vinyl.
Last year, record purchases were at a two-decade high, with unit sales at 3.9 million, a 36 percent jump over 2010, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Though still a fraction of overall sales of CDs and MP3, vinyl sales have grown annually since 2005.
“So many people are reacting to the tactile experience of walking into a store, picking up a record, touching it, going home and listening to it, really feeling the music. Vinyl offers a personal experience, like buying books at a bookstore,” says Lauren Reskin, owner of Sweat Records, a groovy haunt in Miami’s Little Haiti. “There’s always been a fan base for vinyl, but now the home listener runs the gamut, from boomers to kids. And what they want to listen to is across the board.”
So every week, Reskin – who calls the LP revival a “happy accident” – can count on music listeners to enter the wonderfully eclectic store, wander the displays and pick up Nas’ “Illmatic,” or Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” or Belle Sebastian’s “If You’re Feeling Sinister.” Or anything recorded by Radiohead and Miles Davis.
First introduced in 1948, vinyl was for years the main format for popular music. After three decades of dominance, it receded into the shadows of first cassette tapes, then compact discs and digital file formats. But since the turn of the century, even as the music industry wobbled under the weight of free downloading, vinyl steadily marched back onto the pop culture radar. Now, vinyl and the venerable record player are everywhere, sold on mainstream shelves like Urban Outfitters. Badges of cool, images of turntables and album covers are on T-shirts, wallpaper, art.
In March, during the Season Five premiere of “Mad Men,” the series set in the 1960s, Megan Draper covered “Zou Bisou Bisou” at husband Don’s surprise 40th birthday party. The show’s rendition of Gillian Hill’s original 1961 song immediately became available on seven-inch red and black vinyl.
“The vinyl has become visible in pop culture because it has a certain cache, it’s a symbol of survival and an earlier time and it has a story,” says Charles McGovern, an associate professor of American Studies at the College of William & Mary in Virginia and former curator of American culture at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. “We listen to music with our ears but also our eyes and other senses. The vinyl is so much more than a storage container for sound.”
Sean Kayes opened Radio-Active Records, then called CD Collector, in Pompano Beach, Fla., 16 years ago. He moved the shop to Fort Lauderdale and last winter, opened in a shopping strip along U.S. 1 in the city not far from the former location. Over the years, his inventory has shifted.
“Back in early 2000s, I had a small collection of albums, but mostly CDs in the store. We would play the albums, anything from R.E.M. to Sly and the Family Stone to The Smiths. And I noticed that the more vinyl we played, the more vinyl we sold. Back then, the kids, 10 or 12 years old, would come in and watch us play and for them it was eye popping, cool, maybe even their first time seeing it,” he said.
Then, in 2003, a woman walked in the store and sold Kayes her husband’s collection of 2,500 LPs, mostly Top 40 stuff. He instantly had an inventory and soon after, a faithful following among vinyl fans. Now the collection crosses genres, from disco to trance to rock to rap. Prices range from maybe $1 for a decent-condition Johnny Mathis to $100 plus for an early pressing of Miles Davis’ “Kind Of Blue.”
When he opened in 1996, the inventory mix of CDs to LPs was 70 to 30. Now: 20 to 80. That broad shift to vinyl became the savior for many small, independent record stores and has been celebrated in a national campaign called Record Store Day.
“I think the main reason the vinyl is so popular now is that it is a more authentic document of what the artist produced. People are excited by the cover, which is really a 12-by-12 piece of art. And they are excited by the way an album offers an intimate way to experience music,” says Kayes. “I don’t see this as a passing trend.”