Published: Monday, March 12, 2012
Updated: Thursday, July 5, 2012 15:07
As a music nerd, there are few things finer than placing a record onto a turntable, dropping the needle into the grooves and hearing that little crackle emerge before the album begins to unfold from your speakers.
While most of us consume our music digitally — mindlessly searching the iTunes store or scouring the depths of the Internet for new music to listen to — there is something special about going to the record store and searching for something to put in your hands, and on your shelves.
They may be perceived as dusty and dense, a waste of space, a collection of past things expired, but, there is still a lot of life in vinyl records. One hit wonders and musical throwaways from the past still have just as much life as the Jonas Brothers (who?) will in a few years, but people will always be interested in listening to and learning about good music.
In fact, 43 years after it's release, The Beatles' Abbey Road is still the top-selling vinyl record, selling nearly 41,000 copies of the vinyl release in 2011. 20 years ago, people thought that vinyl was dead, but as of recently there are more signs of life.
Last year, just less than four million new records were sold in the US, which is a tiny number in comparison to Adele's 21 (which sold a whopping 17 million units last year) but people are still buying records, both modern and old, new and used.
While the number of used records sold in 2011 is nearly impossible to track because they aren't documented by global sales figures, it's safe to say that the music of the past is still vitally important to the modern young music listener.
"A lot of that old music has a timeless quality to it," said Chris Wade, the 51-year-old owner of Niagara Records on St. Paul St. in St. Catharines. "Young people are still gobbling up the basic repertoire of The Beatles, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones and Neil Young. That's what I did too as a teenager.
"I started buying records in 1975 and by then there was already 10 or more years of music to catch up on. Now there is over 50 years of fantastic timeless music for young people to listen to."
Niagara Records is Wade's second record store, his first being Vinyl Frontier, which was also located in downtown St. Catharines. His rent was too expensive at the location and his debt mushroomed until he was ultimately forced to close the store.
Wade explained that as both a teenager and 20-something, he would spend his weekends driving outside of town in search for records. Some people like buying clothes, Wade liked buying records.
By the mid-to-late ‘80s, music was released on three formats: the cassette, the vinyl records and on CD – but in 1990 records began to disappear.
Then in the mid-‘90s a store called Star Records entered downtown St. Catharines resurging the dying format.
"All of a sudden there was somewhere to get records again. It rekindled my interest and it was then that I started to sell. I just revisited the fact that records are cool – because they are" said Wade.
"They just have this hands-on approach – records have history. There was a copy of The Beatles For Sale here. It was an original pressing from the UK that went out of here last night. That record was 50 bucks – if it was in better condition it would have sold for 400 bucks. The cool thing about the record is that it sat on a shelf in Liverpool a week after it was released. It's that kind of connection that draws me in."
But, while Wade asserted that vinyl records are cool, he also suggested that for every timeless record, there are a handful of others that were created that are now what he considers "landfill".
"It's tough to find a collection where a third of it you already don't have a million copies of. You see, people are trying to get rid of records that haven't been listened to in 30 years. People want Frank Sinatra. They don't look for a poor man's Frank Sinatra like Al Martino or one of the million other crooners," said Wade.
"There is so much of that stuff, people who bought them and shortly they got tired of them, there was no heart and soul in most of those artists, they were manufactured by the industry to sell records – it just wasn't good. So, those types of records are what people try to get rid of."
But, quality of artists aside, Wade put forth an analogy to describe the difference in quality between vinyl and their digital counterpart, the CD.
"It's analogous to taking a picture. The digital signal flashes like a camera, fast. The changes in music that are faster than they are switching, so, the faster they go, the better the sound and the less distortion there is. But most CDs are not made that way," he explained. "The flashes are too slow and it causes distortion and it's a square signal being sent out, so the tops and bottoms of the sound waves get cut off."
Sound quality and packaging are what drives people to be interested in vinyl. Rather than being a small image in a plastic case, cover art for vinyl is visually striking and allows for a better representation of the image. Plus, there is room for posters, and vinyl can be printed on countless varieties of colours, with the option for marble swirls and picture discs as well.
Wade explained that while he sees a lot of obsessive collectors within his vocation, he also encounters hobbyists and young people just generally looking to learn about music.
"I've been selling records since about 1995, so, I've seen it long enough to see the changes. Young people are the difference. Record collecting would die without a new generation," he said.
"Young people are gobbling up those basic things, and from there it grows exponentially because there is so much music that you discover. Heck, even at 51 I'm still discovering."