When a cadre of obsessives launched Record Store Day in 2008, the celebration of indie music shops and dusty old-school vinyl was a tidy, 40-something affair where turntables ruled and iPods were booed.
But when Record Store Day is celebrated across the globe today — including many stores in Tampa Bay — it will include not just nostalgic boomers but millions of retro-minded kids too.
In a gone-digital world, vinyl is back in a big way, sales increasing exponentially for the past several years. But the reasons for vinyl's return — and Record Store Day's success — go deeper than just the warm grooves on your cherished copy of the Grease soundtrack.
To paraphrase that noted philosopher Olivia Newton-John:
We're getting physical again.
"In a world of email, tweets, downloads, all of this ephemeral content, there's something very appealing to a lot of people about holding a physical object that had a tremendous amount of care put into it," says Jeff Gold, author of 101 Essential Rock Records: The Golden Age of Vinyl from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols. "Technology put record stores out of business — and now vinyl is starting to put record stores back in business!"
There seems to be a gradual nose-thumbing — or at least weariness — to our plugged-in lives. We're all addicted to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and that's not going to change anytime soon. But that doesn't mean we have to always like it.
Or as alt-rock band Grinderman puts it: "The relatively mild exertion of getting off your fat, computer-shackled a-- and venturing out to find the object of your desire, the thrill of moving through actual space and time … and the tactile ecstasy of fondling the quested treasure — all this will augment and enrich the mental associations music invokes in you for the rest of your life."
And that also may be a reason for both vinyl and Record Store Day's popularity. It was meant to be "an authentic antidote to the ubiquitous, nonspecific-ness of digital music," says 55-year-old cofounder Michael Kurtz. From the very action of putting a record on a turntable to checking out the gorgeous art and liner notes: "You get pulled into the vinyl experience the way you do with a movie."
Comedian Patton Oswalt, when talking to recordstoreday.com, said it's that notion of making contact that is driving all of this: "The idea of 'The journey is the destination' is put into action by browsing an indie record store. Besides, a human being is a much better guide than a 'More Like This' link on the Internet."
That vinyl's return and Record Store Day's popularity are linked to a youth movement is crucial; that's a very powerful demographic. When Record Store Day started, "everyone taking part was over 40," says Kurtz. About $30,000 worth of RSD exclusive merchandise — limited stuff sold only on the third Saturday in April — was made available to indie stores across the country in 2008. But last year, $7 million in RSD merch was available — "and the average age of people buying it was under 21," Kurtz says.
Author Gold says that kids' interest in vinyl can be partly attributed to the subsequent rise of electronic dance music (EDM), where DJs will use vinyl records to fill throbbing dance clubs with music you can literally feel.
"DJ culture has actually turned up the heat and added to a vibrant vinyl culture," he says. EDM artists such as Skrillex or Deadmau5, who some consider the new rock stars of popular music, still value milk crates of vinyl.
There's a vinyl movement in the Top 40 charts, too. Youthful acts such as Jack White, Mumford & Sons, Adele, Bon Iver and Beach House all placed in the top 10 for vinyl albums sold in 2012. Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake released new albums on vinyl, and both took careful care with rather stunning album art.
As a result of the youth infusion, for the fifth consecutive year, vinyl album sales continued to climb in an otherwise downtrending music market, with $4.6 million in units moved in 2012, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Granted, vinyl printings are relatively limited, and vinyl sales only accounted for 2.3 percent of total music sales. (Digital music accounts for 36 percent of all music sales.) Vinyl was basically given up for dead in the mid '80s; instead, compact discs were the fancy new thing. Last year, CD sales dropped another 25 percent.
RSD's Kurtz isn't sure how long the boom will last, but adds that turntable sales are also trending up and have been ticking skyward since 2011. Long-dormant vinyl manufacturers are overwhelmed, and several tech companies are experimenting with new vinyl technology, including one in Japan that uses a laser instead of a crystal stylus.
Gold adds rather soberly that vinyl "isn't going to be the dominant musical art form again."
For better or worse, digital is here to stay.
But whereas CDs "will be dead pretty soon," vinyl albums, with the 12-inch-by-12-inch packaging, art and readable liner notes, have a shot at once again becoming the physical format of choice.
Oh, and don't forget about that warm, non-compressed vinyl sound. Vinyl looks good, feels good, and man, does it play.
Maybe vinyl's return makes perfect sense after all.
"It's ironic and it's wonderful," Gold says.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.