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New Generation of Music Fans Give Vinyl a Spin

Bernadette Tansey, Special to CNBC.com
Tuesday, 31 Jan 2012 | 10:58 AM ET

Vinyl LP sales rose 36 percent in 2011.

Artists from Adele to JayZ issue vinyl versions of their albums.

United Record Pressing
Photo By: Jay Millar
United Record Pressing

Anguish, humor, conflicted love and a dose of playfulness are all ingredients in the music of experimental rock band Xiu Xiu.

As Xiu Xiu pushes the rock genre forward, it gives a nod to its experimental brethren from another era: Its fans can listen to the band on vinyl records.

“It tends to make the experience of listening to music deeper,’’ said Jamie Stewart, singer and guitarist for the band, which pronounces its name “shoo shoo.”

A fair slice of the band’s fans seem to agree. They’re part of the growing customer base that has sent vinyl LP sales surging in recent years. Xiu Xiu records on vinyl, compact disc and digital files sold online. But Stewart said the band sometimes sells only vinyl on tour — with no drop in concert sales.

In an era when teenagers can tap the latest songs off the web in seconds and store entire music collections in devices the size of a wristwatch, young fans are also gravitating to vinyl records.

The trend is strengthening the network of small businesses that have maintained vinyl as a persistent niche product — from Xiu Xiu’s independent label, Polyvinyl Records, to major vinyl manufacturer United Record Pressing in Nashville.

The number of vinyl LP sales rose 36 percent in 2011, consolidating an upward trend sustained over the past four years, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

For those who grew up with digital music, Stewart said, vinyl LPs now appear as an intriguing novelty (as do those bulky devices called turntables). Multi-colored records with liner notes, lyric sheets, and full-size cover art are tangible, tactile products that build out an artist’s message in a way that CD jewel boxes and tiny iPod screens can’t, he said.

“A record cover can be infinitely more beautiful than 1,000 by 1,000 pixels,’’ he said.

United Record Pressing
Photo By: Jay Millar
United Record Pressing

To be sure, vinyl hasn’t come close to recapturing the dominant position it held for decades, before a wave of new formats swept in. Beginning in the 1980s, audiocassettes, CDs and digital downloads captured large shares of the market. Despite the growth in 2011, vinyl LPs represented just 1.2 percent of the total of 330.6 million albums sold in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Even so, major artists from Adele to JayZ issue vinyl versions of their albums, augmenting business for manufacturers who also produce vinyl re-issues of classic records by past headliners like the Beatles. Vinyl buyers include die-hard “analog nuts’’ and audiophiles as well as new listeners who find something missing in digital music, said Jay Millar, a spokesman for United Record Pressing.

Millar said he can hear a difference between vinyl and digital recordings, though he acknowledges that most people probably can’t distinguish vinyl from quality CDs. But he said vinyl’s value comes in part from the way it forces a listener to focus on the music.

“I can’t jog with a record,’’ he said. “I don’t have a turntable in my car.’’

United Record Pressing, founded in 1949, has worked busily through waves of change in the demand for vinyl sound. In the 1980s, as other formats gained market share, the Nashville company made vinyl singles for DJs and records for dance clubs, radio stations and skating rinks, Millar said. But lately he has seen a resurgence of the full-length vinyl album. United, which identifies itself as the largest U.S. vinyl record maker, ran 24-hour shifts for a big portion of 2011, he said.

While vinyl business is picking up, sales trends indicate dangers for the CD, the format that squeezed vinyl into the back corners of record stores years ago. Nielsen SoundScan says CD sales declined 5.7 percent to 223.5 million albums last year. While CDs are still the most popular format for music sales, it is declining while digital downloads jumped 20 percent to 103.1 million albums.

As digital downloads draw customers away from CDs, they can boost sales of vinyl albums, said Matt Lunsford, a co-founder of Polyvinyl Records, which is the company that Xiu Xiu records with. About six years ago, the Champaign, Ill.-based company started including digital download codes with each vinyl album sold. “That seems to be the ultimate way of experiencing the record,” Lunsford says. “It allows people to have the best attributes of digital and vinyl.’’

Courtesy of Angela Seo

The vinyl price premium at Polyvinyl isn’t huge. Xiu Xiu will soon release its new album, “Always,’’ in a 180-gram translucent pink vinyl edition with two posters for $14, pre-ordered. With plain black vinyl, the album is $12. The MP3 alone is $8.

Other labels have adopted the combined format. United Record Pressing’s Millar said most new vinyl releases now come with a digital download component.

Which leaves CDs the odd man out. Millar’s view is that the CD can’t compete for compactness with digital collections on MP3 players. And they aren’t as involving as a vinyl album with full-sized art and liner notes.

Ah yes, the liner notes. That’s one reason Millar predicts that vinyl will always have a place in the hearts of die-hard music fans.

"I started buying vinyl again after I got my first MP3 player,” says the 35-year-old. Once I could fit all my music in the palm of my hand, I thought: 'Do I need [the CDs]?' What I wanted was the artwork, the liner notes and the best sound.''

Since then Millar has bought vinyl records he once had on CD. The larger-format graphics and notes were a revelation compared to the same material in CD packages. "I thought, 'Wait a minute; I never saw that.'"

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