The march of innovation propels technological capability to levels once thought unreachable, producing new creations that enhance our lives and communities. However, even the most tech-savvy among us may wax nostalgic for the days when all products were tangible. Family photographs exist mostly in our smartphones. Pads of papers are fading remnants. Even wall calendars with their adorable photos of kittens are seen less and less. (Okay, maybe those persist, but pocket calendars are certainly gone.) Perhaps the slow fade of these iconic mementos is what explains April’s Record Store Day.
The event was a sort of take-back effort, created in 2007 by artists, consumers, and independent record-store owners who joined together around the same time online music sales were overtaking those of brick-and-mortar retailers. At the time, it looked like records were being phased out, a decision purists decried as a knee-jerk effort to secure more profits for the music industry. From 8-track, to cassettes, to digital audio tapes, to compact discs, to MP3s, the music companies told us how and when to listen. Then they forced us to buy all our old albums in new formats.
Interested in seeing Record Store Day in action, I stopped by Tres Gatos in Jamaica Plain, one of a dozen or so participating retailers in the Boston area. What I expected to find were a few aging baby-boomers looking to snag the re-release of Joan Baez or the Everly Brothers. Instead I found record-mania. The place was teeming with 20-something hipsters hungry for some vinyl of their own. Many of them arrived before the store was open, standing in a line that wrapped around the block.
One of the people I spoke with was Jamaica Plain resident Max Nagel, 21, who purchased a small-batch compilation album by the independent label Father/Daughter, one of only 500 copies that were specially released for the day. Ironically, when Max was born records were being phased out, while new releases like Prince’s “The Hits/The B-Sides,” were being released to compact disc, not vinyl, a trend that would only continue into the 1990s.
Yet there he stood, a record junkie, telling me that LPs just sound better than downloaded music. He wasn’t alone in that thought. Riley Berry, 24, told me her parents raised her on vinyl, adding that unlike downloads, a record can be held in your hand, as she proudly waived the St. Elmo’s Fire soundtrack she had just purchased. Her friend Seth Cannon, 25, who works at Whole Foods, remembers the waft of record smell that he would get every time he opened the cabinet in his family’s Bridgewater home where he grew up.
I don’t own a record player, but I found myself suddenly wanting one, oddly drawn to the movement. This sentimentality makes sense. A record is personal, and physically brings you into the process of listening. You become an active part of the music, as you place the record on the turntable, and switch levers to turn it on. Contrast that with clicking a link on your laptop or tablet. It’s sort of the equivalent of building a campfire for heat, rather than simply turning on a thermostat.
Whether because of nostalgia, better sound quality, or simply retaining some modicum of control, it appears that the vinyl movement is working, and the large recording companies are paying attention. According to the website Statistica, LP sales are up over 250 percent since 2002, while all other recording media, including the download, actually declined last year.
Ironically, the phenomenon that started this frenzy — technological innovation — has now come full circle. The same tools that made iTunes wildly successful now free both artists and consumers to bypass it altogether. A growing number of artists are releasing material on their own, and in some cases for free. But one thing seems certain: After 113 years in circulation it appears that the LP is here to stay — at least for now.