Stuart Freedman, owner of Nuggets in Kenmore Square, has rarely ordered new releases on vinyl since the record store opened in 1978. The business is known for its collection of secondhand music — so stocking the shelves with the latest LPs never made much sense. This was particularly true in the 2000s and early 2010s, as more people began downloading, and then streaming, their music.
A decade or so ago, however, Freedman noticed a change.
“Kids would come in asking for Pink Floyd, so I’d point them to the CDs. They’d shake their heads and say, ‘No, the big ones. Vinyls,’” he says. “I guess they got sick of downloading, and wanted to have something real in their hands.”
Today, the store is seeing a revival in its vinyl sales. “Young people come in looking for everything from The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, to Miles Davis,” Freedman says. “Because of them, for the first time in a long time I’m ordering newer stuff like Adele.”
Nuggets is not alone. Across the country, vinyl sales, which have been on the rise since 2006, have exploded in recent years. Records outsold CDs in 2020, for the first time since 1986, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Last year, sales spiked 61 percent, topping $1 billion for the first time in more than 35 years. To put this into perspective, more than one out of every three albums sold in 2021 were vinyl LPs.
That the boom has occurred during a global pandemic, powered in large part not by boomers with disposable income or even nostalgic Gen Xers, but by millennials and Gen Zers, makes the resurgence of vinyl even more fascinating.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for a medium that, by the mid-1990s, had become a niche market kept alive by collectors, music purists eager to relive their younger years, audiophiles who preferred to listen to albums as they were originally mastered, and the hip-hop community, which has long relied on records as part of the music-making process.
While the explosion in popularity presents some unexpected challenges for the industry, it is largely seen as a boon for recording artists, who get the short end of the stick when it comes to streaming royalties. As for me, a Gen Xer who has stuck by vinyl through the advent of cassette tapes, CDs, and Spotify, it is gratifying to watch younger, digitally-native generations discover all that they’ve been missing.
As a hip-hop obsessed teenager in the ‘90s, I often spent my weekends crisscrossing the Boston area and diving into the bins of my favorite record stores, some of which wouldn’t outlast vinyl’s slump. I’d pick up the Red Line at Downtown Crossing and take it to Harvard Square, where my hunts usually started.
By the time I was 16, my love affair with vinyl was well underway. Growing up on the border of the South End and Lower Roxbury, I had spent hours as a child — from as early as the age of 3 — poring over the soul and funk albums that older neighborhood kids had bought at stores such as the since-closed Skippy White’s and A Nubian Notion. This is how I discovered Rick James, Prince, Teena Marie, and other artists who helped shape my musical tastes.
But my infatuation really took off in high school, thanks to a landmark 1991 court decision that made it illegal to sample music without permission and led to samples being listed in the album credits.
Suddenly, I could buy a cassette tape, unfurl the paper insert tucked inside, and discover the musicians behind the drum breaks, horn stabs, piano riffs, and basslines I was hearing. This sparked a new wave of music discovery, introducing me to gospel, blues, jazz, soul/R&B, funk, and Latin artists I hadn’t previously been aware of.
I’d usually start at the now-defunct In Your Ear on Mt. Auburn Street, home to a collection of rare, obscure psychedelic rock, R&B/soul, and funk records, curated by local experts like the famed collector “Boston” Bob Gibson. I knew these were the same records that my favorite rap producers had sought out. Then I’d head to the Garage, in the heart of Harvard Square, and browse Newbury Comics for indie rap releases and instrumental hip-hop or break beat albums. This is also where I’d go for imported records from the UK such as Caron Wheeler, Soul II Soul, Massive Attack, or anything on Gilles Peterson’s Acid Jazz label.
From there, it was a short walk to Cheapo Records in Central Square, where I’d look for anything from The Beatles to Mandrill, B.T. Express, Brass Construction, Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd, to Miles Davis. Next, I’d be back on the T, heading to Boston University West, to hit up In Your Ear’s Commonwealth Street location in search of music from The Sylvers to singer-songwriter Laura Nyro.
Back home with my finds, I’d select a record and carefully remove it from the sleeve, lining it up with the spindle in the middle of the platter and dropping the needle on the record.
For me, there’s nothing like this moment, when the crackle of the vinyl comes through the speakers as the needle rides the grooves and the music starts filling the air. I’d pore through liner notes and album credits, learning the names of band members and the equipment they used.
Listening to vinyl is a ritual, a listening experience shaped by the records themselves. Taking the time to carefully flip the record over to hear Side B directly involves you in the listening experience. Holding a record, you’re conscious that you have an album in your hands — something with continuity and flow, whose sum is greater than its parts. If you want to hear a song again, you have to carefully drop the needle at the beginning of it, an advanced technique that takes lots of experience to perfect.
But even as my obsession with records grew, vinyl’s popularity had been waning for years, following the advent of the cassette tape and, later, the portable cassette player. These technologies, admittedly, had their advantages: You could fast-forward or rewind songs on a two-sided cassette — and fit more songs on them. Then came the CD, which never needed flipping over to get to Side B, and eliminated the need to fast-forward to the next song. All it took was the touch of a button.
When CD sales skyrocketed in the early ‘90s, it felt like a death knell for records. By 1993, vinyl sales had bottomed out, totaling $10.6 million that year, just 0.1 percent of total recording industry revenue, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
My favorite record shops changed with the times, expanding their space for CDs and shrinking their vinyl sections to just classic rock LPs and indie and major label rap singles and albums. By the late ‘90s, local spots like Looney Tunes, Mystery Train, Biscuithead, and Satellite Records became some of the last bastions for record hunters — or at least they felt like it. Sadly, two of those stores — Biscuithead and Satellite — eventually closed down.
The shrinking vinyl market didn’t deter my record obsession. In the mid-2000s, as digital downloads grew in popularity and early streaming services began affecting the market, I spent endless hours on music blogs and message boards discovering obscure and out-of-print records and exchanging information with like-minded disc diggers.
These spaces were inhabited by both older folks who grew up with records and younger people who became fascinated after discovering blog posts — which included low-quality vinyl rips — about out-of-print albums. The forums were a community where music lovers could recapture the thrill of discovery. They were also a harbinger of things to come: In 2006, sales of vinyl began to grow.
On a recent weekend, I hit the town to see who was behind this surge in vinyl sales. I witnessed young people coming out in droves to record stores. Groups of teenagers and young adults thumbed through the wide selection of vinyl in the basement of Newbury Comics in the Back Bay as well as at Nuggets in Kenmore. The same was the case at Vinyl Index in Somerville’s Bow Market.
The numbers bear this trend out. According to a February study by Luminate, the company that provides sales data for the Billboard music charts, Gen Zers and millennials were 25 percent more likely than the average music listener in the United States to have bought vinyl over the past year. In comparison, Gen Xers were only 7 percent more likely to have done so. In 2021, the top-selling vinyl albums were by Adele, Olivia Rodrigo, Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, and Billie Eilish, according to Luminate, formerly known as MRC Data.
Erik “Loman” Sarno, a producer and owner of the Union Sound studio in Cambridge, says younger generations are increasingly looking at music as an investment. “Young people want to invest in their favorite music,” he says. “Streaming only took away the need to. Unlike CDs and digital downloads, vinyl offers something unique in terms of listening experience and sound quality.”
Millennials and zoomers also have one thing in common when it comes to music: a shared sense of responsibility to support the artists they love. They’ve read about the inequitable royalties paid out to musicians by streaming services, and want to buy physical copies of albums to do their part. According to Luminate’s study this year, zoomers also cited building their music collection and boosting an artist’s chart position as reasons for buying records.
While the idea of younger generations getting into vinyl — and entering a new realm of music — sounds like heaven to a Gen Xer like myself, it does come at a price: The few record pressing plants in existence are being pushed to their limits. This has an adverse effect on indie artists, especially in rap, who’ve relied on vinyl for live performances, scratching, sampling, and retail purposes but now have long wait times that have only gotten longer during the pandemic. The massive demand for vinyl is even negatively impacting record stores nationwide in terms of keeping shelves stocked and appeasing a rabid fan base.
But when I think about records, I think about how I became fascinated with them 45 years ago. I remember being a 4-year-old kid in Boston, and my family allowing me to put a record on the turntable for the first time. I chose Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, pressed a button, and watched as the tone arm lowered, dropping the needle into the spinning disc. I felt like I was on top of the world.
So it warms my heart to know younger people are discovering the charm of vinyl for similar reasons — even though they have Wi-Fi and never had to use a rotary phone. At the end of the day, nothing beats reading the album credits and liner notes from a record jacket while listening to a record — and, hopefully, we’ll always be able to.
Dart Adams is the author of “Best Damn Hip Hop Writing: The Book of Dart” and coauthor of the upcoming book “Instead We Became Evil: A True Story Of Survival & Perseverance.” Send comments to email@example.com.