You (Still) Spin Me 

The vinyl record refuses the trend toward obsolescence that certain other media are fighting.

click to enlarge music18_recordfinders_200.jpg

Drive out Staples Mill Road, make a few turns into a nondescript warehouse complex and you'll find Record Finders, a dealer in music on grooved discs — 3 million or so 78s, 45s and LPs — and the equipment used to play them.

For most of the company's 40-year history, it's depended on diehards who didn't like the look or sound of newfangled recordings, or people searching for music so obscure that it was never transferred to compact discs or digital audio files.

But now this small shop fronting a big warehouse is turning into ground zero for a burgeoning retro-music culture. While the CD market tanks — U.S. sales were down 14 percent last year compared with 2007, according to Nielsen SoundScan — and major labels, music retailers and even online music sellers struggle, Record Finders' trade is booming, says Gene Pembleton, who runs the firm, a division of Plan 9 Music.

 This and other used-record operations attract under-30 listeners who've decided “CDs are too impersonal and don't last, and that they can only download so much, and besides, a lot of stuff they want is not in print,” says Pembleton, a jovial, gray ponytailed 50-year-old who's dubbed his new young clientele “reactionaries.” They've turned to records, he says, “because they enjoy the process of shopping, seeing the [album-cover] artwork, grabbing something they've never seen before.”

“There's a bit of a backlash” against computer-filed music, says Jay Leavitt, the former general manager of Plan 9, who in mid-April opened Deep Groove, a shop in the Fan that buys and sells new and used records. “You don't go to a friend's house and say, ‘Show me your iPod music collection.’ People are going back to vinyl for the same reason I loved it as a kid. You've got an album to hold, to look at, while you listen.”

 Customers like the price — the typical used LP goes for closer to $1 than $10 — and they soon discover something their parents know but neglected to pass along: Defective tapes and CDs and corrupted audio files are goners, but a scratched or slightly warped record can still be played. Vinyl remains the most durable medium for recorded music. “Records will be around after the earth crumbles,” Leavitt predicts.

That's assuming you have something to play them on. “We can't keep turntables in here,” says Pembleton, who keeps a technician working full time to recondition old units for resale. The young retro crowd likes the silver turntables that were popular in the mid-1970s. “The better ones actually were made 10 or 20 years earlier,” Pembleton advises. “The general rule is, the heavier the equipment is, the better it will work.”

Major labels ditched vinyl records in the early- and mid-'80s, except for music favored by DJs to play or use in scratch mixes in dance clubs. Independent players — some retro-conscious bands, small outfits producing costly virgin vinyl reissues — have stayed in the grooves, and there's periodic talk of veteran rockers (Neil Young is one of the usual suspects) reissuing their collected works on vinyl. “More people are beginning to go back into producing vinyl,” Pembleton says.

“More and more major artists are putting out their new releases on vinyl along with CD,” Deep Groove's Leavitt says. The new Bob Dylan album, “Together Through Life,” was released on vinyl at about the same price as the CD. A growing catalog of pop, R&B and jazz vinyl reissues are also priced comparably to CD versions, he says. “And some of the independent bands and labels are skipping CDs entirely, releasing their albums on vinyl only or vinyl and downloads.”

There's no shortage of product — LPs were manufactured for about 35 years (roughly 1950-85) and 45s for even longer. Even the ones that didn't sell were pressed thousands at a time.

With records, as with other collectibles, value is determined by scarcity and quality of preservation. “First-pressing, first-printing copies of Elvis Presley records often go for thousands,” Pembleton says. And if you have a genuine copy of the so-called butcher cover of the Beatles' album “Yesterday and Today,” very briefly issued in the United States, “and it's in really good condition, that'll go for five digits.” British collectors have driven prices into the stratosphere for northern soul acts of the '60s and early '70s; Record Finders recently sold a 45 by Rita and the Tiaras for $875. But most of the old discs in your grandparents' den aren't rare, probably aren't in the excellent condition that hard-core collectors demand, and won't make you rich thanks to crazed foreigners.

 Historically, Pembleton's business has depended on compulsive collectors, and most of his trade has been wholesale and through catalog sales. Now, though, he's finding a growing clientele for records and album jackets as decorative objects, and seeing as much as 20 percent of his sales coming from walk-in shoppers, “even though this is hardly a prime retail location.”

This calls for some attitude adjustment on his part. “Some kid is browsing and says, ‘Oh, wow, a Journey album!’ And I'm saying to myself, ‘Nooo, you want to look over here at this. ...’ And I have to remember, for this person, this record I'd like to forget is a classic — a find.” S

Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at www.letterv.blogspot.com.

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