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Resurgence in vinyl helps record store in recession

by Jordan Melnick
May 13, 2009


 Jordan Melnick/MEDILL

"I love records," said Stephen Koza, while shopping for vinyl LPs at the Lakeview Reckless Records. "My favorite kind ... to buy are unusual covers, hand-made stuff."

It’s lunchtime on a typical weekday and Reckless Records downtown is packed. Dave Richardson, a 26-year-old legal clerk, has stopped in on his break to shop for LPs, those 12-inch, non-biodegradable vinyl discs that have been made obsolete many times over, most recently by MP3s.

Why would anybody pay for vinyl when there’s so much free digital music on the Internet? Why opt for a format that hardly fits in a backpack when the iPod can put up to 20,000 songs in a back pocket?

“I like the idea of owning a piece of physical media,” Richardson said.

He isn’t alone. Despite the MP3 takeover of the music industry, more and more audiophiles are turning to vinyl for an old-fashioned listening experience. And after 19 years in business in Chicago, British-owned Reckless Records of London Inc. is reaping the benefits.

The company’s three locations—Lakeview, Wicker Park and the Loop—sold 136,000 LPs in 2008, up about 38,000 from the year before. Despite declining CD revenue, Reckless’s total sales climbed to $4.2 million last year from $3.8 million in 2007. The uptick will allow the company to move its Lakeview store to a bigger location at the end of May.

To Reckless general manager Bryan Smith, vinyl’s resurgence comes down to consumer desire for a hands-on listening experience.

“People are rediscovering the artifact of music, being able to hold the physical product,” Smith said. “They like the mobility of the MP3, [but] it doesn’t give you a physical relationship with bands.”

Reckless’s increased vinyl sales mirror a national trend. There were 1.9 million new LPs sold in the U.S. last year, an 89 percent increase from 2007, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks music sales. CD sales fell 19.7 percent in the same period.

In Nielsen’s East/North Central Region—which includes Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana—LP sales were up 119 percent last year and rose 56 percent through the end of April.

The rise in LP sales is an anomaly in a suffering music industry, which saw 3,000 record stores close nationwide between 2003 and last year, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a market research firm. In Chicago, 38 stores closed in that time.

A typical LP at Reckless costs between $7 and $25, though some rarities can sell for more than $100. With so much music free for the taking on the Internet, consumers’ willingness to fork over cash for LPs might seem extravagant. But Kip McCabe, store manager at Reckless’s Lakeview location, sees vinyl’s comeback as a reaction to the digital-music revolution epitomized by the iPod.

“I feel like [listening to MP3s] takes out a decent percentage of what the experience was meant to be to begin with,” McCabe said. “I think the first thing you lose is the artists’ intention of how they wanted their art to be received.”

Sales are down this year at Reckless’s three locations, but the upswing in vinyl consumption has helped Reckless weather the recession as consumers take comfort in concrete assets like LPs during hard times, Dylan Posa, manager at the Loop location, said.

“When times get tough you like to have what you own around you,” Posa said. “It’s sort of hard to touch an MP3 and say that you own it.”

Reckless’s trade-in business is another aspect of the company cash-strapped music collectors find attractive.

“People right now need money and that’s something we hand out,” McCabe said. “We hand out cash for product.”

LP lovers espouse everything from cover art to sound quality to the smell of vinyl itself. And with affordable turntables now on the market, some with USB ports that enable LP-to-MP3 conversion, the hands-on music experience and the portable one have converged.

Michelle Ishikawa, 22, a Columbia College Chicago student, used words like “real,” “authentic” and “tangible” when explaining her attachment to vinyl at Reckless’s Lakeview store.

Stephen Koza, 26, from Brooklyn, N.Y., described an aversion to buffet-style music consumption.

“You can download all you can eat, but [listening to LPs] takes a little more devotion,” Koza said. “It’s so easy on the Internet to consume music like a whale.”

The return of vinyl is not just a youth movement. Sixty-year-old Henrik Lang, a native Finlander who now lives in Chicago, said he switched back to vinyl six years ago for the better sound quality.

“It was an Ornette Coleman CD that brought me back,” Lang said, while scouring the jazz section at the Lakeview Reckless. “Transferring something that was made in ’63 didn’t work out well. I thought, ‘Well, if I find something on vinyl, then I’ll buy it.’”

Lang owns about 2,000 LPs. Collectors like him are a big part of the reason vinyl is on the rise. Reckless general manager Smith said he knows people with more than 10,000 LPs.

For Keenan Kelly—also known as DJ Kesa—collecting has become a problem.

“I can’t even keep some of them in my place,” Kelly said of his 3,000-LP collection. “I need to slow down. I’m an addict.”

Other vinyl faithful describe their devotion less as addiction and more as romance.

“Sometimes you just want to go home, put on a record and have a glass of wine,” said Tim Wagner, 26, who works at Andy's Jazz Club & Restaurant in the Gold Coast. “You just don’t have that feeling with an iPod.”

Whether based on addiction or love, increased LP sales are helping Reckless capitalize on the recession. The company is taking advantage of low real estate prices by moving its original Lakeview location down the block to a bigger, 5,000-square-foot space at the end of May.

McCabe is confident that customers will follow Reckless to its new location.

“We have a built-in, very intense constituency,” McCabe said. “Record collectors are … always on the hunt. That audience stays loyal.”