In the case of the vinyl album, what was old is new again.
Vinyl sales reached 3.9 million in 2011, shattering 2010’s record of 2.8 million LPs sold, according to Neilsen SoundScan.
That’s up 36 percent compared to last year, and it’s a significant jump from 2007 when only 1.9 million vinyl albums were sold.
More vinyl albums were purchased in 2011 than any other year in the 21-year history of Neilsen SoundScan, with 67 percent of all vinyl albums being purchased at independent record stores.
“I like all the formats, but I think if you take care of them right, they’re the one that holds up the best sound quality wise. There’s less of a chance as you go on — if you keep them in good shape — they won’t deteriorate over time,” Backdoor Records manager Patrik Dougherty said. “I have stuff that my dad had when he was a teenager on record that still sounds great, but I have CDs that I bought when they first came out and they skip already. I think with the LPs, if you take care of them, they’re a better investment in the long run. And as far as retaining value, an original record is something that will retain its value as opposed to a CD that will go for a dollar or two.”
Backdoor Records, a music shop with a long history in Johnson City, was reopened in its current location at 737 W. Walnut St. a little more than two years ago.
Since opening, Dougherty said Backdoor has seen its vinyl sales increase to the point where it makes up about 75 percent of the store’s business.
So why the sudden spike in vinyl sales?
Purists will tell you the music sounds better compared to the digitally compressed makeup of a CD or MP3 file, which is partly why vinyl sales have skyrocketed as younger people discover the format.
The instant gratification that comes with a quick album download from iTunes or Amazon might be nice, but for people like Dougherty, the digital files don’t hold a candle to an old-fashioned pressed vinyl record.
“Things on record, especially the good stuff, sounds completely different. There’s different dynamics to it,” he said. “If you get sold on vinyl and you like vinyl, you kind of stick with it.”
Aspects like bigger album artwork and larger liner notes are just a few of the added benefits vinyl champions tout over their tiny, shiny brethren.
But when you ask any music purists what they like about vinyl, the answer will most likely always come back to the output itself.
“The sound quality of an album, if you’ve got a good quality vinyl and a good system to play it through, is superior to CD,” Classic Music Company owner Matt Church said. “The current CD sampling rate isn’t even close to the sound quality you can get with analog. People that were born in the digital age that didn’t actually hear vinyl until now, it just blows them away.”
Church has seen that first-hand as he’s just opened Classic Music Company at 221 W. Main St. His new store mostly features used vinyl records that span as many decades as they do genres.
The shop, which is housed in the former Greenwood Recording Studio space, is Church’s ultimate love letter to a musical format he has long had an affair with.
“When CDs came out, a lot of people thought vinyl was going to go away forever like eight-track tapes and cassettes, but it never really did. The hip-hop crowd and DJs kind of kept it alive, and in the late ’90s, they started to come back. It’s at the point now where CD sales are just way down,” Church said.
According to Neilsen, CD sales still dwarf vinyl album sales, but CD sales dropped nearly 6 percent last year.
Vinyl’s comeback is a good thing for record store owners, who have consistently seen slow sales as the music industry itself has weathered the digital age.
“It enabled me to do this. It’s so popular right now and I have so many interests that have to do with music, and I’m just trying to tie them all together in one location here, so it’s really great to be able to be around the stuff that I enjoy and love and kind of make work out of it,” Church said.
As long as vinyl remains popular, many record stores are seeing a new lease on life as they’re able to stay afloat in an economy that’s still slowly working its way out of the dark.
“A lot of record stores realized that in order to stay afloat, you had to have records, which for 20 years it seems like they didn’t care about that at all,” Backdoor Records’ Dougherty said. “A lot of the stores that made it through the drought when stores were going in and out of business, they weren’t carrying LPs and had to slowly but surely carry them.”
Since vinyl records take up the most space inside Backdoor Records, the shop’s customer base seems to enjoy having a place where they can come to pick up records by current artists while also being able to pick up used albums from the artists of the past.
As more and more records are sold, more artists are getting in on the action. Most of today’s LPs come packaged with a digital download and CD.
“People can still get that instant gratification and, in a way, have their cake and eat it, too,” Dougherty said. “If the LP comes with the CD, I’m going to buy it every single time.”
One of the biggest boosts to vinyl sales and the shops that sell them is Record Store Day, which is celebrated every third Saturday in April in record stores across the world.
The event, which began in 2007, features a selection of special vinyl and CD releases from various artists that are only sold at independent record stores.
“That’s by far our busiest day of the year. I would equate it to Black Friday for big retail. That’s what Record Store Day is for us,” Dougherty said. “That’s the only day that we can consistently count on there being a line waiting for us to open.”
As long as vinyl sales continue to soar and people want to listen to music on something other than an iPod, Dougherty said LPs and record stores still have a place in the market.
At least, that’s what he hopes.
“It’s a labor of love. I think it’s a million times harder now than it was 10 years ago to keep anything like this going at all. We kind of think it’s our duty to keep something like this going. I can’t imagine being here and not having a record store,” he said. “The couple of years we went with not having anything, I’m not lying, that was two of most depressing years of my life when you’d drive to Knoxville or Asheville and just cross your fingers that you’d come across something.”
For the time being, Johnson City now has two record stores, which proves that vinyl isn’t going away anytime soon.
“I wish it was like when I was growing up and each town could support three or four, but I don’t think there’s any way now. I wish it was like when I was a little kid and there was a mall store, a store across town and a mom and pop store,” Dougherty said.