Spin the Black Circle, Records on the Rise

Stuart Freedman, owner of Nuggets Records in Boston, sits behind the counter answering phone calls and helping customers.

Nuggets Records in Kenmore Square

Nuggets Records in Kenmore Square

It is a Tuesday afternoon at the record store, which sells CDs, vinyl records, cassettes and videos.  It couldn’t be busier.

“We’ve been swamped today,” Freedman says. “Sorry if I don’t have time to answer questions.”

Walking into the store, it would seem that the demise of independent music stores at the hand of digital music has been grossly exaggerated. Customers line the narrow aisles browsing through hundreds of CDs. But what really is packing them in is vinyl.

“Records are making a comeback,” says Freedman. “We were selling next to nothing eight to 10 years ago … Sales have tripled over the past two to three years.”

The numbers back up Freedman’s claim. Records seem impervious to digital destruction, matching the increase in digital album sales. Both mediums increased by 14 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to Nielsen Soundscan’s 2012 mid-year report.

CD sales, on the other hand, have been on the decline since 2004. For the first half of 2012, CD album sales dropped from 101.3 million units in 2011 to 91.06 million units, down 11.3 percent, according to a recent study by Nielsen SoundScan.

CD sales declined by 15.1 percent for the second quarter of 2012 compared to the second quarter of last year. At this rate, CD sales are declining at nearly double the pace as in 2011.

So why is Nuggets so busy? How are record stores adapting to the change in medium? With CD sales plummeting, record stores constantly need to reinvent themselves and target different markets. One way that stores have counteracted this is by increasing the sale of vinyl.

“I love records more than I love music,” says Freedman. “People call it a warmer sound. It’s a whole thing; you can sit down look at the album cover. It’s a different type of tactile thing. It’s more fun. CD covers don’t bring in that visual flair of an album.”

Despite Freedman’s enthusiasm for records, Patrik Wikstrom, author of “The Music Industry: Music in the Clouds,” which chronicles the immense change in the industry brought about by the digital revolution, is skeptical that the old-fashioned format will ever appeal to more than a handful of hard-core devotees.

“It’s more or less a small fraction of the industry,” he said. “It’s more of a promotional thing or something a band does to make a statement. It’s fascinating that it’s still around and has increased a bit, but it’s not like its coming back to prominence.”

Digital media such as iTunes, Rhapsody, Pandora and Spotify is killing local independent stores, according to Wikstrom.

“Those CD stores that do survive focus on a specific niche,” he said. “They usually have knowledgeable staff that helps customers to find music they like. It’s a place to go and hang out and enjoy the experience. It’s more than buying a CD. It’s about meeting people and spending a couple hours in a nice environment.”

Wikstrom’s description perfectly describes Nuggets, which has been located at 486 Commonwealth Ave. for the past 34 years. But even with knowledgeable staff and a good environment, CD and vinyl stores have been closing. Look no further than Virgin Records Megastore, which closed six years ago and Looney Tunes Records, which was forced to close this past summer.

J.P. Licks, an ice cream store, is scheduled to take Looney Tunes’ place on Massachusetts Avenue. The move forced owner Pat McGrath to sell most of his collection. This hasn’t stopped McGrath’s love of all things vinyl however.

“It’s like a time machine that transports you back,” said McGrath. “Records serve as an art form that can’t be served through other ways. It’s an experience and people prefer involvement.”

Some may see records as a dying medium for music, but others see it a business opportunity. Just ask Bob Hertig, a recent graduate from Northeastern University where he studied engineering.

Hertig, along with partners Peter Maltzan and Ben Carter, formed U-Turn Audio and developed a new style of turntable that will provide high quality sound at an affordable price: The Orbit. Their idea won them a $2,500 grant from Northeastern University’s Prototype Fund earlier this year.

Hertig described the Orbit as an entry-level turntable that will bring analog music up-to-date. It has an all analog, fully manual platform and will provide top sound quality.

“There’s a lot of entry-level turntables,” said Hertig. “They use a ceramic cartridge to save money, but it ends up ruining your record. There are high end turntables starting around $300 and going up.” The Orbit will retail for $150.

Since graduating, Hertig has been working full time on the development of the Orbit out of his mom’s basement. His level of dedication is about to come to fruition.

“So far, it is meeting all its performance goals,” he said. “We’re launching our Kickstarter next week. Hopefully, we can use this money to upgrade our work space.”

Through Kickstarter, people will be able to make donations now and receive the Orbit sometime in the next month or so, according to Hertig. It’s like a preorder.

Although Hertig’s passion is second to none when it comes to vinyl, he admits, the music industry is changing. “I have an iTunes library,” said Hertig. “I can’t carry around a record player with me everywhere I go.”

To Hertig though, vinyl is still the clear choice for listening to music. “I think it really sounds better,” he said. “I like having my music library on vinyl. These twelve by twelve square inches, it’s a different way of listening to music. It’s not like randomly listening to songs.”

Leon Janikian, Associate Professor of Music at Northeastern University

Leon Janikian, Associate Professor of Music at Northeastern University

But Leon Janikian, associate professor of music at Northeastern University and recording engineer, believes the increased sound quality of vinyl records is a myth.

“I think people enjoy vinyl because they perceive it as a warmer, more satisfying experience,” said Janikian. “I don’t think listening to an LP is better than listening to a CD. I have a lot of years of experience as recording engineer and I don’t think it’s better than a CD. Graphically it’s better. You have one square foot to do images, words, etcetera on it. It’s a niche market, although I have to admit, a growing one.”

Janikian sees the rise of digital music as a great benefit to the music industry as a whole.

“There’s more interest in music now than ever before,” he said. “The only stumbling block is how do people get paid. Personally, I don’t like to sue people.”

Brian Morgan, a self-proclaimed music enthusiast with nearly 200 vinyl and well over a thousand CDs in his collection, agrees with Janikian, digital music is a step in the right direction for the industry.

“Digitalization of music is a good thing for the industry, but it isn’t being handled the right way,” said Morgan. “I guarantee you if you buy a CD or record and then listen to the same song on iTunes or YouTube, you’ll see a huge difference in sound quality. Even if you burn a CD, you can tell the difference. The stuff you get from iTunes just doesn’t sound full. It’s pale.”

He disagrees with Janikian, however, on the sound quality of vinyl. Nothing can beat it, according to Morgan.

“A lot of newer stuff that comes out just sounds better on vinyl,” he argued. “Take, for instance, the album ‘Them Crooked Vultures.’ The CD is way too loud to be fully appreciated. For the vinyl issue they did an analog version that just sounded fuller.”

Morgan, like McGrath, believes vinyl will remain popular because it is an experience.

“It’s a ritual,” he said. “It’s not just pulling your iPod out of your pocket and hitting play. You find the record on the shelf, take it out, examine it, place it down, play it and listen to the first side. After about 26 minutes, you clean it, flip it over and repeat. It’s not like an MP3 player. It demands respect.”

Stuart Freedman, owner of Nuggets Records

Stuart Freedman, owner of Nuggets Records

Stuart Freedman, the Nuggets owner, couldn’t agree more with this assessment. The rows of vinyl and CDs surrounding him serve as a testament to his dedication to his craft. The sounds of the Grateful Dead coming through the store’s speakers surround customers and employees alike as they nod their heads to the music.

“I love my records, that’s what I grew up with,” he says. “There are different types of records: music, spoken word, comedy. I’ve always liked the collectability of it all.”

“Someone once said to me when you’re listening to a record, you’re hearing the needle going into the groove. You feel and hear the vibrations. With a CD, I guess it’s just a laser. You don’t get that unique, warm sound.”


One thought on “Spin the Black Circle, Records on the Rise

  1. Leon Janikian Northeastern University

    I feel that I must respond to the issue of digital recording vs. analog recording by reminding everyone that iTunes content, mp3s, etc are data compressed formats. These are not even CD quality. The recording community has been working with high bit rate, high sample rate digital audio for a number of years now. The only stumbling block? The market has not responded and for now these are niche market recordings. One should never assume that digital recordings prepared to be posted and acquired via the internet are indicative of the full capability of digital recording and the aural experience a 192/24 bit SACD or similar recording can deliver. The relationship here is HD television vs. VHS/ old broadcast…no comparison.


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