To music aficionados of a certain age, there’s no less likely story than the return and continued ascension of records as a viable music format.
The tumultuous journey has been from compact discs unceremoniously usurping records and cassettes in the late 80’s and 90’s; to Napster and other illegal downloading services flatlining CD sales in the early 2000s with folks filling their iPods with endless pirated hits; to streaming audio on cell phones via the ubiquitous Spotify and similar applications over the last decade.
However, unexpectedly and delightfully, the wonder wheel of physical music media has come full circle with vinyl steadily rising as a soulful alternative to streaming. Over the past few years (and during the pandemic especially), vinyl has exploded in popularity, with record sales up 94% in the first half of 2021 versus 2020, according to the Record Industry Association of America.“In my opinion, the continued increase in vinyl sales over the last year has a lot to do with younger first-time collectors making up more and more of the overall sales, and this is getting the attention of younger popular artists,” said Todd Brewer, owner of Rainbow Records. “These artists are getting more creative with how they are presenting their music in the vinyl format, and it has changed everything from Record Store Day lists to how vinyl records are released on Friday new release dates.
Though the vinyl explosion has been an obvious boon for bands and record stores (Delaware has seen a dramatic increase in both the number and popularity of its independent record shops), the ripple effect into other business sectors has been steadily growing. Milton’s Dogfish Head Craft Brewery was an early sponsor of the massively popular Record Store Day. Other beer producers did collaborations with legendary indie bands such as Flaming Lips and Guided by Voices and partnered on the release of compilation records. Indeed, the cross-section between craft beer fandom and record collecting has become a fruitful business driver for microbreweries both locally and nationally.
Wilmington Brew Works, one of the many craft breweries to open in the Wilmington area over the past five years, instituted Turntable Tuesdays in March 2021. The concept was the brainchild of local DJ/musician Chris Haug and WBW partner Derek Berkeley.
On those nights, the two play music from their own record collections and from vinyl brought in by patrons with nary a laptop in sight. As the event grew, it expanded to include a monthly record bazaar on the last Tuesday of each month featuring folks from local record shops such as SqueezeBox Records, Rainbow Records, Jupiter Records, Wonderland Records, Goodboy Vinyl, and others.
“We tried the event in the taproom one Tuesday and everyone loved it,” says Berkeley. “The next vinyl pop-up had Chris and Todd Brewer from Rainbow Records. It was so big they had to set up in The Alamo Room, where we have larger events at the brewery.
“It just grew from there as more local record shops were invited to join. Music and beer have been bringing people together and helping build communities for a long, long time. Music is great, but know what makes it even better? Amazing craft beer,”
Unsurprisingly, as record sales have soared, the need for viable equipment to play records on has grown in parallel. Sales of new turntables were up 4% in 2020, and several more percentage points in the first half of 2021. The sales and repair of used and vintage stereo equipment is harder to gauge, but according to local record stores, SqueezeBox Records in Wilmington and Grooves and Tubes in Centreville, it’s booming.
“We’ve seen continuous growth in the component part of the shop,” says Richard Fisher, owner of SqueezeBox Records. “We decided to try and carry a few new turntables and budget-friendly systems because of the uptick in our vinyl sales. As we moved towards offering some new turntables, we noticed that our customers that are new to the world of vinyl were more apt to purchase a plug-and-play type of system while customers that wanted to upgrade their current setup had no problem mixing new and old components together, thus creating unique systems that they love.”
Gerald Young, owner of the go-to location in the area for vintage stereo equipment and repair, Grooves and Tubes, reports unprecedented levels of activity at his shop.
“Turntable sales, record sales, and demand for vintage ‘old school’ 1970’s receivers are through the roof. Requests for turntable and amplifier repairs are also at a record level for us since the pandemic. We have a two-month backlog,” Young says.
Unfortunately, as record sales have boomed dramatically, the record pressing plants have struggled to keep up with demand, with independent bands experiencing wait times as much as one to two years to have their records pressed.
Into that void stepped Phil Nicolo, a Grammy Award-winning producer and owner of the world-class Studio 4 Recording (Conshohocken, Pa.). Last summer, Nicolo launched a state-of-the-art record pressing plant, Studio 4 Vinyl in Nottingham, Pa.
Nicolo has a storied past in the music business. As half of the legendary music production team The Butcher Bros., he and his brother, Joe, worked with acts such as John Lennon, Urge Overkill, and Nine Inch Nails. The Studio 4 venture sees Nicolo partnering with another big name: Obie O’brien, a producer, songwriter, and engineer best known for his association with Bon Jovi.
After overcoming delays in pressing equipment delivery and sorting out pandemic-related logistics, the plant is open and thriving with exciting things on the horizon — releases from Disney and Tommy Boy Records as well as reissues from Frank Sinatra and The Fugees.
“It’s a logical progression from the studio,” says Nicolo. “Our primary mission has been to help independent bands with all of the services we offer from recording to mastering. Personally, it’s exciting to be involved in a new aspect of the music industry after a lifetime in the business.”
As the adage goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. So, in this era of over-connectedness and technology overload, it’s no surprise that the simplicity and purity of listening to music on vinyl has regained traction.
It’s only fitting that the boom in the vinyl industry, which comprises many independently owned businesses (from record stores to record labels to the bands themselves) should filter down into a host of other independent enterprises.
As a great man once said, “Rock is dead. Long live rock.”