Part 1: The Demise of My Vinyl Record Collection
“Don’t throw the past away,
You might need it some other rainy day,
Dreams can come true again,
When everything old is new again.”
~ Peter Allen
It’s a lovely Friday afternoon on Southeast Burnside street in Portland, Oregon, and I’m talking to Keith Brown, a longtime clerk at Music Millennium. I try to get to Millennium every Friday. It’s grounding, and a good way to start the weekend. Because of course, there are vinyl records and people who want to talk about vinyl records. Oh, and recently they’ve also seen it in their hearts to start selling beer. So, yeah, I like the place, a lot. And since moving to Portland in 1995 it’s been a little oasis for me. A place where I could feel immediately at home and begin to put down new roots simultaneously.
The room where Keith and I are chatting is the rock and roll vinyl section. In 1995, when I first walked through the door, this room was filled with classical music CDs. I don’t even remember if there was any vinyl at all in the store then. If so, it was probably sequestered to the second-floor alcove. At any rate I didn’t pay it much mind at the time. So what happened here? How is it possible that a medium for playing music, which is in just about every conceivable way less user friendly than its successor, made such a comeback? And what are all these 20-something-year-old kids doing in this place on a weekend afternoon?
I graduated from college in 1987, seven long years after I cashed out of high school, skipping my graduation ceremony so that I could go fishing for a week in the Sierras with my brother Frank. As a reward for finally finishing something that should have taken half the time, my wonderful parents bought me an NAD CD player. Everything in the world felt new. I immediately went out and bought 90125 by Yes. The sonic clarity was shocking. Chris Squire’s bass and Trevor Rabin’s bottom end power chords on “City of Love” could have been from an alternative version of Jaws where Quint is hunting a Megalodon. And the crystalline shimmer of the “waiting for the night” vocals on the chorus was the aural equivalent of staring at the sun through an ice sculpture of Jon Anderson’s larynx.
I was instantly besotted with the whole situation. No more having to make cassettes from the initial playing of my LPs (Long-playing record) in order to preserve their quality. No more skips. No cleaning. And no more having to refuse requests from friends who wanted to borrow music. (I had a strict policy of not lending my LPs to anyone. Give me a cassette and I’ll happily make you a tape, but don’t ask to borrow the real thing.) The CD was a means of owning music that required practically no care whatsoever. Little did I realize that “requiring no care” also meant “allowing for almost no interaction.” When I think of it now, I hear Ry Cooder singing, “The very thing that makes you rich, will, make you poor.” Nonetheless, after hearing that Yes album I soon vowed to replace all my LPs with CDs.
I even went so far as to simply leave most of them behind in my duplex on Cherry Avenue in San Jose when I moved out, willing them to the next tenant, a young guy who was dating the sister of a friend of my girlfriend. And yet, 30 years later, here I was in a room full of vinyl, shopping with all the contentment of dog that’s found a long-buried bone in the backyard.
So never mind the youngsters in the place, how the hell did I get here? Graduating college for me was like jumping off a high dive where I had stood paralyzed for seven years. I sank deep into real life and began swimming like hell. The next 20 years sped by. . . I taught high school English, moved to Vermont, got married, went to grad school, moved to Oregon, rented a tiny duplex, rented a bigger house, taught kindergarten, had a beautiful daughter, became a stay-at-home dad, bought a smaller house, had a beautiful son, bought a larger house—all the while watching my hair turn gray.
And during all this time I amassed CDs in the same way I had collected LPs in my youth. I dabbled in the heady world of stealing digital music files on Napster and Grokster for a minute or two, but they sounded like shit, and my loving wife quietly objected to our phone line being tied up for hours on end in the quest of downloading a half dozen songs! Somewhere along the way, I came to be in possession of my brother Frank’s Technics SL 1300 direct drive turntable. I still had my Pioneer SX 780 receiver and HPM 40 speakers, which I had purchased with my first real paychecks at the age of 16. A quick trip to Fred’s Sound of Music on Southeast Hawthorne Street restored the turntable to working order, and I was back in the game. During this time I began to find used LPs in bookshops around Portland. One day early in the new century I found a copy of Derringer Live. The needle touched down and Rick Derringer began shouting, “Every now and then I know it’s kinda hard to tell, but I’m still alive and well!” It was portentous to say the least.
The long-banked coals in the furnace of my vinyl collecting heart were beginning to flare up anew. Still, in the new, bigger house, my brother’s turntable was banished to a tiny annex room off the basement along with my fly tying paraphernalia and an exercise bike. The HPMs were sold in the service of marital harmony and replaced by much smaller, but admittedly amazing, Paradigm bookshelf speakers. Upstairs in the living room, a Bose Acoustic Wave boom box CD player did its best to satisfy my hi-fi needs. But the cold black box lit with green LEDs stuffed inside a wooden curio cabinet was no match for the sound quality or the aesthetic beauty of a real stereo system.
Slowly, newly issued LPs began to show up at Millennium again. Then in 2007 I bought my first new LP since the 80s: Follow The Lights by Ryan Adams. A bit later I found The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists, then The Whole Love by Wilco, then Little Broken Hearts by Norah Jones pressed on white vinyl. The packaging for these LPs was a bracing reminder that I had rather thoughtlessly left some old friends behind. Beautiful sketches by Carson Ellis adorned the inner sleeves of The Hazards of Love. Little Broken Hearts came with a 3-by-2-foot movie style poster, and The Whole Love had a lyric sheet and large color photos of the band as well as some cool graffiti-style artwork by abstract artist Joanne Greenbaum.
At last, when the basement was renovated in 2011, the turntable was liberated from its dark hovel, the Paradigms were hung from the corners of the ceiling, a subwoofer was purchased to assist the anemic bottom end of the solid-state amplifier needed to run our new television and gaming system, and suddenly, LPs once again became a central part of my musical world.
But I was still buying CDs. Way back in the early 90s it didn’t take long for me to realize that ,despite my initial enthusiasm, replacing all my LPs was never going to happen. Starting with The Best of the Lovin’ Spoonful and George Carlin’s Take Offs and Put Ons, purchased with my brother Frank at Thrifty Drug somewhere around my twelfth birthday in 1973, I had been collecting LPs for almost 20 years. Many beatific teenage evenings spent at Tower Records and The Record Factory had allowed me to amass around 600 LPs. I had failed to factor in the inevitability that I would of course want to continue buying new music and not just stick to replacing my vinyls.
And it must be said that at first, it really did seem that in the case of CDs, the neighbor’s pot roast was more tender than the one served at my house. In addition to portability and durability, the CDs main leg up on LPs was that they took up so much less space in the small apartments and houses I lived in. So CDs filled the spaces on my shelves formerly containing my LPs. Likewise, championed by the music industry itself, CDs finally crowded LPs into the technological breakdown lane.
But vinyl was also driven onto pit row as a consequence of its own success. In Aaron and Angela Bell’s 2022 short film Vinyl Revolution, Spencer Destun, owner of the last existing store of the once mighty Sam The Record Man franchise in Bellville, Ontario, explains how the industry couldn’t keep up with demand even as it prospered:
“In 1955, LPs arrived at stores in very good condition. 50,000 copies of a Sinatra or Nat King Cole, that was big. By the time you flash forward to 1975 and you’ve been through two or three improvements in vinyl, you see that sales have jumped from 200,000 for a new release to sometimes ten million (for an album like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours) and the record companies couldn’t keep up with the demand. So now instead of a piece of vinyl weighing 180 grams, they became 160 grams, 140 grams, 120 grams, 80 grams!”
These much less durable LPs began arriving in retail stores already warped and in flimsy covers while delivering decidedly lower fidelity sound. It wasn’t long before consumers rebelled, and the industry found itself saddled with a return problem of epic proportions.
Canadian music journalist Alan Cross says, “The oil crisis in the 1970s really impacted the quality of the vinyl that we were getting. We ended up with recycled vinyl with lots of impurities in it. They were easier to scratch, lots of crackles and pops. The quality of LPs made from about 1974 on was terrible.” This degradation of quality made the music listening world ripe for a brief period dominated by cassette tapes and finally for the coming age of the CD and digital music files.
Eventually the record companies concluded that it was in their best interest to discontinue altogether the manufacturing of vinyl LPs. Destun sums this up, saying, “It wasn’t a choice of the consumer, it wasn’t a choice of the retailer, it was a choice of the supplier.” Destun’s wife Holly continues, “We didn’t like that they were replacing the album, but we didn’t have a choice.”
Finally in 2007, a group of independent record dealers, one of which was Terry Currier, the current owner of Music Millennium, came up with the idea of Record Store Day. Cross explains, “They wanted to rekindle the romance of going to a record store, to hang out with like-minded people, to discover music, and just be music nerds together. And we began to see the sales of vinyl tick up.” And sales of LPs have continued to increase right up until today; 2022 saw the highest volume of sales for vinyl since 1991 according to Luminate Data, which compiles data about noteworthy music trends.
In 1988 CD sales overtook sales of vinyl, and in 1991 the death knell of analog recording could be heard loud and clear as compact discs overtook cassette tapes as well. Greg Milner, in his book Perfecting Sound Forever writes that the CD became “the fastest-growing home entertainment product in history.” And yet, almost a quarter of a century later, on any given day, you can find people of all ages wearing out their fingertips flipping through new and used vinyls at stores all around the world: Hard Wax in Berlin, Rough Trade West in London, New Gramophone House in New Delhi, Rockers International in Kingston, The Dusty Groove in Chicago, Jerry’s in Pittsburgh, Streetlight Records in San Jose, The Dingle Record Shop in Dingle, and Big Love Records in Tokyo are but a handful of businesses where, in 2023, every day is Record Store Day.