Drop the Needle: Wax is Back
And northern Michigan audiophiles are queued up to get you spinning again.
By Craig Manning | Jan. 25, 2020
Not so long ago, vinyl records were considered a dead format. When the compact disc made its debut in the early 1980s, many viewed it as the vinyl killer. Here was a new format of music distribution that improved upon its predecessor in virtually every way, from convenience and portability to sound quality.
For a while, those predictions proved accurate: Vinyl sales plummeted throughout the back half of the 1980s and were on life support during the 1990s. In 2006, right in the heart of the iTunes era, they hit a record low, dipping below 1 million units sold in the United States for the whole year. For comparison’s sake, that year’s top-selling album — the soundtrack to the Disney Channel movie High School Musical — tallied 3.7 million units all by itself.
But the tables have turned. In September, Rolling Stone reported that revenues from vinyl were coming close to outstripping CDs for the first time since 1986. Vinyl record sales tracked 12.9 percent growth throughout the first half of the year, moving 8.6 million units and accounting for $224.1 million in revenue. In comparison, CD sales were static, moving 18.6 million units for $247.9 million in revenue.
“If those trends hold,” Rolling Stone wrote, “records will soon be generating more money than CDs.”
“I was reading that it’s the 13th year of growth [for vinyl], which is pretty amazing,” said Greg Walton, who owns RPM Records in Traverse City. “For a format that's been around for 100 years, that's pretty good. At this point, I don't see it going away. I mean, it really never did go away for a lot of people — it was just tougher to find stores.”
RPM Records has been the spot for records in northern Michigan for years. Traverse City used to be home to several others — New Moon Records and Sound It Out Records both had homes downtown — but New Moon closed in 2004 and Sound It Out shut its doors in 2014.
The secret for Walton and RPM? Good timing. Walton has been an area businessman since 1989, when he established a home theater equipment shop called The Sound Room on South Airport. When the recession hit, Walton started stocking vinyl records — then just starting to tick back upward in terms of sales and popularity — out of necessity.
Eventually, vinyl sales grew enough at The Sound Room that Walton split the store in half and spun off record sales into its own business, called RPM Records. In 2016, RPM relocated to a new home on Hannah Avenue, effectively doubling its space. It’s a big record store — as spacious as the shops you’d find in most big cities. But Walton says that, given how much vinyl has grown, and how much his inventory has expanded with the trend, the shop still feels too small.
Luckily for vinyl collectors, RPM is no longer the only record store in northern Michigan. Late last year, a shop called Eugene’s Record Co-op joined the fray. The store is part of Studio Anatomy, which occupies the entire lower floor of the old “Arcade” building in downtown Traverse City. For years, Studio Anatomy has been a hub of music in the downtown area, both as a recording studio and as a performance venue for concerts and other live events.
For owner Brian Chamberlain, launching a record shop in the space was both a nod to his love for vinyl — something he’s embraced since his teenage years — and a way to promote Studio Anatomy to a broader array of people.
“I was interested in having something that would get people down here shopping during the day and give them an opportunity to check out the space,” Chamberlain said. “Our main businesses were the recording studio and the venue, which were generally only operating in the evening. During the day, the building is open, and the shops are open upstairs, but this space has been closed up. I wanted a way to get people down here for exposure.”
Chamberlain had an idea: Rather than spend a few thousand dollars on an advertising campaign to promote Studio Anatomy’s recording services and upcoming performance slate, he’d buy a vinyl collection and set up a record store. On Dec. 2, Eugene’s held its grand opening, starting with a collection of 3,000 used records. Chamberlain says he’s gotten positive feedback so far, even though he acknowledges that his inventory is just a fraction of what’s available at RPM.
“I’ve been buying batches of new vinyl and working to fill in some of the gaps [in the collection],” Chamberlain said. “But RPM is amazing. It might be the best record shop in the state of Michigan. The selection is really impressive.”
Rather than competing with RPM, Chamberlain sees Eugene’s Record Co-op as a different piece of the same scene and mission. For his part, Walton has focused on making RPM as comprehensive as possible. He regularly researches new music releases, reading up on the latest artists and sampling new albums on Apple Music. The result is that shoppers can rely on RPM to stock both the iconic vinyl staples (Walton says classic rock remains the biggest segment of the vinyl market, with artists like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Fleetwood Mac constantly moving units) and the newer favorites (big sellers in 2019 included recent releases from the likes of Harry Styles and Bon Iver).
Eugene’s Record Co-op, meanwhile is primarily a treasure trove of used vinyl, stocked with classics from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Elton John — many of them selling for bargain prices. While Chamberlain does want to expand the collection, he’s more invested in cultivating the atmosphere and ambiance of a classic record shop.
“There was a gap where we didn't have any record shops downtown, and it was a bummer, because having a record store downtown is something that just fits,” Chamberlain said. “New Moon Records used to be kind of a hangout space for a lot of people, and I wanted that. I wanted the space to be a place where people just come to hang out and listen to music or talk about music.”
For Chamberlain, much of the appeal of vinyl is around the shared or communal experience of it: the ritual of selecting an album, putting it on the turntable, dropping the needle, and letting the music drive conversation. That factor defines the vibe at Eugene’s, a moodily-lit basement space with couches, free Wi-Fi, pool tables, a few racks of vinyl, and a turntable that keeps records spinning.
ANATOMY OF A WAX STACKER
Chamberlain and Walton aren’t alone in their passion for vinyl, or the ritual behind listening to it. Both say their stores see steady traffic, with a solid mix of first-time walk-ins and regulars. There’s also a mix of ages. Some record collectors are boomers or Gen Xers who grew up with vinyl and never really stopped collecting it, but Chamberlain says many are millennials who grew up in the age of CDs and iTunes and have since adopted a preference for the older format.
The trends beg the question: What exactly is driving the vinyl resurgence? In the age of digital streaming, when albums and songs are more readily accessible than ever before, why are more and more people jumping on the record-collecting train?
“I think part of it is that attraction of the package,” said Johnathan Schroeder, a vinyl enthusiast with local roots who has penned several books on the subject with his partner, Janet Borgerson. “It's got a nice 12-inch by 12-inch cover; you've got liner notes; you've got the disc itself. And I think some of the things that drew us to vinyl when we were young — that whole experience of discovering music and discovering bands — I think you see those same things in younger people who are getting into vinyl today.”
Schroeder and Borgerson live in New York now, but grew up in Michigan and spent a lot of time in Traverse City and Interlochen. Many pieces of their thousands-strong record collection were purchased at New Moon Records before it closed, or at the Goodwill on South Airport. Some of those titles helped inspire “Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP of Midcentury America,” a coffee table book the couple wrote and published in 2018. They’ve recently submitted another book about vinyl to their publishers, this one titled “Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance.”
For Schroeder and Borgerson, the appeal of record collecting is in digging through used crates and finding forgotten, out-of-print diamonds in the rough. But Schroeder believes that one of the things driving the vinyl comeback is the fact that each collector can approach it in a completely different way. He and Borgerson enjoy building mini-collections around themes like dancing or dinner parties. Other collectors might focus on jazz, or country, or classical music, or classic rock. And there’s so much new vinyl on the market now that someone could easily build a sizable collection of records consisting only of music made in the past 10 years.
In particular, Schroeder thinks the way current artists have embraced vinyl has done wonders to resuscitate both the format and the independent shops that sell it.
“I think what's really surprising to us is how many new records are on vinyl now,” Schroeder said. “Our favorite record shops — I'd say maybe 25 or 30 percent of their stock now is new vinyl.”
With so many new and old albums available on vinyl, there’s enough out there for anyone to build a collection to suit their tastes. If you’re looking to get started, though, the first step isn’t finding your favorite album on vinyl; it’s getting the proper equipment to actually play vinyl records.
If there’s one barrier to record collecting, it’s the cost of a quality stereo setup. Most vinyl setups consist of a turntable, an amp or stereo receiver, and a set of speakers. These components are necessary to convert the vibrations of a needle on a record into audio signals loud enough to hear and enjoy.
The bad news is that each component of a record-playing setup can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The good news is that both Walton and Chamberlain say there is no need for beginning collectors to shell out for high-end luxury equipment.
Walton’s recommendation for new collectors is the Crossley C62, a Bluetooth-enabled turntable with a built-in amplifier and an included set of speakers. The $230 system, he says, gives customers everything they need to start playing records with strong sound quality.
Chamberlain’s recommendation is the Audio Technica LP60X, a $100 turntable that can be hooked up directly to a set of powered speakers (sold separately).
While there are cheaper turntables out there, both Walton and Chamberlain advise steering clear. “If you’re spending $20 to $60 on a new turntable, you need to watch out,” Chamberlain said. “The build quality on those players is pretty bad, and they’re using poor quality needles or styluses that can actually damage your records.”
“You're buying vinyl to hear the quality difference,” Walton added, citing the warm, in-the-recording-studio sound that vinyl fans prize above CDs or digital formats. “You don’t want to then put your records on a cheap, all-in-one turntable that doesn't provide you with that sound.”