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Vinyl...it just sounds better: Digging through the bins of the vinyl world 

In a corner of Brian Jones' bedroom there's a wooden trunk overflowing with LPs, many of which were recorded decades before the 22-year-old was even

click to enlarge Image: Snagging something like a classic Dylan record is hardly rare at Ranch Records.
  • Image: Snagging something like a classic Dylan record is hardly rare at Ranch Records.
In a corner of Brian Jones' bedroom there's a wooden trunk overflowing with LPs, many of which were recorded decades before the 22-year-old was even born. Iconic album covers, each 12 inches by 12 inches, cover one wall of the room. Jones is thumbing through his collection of more than 300 records (ranging from a comprehensive Beatles section to a wealth of semi-rare blues albums) in his Seattle apartment and is trying to tell me why these pieces of vinyl are so important to him.

"The presentation of the album is what got me excited. The visual aspect of it - opening up the insert, holding it in your hand," Jones says. "I think the process of actually shuffling through and pulling it out and looking at the record, not just scrolling on a computer, is what attracts me to vinyl."

Some might mistake Jones for a member of the "iPod generation" - kids who don't even bother with CDs, opting rather to download their music (whether that means paying for the tunes or not) and condensing stacks and stacks of plastic cases into the palm of their hand. There surely are some upsides to keeping the entirety of one's music stored digitally: First off, there's less danger of the physical disc being damaged and rendered un-listenable, and second, when you move or rearrange the house you need only slip your iPod in your pocket rather than lugging boxes of CDs or the even more cumbersome crates of vinyl records.

Jones says he isn't the only 20-something who prefers setting a needle on vinyl rather than sliding in a CD or double clicking on his iTunes as he describes the record collections of his friends from college.

During the time I spent at Ranch Records over the past month, the others sifting through the vinyl bins were mainly those born in the CD and cassette tape eras. Like many of his generation, Jones' fascination began with dusting off and subsequently spinning his parent's record collection. Like vintage clothes or cars, there's an air of nostalgia surrounding vinyl - as if the younger generations are yearning for times they didn't actually experience. But in a time when much of our culture is concerned, and at times nearly obsessed with, keeping up with technology, it's peculiar that something like vinyl records would undergo a resurgence in popularity.

Ranch Records, downtown Bend's venerable music outlet, is the only place I could find new vinyl for sale in town. Used records (which Ranch also sells) can be found elsewhere, including thrift stores (and if you're really lucky, garage sales) but Ranch is the only store where you can walk in and, for example, get the new Rilo Kiley album (Under the Blacklight) on vinyl.

John Schroeder owns Ranch Records and also sports a hefty vinyl collection of his own, numbering around 1,000. He admits he's not the diehard collector he once was, but still keeps an eye out for certain records - most specifically mono version of Rolling Stones and Beatles albums.

Since it opened, Schroeder says, Ranch has always had vinyl on the shelves, but he's definitely noticed a surge in popularity in recent years. "The interest is definitely there, and we love having vinyl as something that makes us unique - people can get their music at Best Buy or Wal-Mart, but they don't have vinyl," Schroeder says, sitting in his office perched above his Wall Street record store.

Just the previous day, Schroeder had obtained new record bins from the now defunct Boomtown record store that he plans to use as extra housing space to expand Ranch's vinyl inventory by about a third. Some of the bins will house the store's $1 used record section, which is home to some gems like Fleetwood Mac's Rumors (that I somewhat inexplicably bought for the second time) but mainly records by more obscure and less time-tested artists. These one-buck finds might be laughable for the hardcore collector, but priceless for the teen who just bought a garage-sale turntable and is looking for a cheap and easy attack at starting up a collection - even if that means feeding off the likes of Anne Murray to get the ball rolling.

click to enlarge Snagging something like a classic Dylan record is hardly rare at Ranch Records.
  • Snagging something like a classic Dylan record is hardly rare at Ranch Records.
Snagging something like a classic Dylan record is hardly rare at Ranch Records.While the used records are more than affordable, snagging up new copies of your favorite albums isn't always cheap. If you buy a new album straight from the label you might get it cheaper than its CD counterpart, but picking up a record like Arcade Fire's Neon Bible in the store might cost you four or five bucks more. As 23-year-old collector Evan Fuller tells me, some of these prices on new vinyl would sink if record companies chose to press more than a modicum of any one album - a practice that store owners like Schroeder also find frustrating.

"There's a lot of pressings that are sold out with preorders before the record even gets to a record store. And that's kind of ridiculous," says Fuller, who sports a collection of around 500 LPs and another 100 or so 7-inch records that he's been amassing since high school.

Regardless of the scarcity of certain pressings, people are buying albums on vinyl, with statistics showing a major spike in new vinyl sales in the past few years. There's no question vinyl is making a push toward becoming more mainstream - but relatively speaking the medium makes up only a sliver of new music sales, and record companies and distributors aren't going to pimp vinyl over CDs anytime soon. In figures released by SoundScan (Nielsen's ratings for record sales) vinyl albums make up less than one percent of new music sales, with CDs still ringing in at nearly 90%, followed distantly by downloads. In pure numbers, that's actually less than a million new vinyl records sold each year.

Schroeder says this is reflected at his store.

"Yesterday, for example," he said on one recent January weekday, "80% of our sales were new CDs - that's still our number one business."

But there are some signs that vinyl could become more economically viable. For example, big-box retailer Circuit City has a surprisingly comprehensive inventory of new vinyl for sale on the chain's website. There also have been some rumblings on the vinyl collector message boards (there's plenty of them) indicating that Circuit City might start selling vinyl in its stores.

Increased availability of vinyl would be more than welcomed by one of Bend's most enthusiastic record collectors - a massively knowledgeable, albeit guardedly private man who declined to give me his real name, opting rather to go by the contrived pseudonym "Moses Mooseloaf."

With more than 5,000 records shelved at his home, Mooseloaf is nervous about going public about his collection - which seemed strange, but for someone to amass such a number of records and the stories to accompany each piece of vinyl, maybe his peculiarities shouldn't surprise me. Mooseloaf speaks of his collection with a warm, almost paternal air, and never once mentions the staggering monetary figure that his 5,000 records could garner.

And he doesn't need to think long when I ask if he ever sells his any of his records. "When I'm no longer on this planet as we know it, I'd hope I could come up with a good place for it - maybe a group of people who will appreciate it," he says.

He tells me about his days hanging out in Los Angeles music clubs during the late 1970s - a time and place that he calls one of the best fragments of the rock-n-roll timeline. He recounts stories of buying Dave Clark Five records when he was only 7 years old. He gives me the history of direct-drive turntables and outlines his fascination with post-World War II blues albums.

And then I finally ask why all this music needs to be on vinyl - and I get the same answer that I get from Jones, Fuller and just about every other vinyl nut I've ever come across.

"The fact is - and I think most people realize this - that records do sound better, there's no doubt about it," Mooseloaf says. "You're talking about analog versus digital, and analog is a much different, better sound."

While it's hard to find hard scientific proof that vinyl's analog sound is kinder to the ear than CDs or downloads - "sounds better" is clearly subjective - there's no dearth of commentary on the quality of vinyl sound. Harry Pearson of the Absolute Sound magazine once wrote, "LPs are decisively more musical. CDs drain the soul from music. The emotional involvement disappears."

Pearson's take isn't merely expert, I-know-more-than-you academic banter, but rather an encompassing summation of how vinyl fans feel about the medium. To me, vinyl does sound better, and it blows my flipping mind that so many people are satisfied to consume their music by way of digital singles haphazardly "shuffled" into their ears via a pair of white plastic ear buds.

But the iPod-ification of music has also given a figurative bitch slap to one of the greatest aspects about rock 'n' roll - something that vinyl seems to bring back. It's rare to sit down with friends, probably during a late and half-drunken night, and plop the iPod into the often-tinny iPod speaker system and listen to a full album for the sake of discussing, debating, and really digging into the music. But change the iPod to a turntable and a few crates of vinyl and the phenomenon is more realistic.

"I think people have a respect for holding the record, setting the needle on it," Jones says, "There's a process to listening to vinyl ... you thumb through the records, you pull it out of the sleeve ... "

And from my experiences as well as what I hear from young collectors like Fuller and Jones, other members of the CD and iPod generations are catching on.

"One of my friends has parties at his house and there's people digging through his records all night long. There's that whole enjoyment of listening to music that way - you could have a CD player or an iPod there, but he doesn't - he has a record player," Fuller says.

Fuller reminds me of the winter when Rolling Stone released its "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" issue. Not long after I'd read the issue, I found myself in a cramped apartment with five like-minded guys who would rather stay home and watch The Last Waltz than hit up the bar scene, skimming through the issue and digging through a massive vinyl collection to actually hold the record after reading its blurb in the magazine. This is all getting a bit fuzzy and wishy-washy, but that's the sort of feeling that vinyl elicits - it makes rock 'n' roll tangible in a time when there's more music than ever circulating, yet most of it seems to exist invisibly on a hard drive.

"People like to hold the record, read the liner notes, maybe smell it," Schroeder says with a laugh.

Jones also brings to light the collision between vinyl and digital music collections when he talks about the turntable he recently bought that can transfer the music from a vinyl record onto a computer. This technology has been around for a while, but it's relatively new to the home market and surprisingly affordable - some models ring in at less than $150. But loading all of one's vinyl onto a computer seems to go against the anti-digital ethos I've gleaned from these vinyl fans.

"I personally don't care about it being on my iPod. I almost don't want to listen to it that way. The reason I got it is so I could make a mix out of the stuff I had on vinyl." Jones says.

Although he stays true to his record collection, what Jones says about making a mix does illustrate some of the conveniences of digital music. If you're a vinyl-only guy, there's no making a "mix record" - you'd have to haul around stack of LPs accompanied by a play list to painstakingly create a "mix." In addition, the digital conversion allows for a collector to preserve the tunes on his or her more rare albums - music that isn't found in any other medium.

There is no stopping digital downloads, and it's inevitable that there will probably be a generation that learns how to scroll through an iPod before discovering how to peel the cellophane off of a CD. But there will still be those people who need the smell, the pop, the crackle, and the comforting size of a vinyl record.

mike@tsweekly.com

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