The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XIII: The Vinyl Brotherhood (July 1999)
"The only musical format that has increased its unit sales over the last three years has been vinyl LPs."
That's how I opened my first installment of "The Vinyl Anachronist" almost eighteen months ago. If I was to start writing this column today, I'm sure, however, that the opening sentence would be a little less sunny, a little less optimistic. A lot of things have happened over the last few months that make me think that the glory days of "The Vinyl Renaissance" are behind us.
First, the statistics on music industry sales for 1998 are out. Vinyl LP's, unfortunately, no longer have the distinction of being the only music format to experience gains from recent years. Yes, CD sales went up last year about four percent. Apparently, 1996 and 1997 were abysmal years for the music industry (this wasn't a result of the lack of good product from the major labels, I'm sure), so a rebound didn't surprise anyone. But I'd be a lot happier if I could say that while CD sales went up four percent, LP sales went up eight percent, or something like that. But that's not true. Since I began this column in February of 1998, LP sales have actually leveled off, and, according to some sources, begun a slight decline. Oof.
Secondly, since I dragged out my soapbox and started preaching to y'all about the wonders of analog playback, the two largest producers of premium, audiophile-quality LP's have decided to stop pressing vinyl, choosing instead to focus on CD's and other formats (more on those "other" formats in a minute). I wasn't that surprised when Mobile Fidelity stopped about a year ago- they've done it before, back when digital first appeared to be controlling the market in the mid-80's. I wasn't even upset about it. After all, how many pristine-sounding Moody Blues albums does the world need? (How many albums did they make anyway, fer Chrissakes?)
But when DCC decided to pull the plug on their venture into vinyl bliss a couple of months ago, it really hurt. Their reissue choices were always much more interesting than MFSL's: Jethro Tull's Aqualung, Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years and There Goes Rhymin' Simon, Nat King Cole's Love Is The Thing and Greatest Hits, Van Halen's first album (which, to my chagrin, sounds fuckin' great!), Roy Orbison's All-Time Greatest Hits, the Doors' Waiting For The Sun and Strange Days, and, well, I know I'm forgetting something really cool. It seems like lately my monthly catalogs from great vinyl purveyors like Audiophile International and Music Direct are getting thinner and thinner.
And finally, some of the new music formats just now appearing on the horizon, such as DVD-Audio and SACD appear more than able to make good on CD's promise to put analog playback away forever. Yes, it looks like CD's will probably disappear before LP's, the richest of ironies, but I will no longer be able to make statements like, "Although the sound of CD's are closing in, the best sound is still to be found on good ol' vinyl LPs." I recently bought a DVD player, the Pioneer DV-414. It cost me $349. I bought it to watch movies. When I noticed it could also play CD's, and that it sampled at the new higher-standard 24-bit/96kHz rate (your reg'lar CD player reads at the lower, 16-bit/44.1kHz standard...don't ask me to go into this further...it's very dry stuff), I plugged it into my stereo system. And while it didn't beat my Naim CD3 CD player, it easily kicked the ass of any $349 CD player on the market.
So is "The Vinyl Renaissance" over? I'd say no, not yet. But I used to easily scoff at people who thought that LP's were dead. Now I laugh at them, but it's nervous laughter. I know that five years from now, it'll seem like it's 1986 again: in other words, dark days for vinyl playback. But to tell you the truth, for every piece of bad news I've gotten lately about the future of LP's, something very cool happens within what I will now call "The Vinyl Brotherhood." Sure, we're circling the wagons, waitin' for them digital injuns to come-a'-knockin', but we're armed for war.
First, I'd like to talk about my good friend Keith Semerod. Keith is a PSF reader who happened upon my column "1998: Year Of The LP" where I go on and on about that most collectible of LP's, the soundtrack for CASINO ROYALE. Keith, who is associated with Arboria, a used record store in State College, Pennsylvania (home of Baby's, one of the best burgers in the eastern United States), e-mailed me to let me know he had a "mint-minus" copy of Casino that he'd sell me for $50. Fifty bucks? That's it? It had to be trashed! I've heard of the cover alone going for more than $50! But Keith is a man of his word, and within a couple of weeks I had a copy of Casino Royale in my crusty li'l mitts! (Actually, I washed my mitts but good before I handled it!) And? Did I play it? Was it cool? Was it relatively free from surface noise? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. If you are into the whole martini/swing thing (my wife Cindy is), then the soundtrack to CASINO ROYALE is the greatest album ever made.
Secondly, my friend Allen Moore is putting together a comprehensive website for Dual turntables. Dual, a German company, was a fine audio manufacturer whose turntables were ubiquitous in the '70's. It's amazing how many fellow music lovers I meet who had Dual turntables back in the day. I myself owned a CS-510 from 1976 to about 1983. Unfortunately, Dual has not been in the US market for quite some time, and many PSF readers have e-mailed me (you can, too, at email@example.com) to not only find used Dual turntables at a reasonable cost, but to find replacement parts and to have their beloved Duals repaired. Allen's website, which is in a constant state of progression, is an oasis for Dual-lovers, and a great general resource for all Dual-related information. Check it out at http://www.compassnet.com/concept/index.html
Many of you have asked where you can buy Dual turntables. I've found a great source: High-Tech in Falls Church, Virginia. The last time I was there (at least a year ago), they had quite a few vintage Dual 'tables in stunning condition, and at bargain prices for the performance you get. For everyone that has balked at my idea of spending at least $500 for quality analog sound, this is your ticket. I talked to Mike at High-Tech recently, and he said not only do they get plenty of Duals in the store, but that they do quite a bit of repair work there...so for all of you that have Duals with collapsing headshell assemblies (which is the Dual's Achilles' heel), or anyone who wants great analog sound at incredible prices, reach Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And finally, I've had no fewer than three people tell me in the last two months that they have purchased, upon my recommendation, brand new Rega Planar turntables. They are all thrilled beyond belief at not only the sound quality they're now enjoying, especially in comparison to their CD players, but that they seem to be spending more time listening to music now. You see, I'm not crazy.
But it's time to wave a few warning flags. I'm concerned for the analog industry. Things are, at best, stagnant. If you're debating whether or not to buy a turntable, do it now. Twenty years from now, there will still be plenty of used records (in mint condition, too) to buy. Five years from now, however, it might be tough to find the hardware (I hate describing anything as beautiful to look at as a turntable as "hardware'), and I'm sure that there'll be more and more companies like Dual, apparently unaware of their wonderful legacy- distant, detached, or defunct.
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