CINCINNATI—Jim Blase and his brother, Darren, couldn’t have drafted a more ill-fated business plan, opening a record store the same year Napster ignited the digital music revolution. Even the Blases wouldn’t have bet that, of the two businesses, 15 years later, Shake It Records would be the one standing.
The reason, Jim Blase said, is even more surprising to him: The resurgence in vinyl.
“It used to be old dudes like me flipping through jazz records,” he said from behind the counter of his store, in Northside. “Now we sell way more vinyl than we do compact discs—not even close—and it’s the kids who are buying it.”
The Blases expect the line in front of Shake It Records to stretch three to four blocks along Hamilton Avenue Saturday, April 19, for Record Store Day. Launched in 2007 as a day of resuscitation for independent record stores, Record Store Day has turned into a communal, worldwide rally for purists, revivalists and audiophiles of all ages who insist nothing rivals the quality of sound delivered via vinyl platters.
Specifically for Record Store Day, dozens of artists and labels are releasing limited-edition vinyl of new, reissued and rare music. Independent record stores in every state and on every continent but Antarctica are participating.
Stores might receive only two or three copies of a particularly limited item, and collectors looking to make quick profits by reselling these pieces online have been known to camp on the sidewalk for more than one night to ensure the pick of the litter. In response, Shake It Records is reserving the first five spots in line Saturday for winners of a random drawing. Cincinnati’s newest rock darlings, Tweens, are performing at the store at 8 p.m.
Other Tri-State area stores throwing their own Record Store Day soirees are Moles Records in Clifton, Black Plastic Records in Northside, Everybody’s Records in Pleasant Ridge, Sugarcube Records in Covington, Ky., and Phil’s Records in Cold Spring, Ky.
Blase expects his store to do more than twice the business on Saturday than it does on the year’s second-busiest day, the Saturday before Christmas.
“This has sorta become Christmas for vinyl collectors,” he said. “Some people say they hate Record Store Day because they’ve been into vinyl forever and now all the new people show up.”
Whatever adjectives one might attach to it, the vinyl revival by no means makes up for skidding sales in every other format for music. While vinyl sales in 2013 climbed 32 percent from their total the year before, they still accounted for just 6 million of the 289 million units sold. At the same time, CD sales dropped 14.5 percent and even sales of downloads dropped more than 2 percent. Overall, album sales were off 8.4 percent from the year before.
On the surface, the ascension of vinyl defies every practical consideration most people make when buying music—if they choose to buy at all.
New LPs cost more than CDs, which cost more than digital downloads. Vinyl is the least portable format, yet requires the most handling and care. Records take up far more shelf space and are vulnerable to warping, scratching and other damage. Beyond the costs of cleaning cloths, lotions and static-free sleeves, there’s the investment and maintenance of turntables. Needles need to be replaced at least annually. And unless you’re content to listen to the same side of an album over and over, the music requires your periodic attention.
Still, at Shake It and other independent retailers, which have never leaned on platinum-selling hit makers to pad their bottom lines, customers of vinyl shop under a different logic.
“I grew up in the digital age and the lack of physical media, and this is something tangible,” said Tyler Smetts, 26, of Cheviot. Smetts and 37-year-old Larry Huber, also of Cheviot, went to the counter with four vinyl LPs in hand.
“We’re not really aficionados, and I have some warped albums,” Smetts said. “But vinyl makes me more present with the music.”
That afternoon, the alt-folk band Arc Iris, from Providence, R.I., performed for about nine people at the back of the store. Up front, near the register, were far more vinyl copies than CDs of the band’s debut album.
Mahats Tenorio-Miller, the brother of Arc Iris’ keyboardist, is a public defense attorney in his 20s who drove from Louisville to watch the band. He and others his age, he theorized, aren’t as motivated by convenience as say, people who grew up listening to vinyl and were happy during the late ’80s and ’90s to downsize to digital.
“It’s more active listening,” he said. “Sure, we could plug in our Spotify and be done for the evening, but people my age want to be closer to the process of listening.”
That makes sense to Blase, who said people in their 20s often leave his store with used vinyl of James Taylor, Styx, Boston, Heart and other classic rock.
“Fleetwood Mac records don’t last 15 minutes after they come in, if they ever do,” he said. “Kids today are into their parents’ music, and the vinyl is definitely part of that.”
Only a few years ago, Shake It and other independent stores sought to battle Amazon.com on the digital turf, offering digital downloads on their own online outlets. Technical issues cropped up, and the indie stores couldn’t match the relentless MP3 pricing strategy of Amazon, which often sells music at a loss to cultivate loyalty and encourage non-music sales.
Today, thanks to vinyl sales, Blase said, Shake It has added an employee and a unique niche that no online marketplace will take away. Shake It also owns a vinyl-only imprint under the same name—the record store spun off from the label—remastering and reissuing older local music, along with newer music from the Cincinnati band Wussy, identified on the back lower-right corner with the stamp “Made in Ohio.”
“If enough kids hang in there with vinyl, we’ll be in really good shape,” he said. “We’ll close when we’re ready to retire instead of when we’re forced to.”