During the Democratic National Convention last September, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer for hip-hop group The Roots and bandleader on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” tweeted a photo to his two million followers. It was of a receipt at South Charlotte’s Manifest Discs. The plain white strip stretched at least 6 feet from the cash register, nearly to the back counter. After wrapping a sound check at Amos’ Southend, the celebrity record collector didn’t head downtown to the center of DNC madness. Instead he’d made a beeline down South Blvd. to Manifest, a shop he’d raved about while in town to DJ at Republic in 2011. “I should be DNC’n it but I got distracted cause there’s no digging like digging in NC,” tweeted Thompson, whom the staff estimated purchased 300 records, illustrating that—while not a college town where record buying never went out of fashion—Charlotte is a hot spot for music buyers and collectors.
While the music industry is scrambling to keep up with how consumers buy and find out about music in the wake of the Internet age and declining CD sales, the popularity of vinyl albums is growing. “I saw the writing on the wall eight years ago when iPods started coming out,” says Manifest’s Joe Diaco.
Internationally known artists like North Carolina-native Ben Folds have gone to great lengths to release their music on LP—Folds even has versions of his recent releases specially mixed for vinyl. While stadium headliners like Radiohead and Coldplay have released their entire back catalogs in the format. Even legends like Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney have gotten in on the action with limited edition releases and reissues of long out-of-print titles released especially for Record Store Day, a national retail holiday of sorts that encourages shoppers to set foot in old-fashioned mom and pop record stores by placing these special releases exclusively in independently owned brick and mortar stores. Charlotte’s Lunchbox Records is the city’s only such music hub, as Manifest is owned by a larger corporation.
Walk into Plaza Midwood’s Lunchbox on a sunny autumn afternoon and you’ll be greeted by a wall of shiny, plastic-wrapped records. These aren’t just obscure titles, but new releases by folks like Concord’s The Avett Brothers, who released their 2006 album “Four Thieves Gone” on vinyl in November. Bins full of used LPs for resale fill the remainder of the left-hand wall. When Scott Wishart opened Lunchbox Records seven years ago, he says stock was 60 percent CDs and 35 percent vinyl. Today he estimates the difference is 65 to 75 percent in favor of LPs.
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Records were once seen as cumbersome relics, but today they’re often packaged with a download code or a CD—so the buyer gets the best of both worlds. “When I was a kid it was all about what was most portable, but that all changed with digital media,” says 33-year-old Luke Stemmerman, who DJs—not with a laptop—but with old school punk and reggae LPs and 45s. “Since mp3s I’ve stuck to vinyl completely. To me it devalued the CD all together.”
Wishart of Lunchbox, 37, agrees. “Downloads have helped records get more popular and more labels are pressing records. A few years ago lots of the bigger labels were ‘wait and see,’” he adds. The format has grown in popularity for older titles as well. When he opened the store he had a backlog of classics like Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” But now, he says, “When I get one, in it’s gone in a day or two.” Older titles are often the attraction at record shows, which have also recently found a home in Charlotte. Before summer 2011, collectors would venture to Atlanta and the triangle area for collectibles. Greg Neal, a record buyer at Manifest who has participated in shows as a vendor for 15 years, started the Carolina Vinyl and CD shows in July 2011. The first, held in a hotel ballroom in Fort Mill, attracted 200 shoppers. Turnout has remained consistent since moving the shows to Tremont Music Hall, a long-running concert venue in South End. It’s not just college students in hoodies and tight fitting jeans flipping through crates at shows, but those in their forties, fifties and sixties who grew up with vinyl. One regular customer at Manifest has somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 records at home, but still stops by every day after work. “There are real hardcore collectors who will buy a record for $1,000. You’ll also find 10-year-olds looking for Velvet Underground records and people that don’t listen to CDs, real audiofiles that think records sound better and want the artwork,” Neal says. “I sold a rare doo-wop record for $2,500 to a guy in Chicago.” Some of the most popular collectibles are original pressings from jazz labels like Riverside, Prestige, Blue Note and Impulse. Part of what attracts collectors like Questlove, says Diaco, is the pricing. “We know what [records] are worth, but we can’t charge the same as [stores in] New York,” Diaco explains. “Markets differ.” The fact that record companies are no longer pressing older titles on CD often makes more obscure titles easier to find on vinyl. “I think that’s why vinyl has had a resurgence,” says Neal. You can’t find a lot of this old music, which is what people are buying, especially R&B and soul music.” Ultimately, for music lovers, it’s the look and sound that draw them to comb the bins at the record stores. Dolphus Ramseur, owner of Ramseur Records and manager for The Avett Brothers, says that CDs never felt the same to him. “CD artwork just has never translated as well as vinyl,” he says. “Plus, with a great tube stereo matched with a great turntable the sound is warm and friendly.”