Business

Vinyl gets another turn

It was a fortuitous typo for the Fred Meyer retail chain.

This spring, an employee intending to order a special CD-DVD edition of R.E.M.'s latest release “Accelerate” inadvertently entered the “LP” code instead. Soon boxes of the big, vinyl discs showed up at several stores.

Some sent them back. But a handful put them on the shelves, and 20 LPs sold the first day.

The Portland-based company, owned by The Kroger Co., realized the error might not be so bad after all. Fred Meyer is now testing vinyl sales at 60 of its stores in Oregon, California, Washington and Alaska.

Other mainstream retailers are giving vinyl a spin, too. Best Buy is testing sales at some stores. And online music giant Amazon.com, which has sold vinyl for most of the 13 years it has been in business online, created a special vinyl-only section last fall.

The best-seller so far at Fred Meyer is the Beatles album “Abbey Road.” But musicians from the Foo Fighters to Pink Floyd are selling well, the company says.

“It's not just a nostalgia thing,” said Melinda Merrill, spokeswoman for Fred Meyer. “The response from customers has just been that they like it, they feel like it has a better sound.”

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, manufacturers' shipments of LPs jumped more than 36 percent from 2006 to 2007 to more than 1.3 million. Shipments of CDs dropped more than 17 percent during the same period to 511 million, as they lost some ground to digital formats.

The resurgence of vinyl centers on a long-standing debate over analog versus digital sound. Digital recordings capture samples of sound and place them very close together as a complete package that sounds nearly identical to continuous sound to many people.

Analog recordings on most LPs are continuous, which produces a truer sound – though, paradoxically, some new LP releases are being recorded and mixed digitally but delivered analog.

Some purists also argue that the compression required to allow loudness in some digital formats weakens the quality.

But it's not just about the sound. Audiophiles say they also want the format's overall experience – the sensory experience of putting the needle on the record, the feeling of side A and side B and the joy of lingering over the liner notes.

The interest seems to be catching on. Turntable sales are picking up and the few remaining record pressers say business is booming.

But the LP isn't going to muscle out CDs or iPods soon.

Nearly 450 million CDs were sold last year, versus just under 1 million LPs, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Based on the first three months of this year, Nielsen says vinyl sales could reach 1.6 million in 2008.

“I don't think vinyl is for everyone; it's for the die-hard music consumer,” said Jay Millar, director of marketing at United Record Pressing, a Nashville-based company that is the nation's largest record pressing plant.

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