BY PUJA KUMAR
Daily Arts Writer
Published September 15, 2004
In 1979, Philips and Sony developed a 1.2 millimeter thick piece
of plastic that comprehensively altered the path of music-listening
history. The polycorbonate plastic compact disc, in its
five-inch-diameter-glory, staged a successful coup against the
rectangular army of the disposable, breakable and aesthetically
lackluster cassette tape.
But as we approach the middle of the tumultuous
“noughts,” the CD’s two-decade reign is weakening
in the face of pockets of resistance, one of which dwells here in
Ann Arbor. The culprits are round, black, and 12 inches –
across. The past few years have produced what Wazoo Record’s
owner Dave Kerr describes as a “rediscovery of
The rediscoverers are not (just) strung-out iconclasts searching
for a Terrapin Station original press – in fact, the latest
demographic noticed by Kerr is young women, who have apparently
been buying LPs by the bunches. To gain some perspective on this
revival phenomena (Is it hipster hype? Do people just buy them to
impress their peers with framed 12 x 12 art? Do these buyers even
own turntables?), I scoured the streets and stores of Ann
Arbor for a few thoughts on vinyl.
Maybe 15 feet across and 45 feet long, Wazoo Records (336 S.
State St.) isn’t much larger than a dorm room. Its size,
though, does not match its selection. This independently owned
store, the oldest of its kind in the area, is stocked with as many
albums as spatially possible. CDs, a few DVDs, and, of course, LPs
and EPs. Jazz, folk, ’60s and ’70s rock, and a few new
labels fill many a wooden crate of the second-floor-situated store.
Kerr, who has owned the 30-year old store for a quarter century,
has noticed a swell of vinyl-buyers in the past couple years.
Speaking over punk way-pavers the Modern Lovers, Kerr offers
some commentary. “Certainly some of it’s fad,” he
admits, but at the same time he understands and justifies the
interest. “People who didn’t grow up with vinyl as the
dominant format are sort of fascinated with it because it seems
more exotic; there’s just a certain undeniable quality to
records that a CD just doesn’t give you. You get your hands
on it, you get big artwork – it just has a warmer, different
kind of sound, and people are rediscovering that.”
Down the street at Shaman Drum bookstore, a few employees broke
the humdrum of book-buying by sharing their reasons for buying
vinyl. Patrick Elkins cites the tactile and aesthetic appeal of
records. “There’s just something about playing
(records) that way that seems like you’re more involved in
the process than just putting a CD in a CD player or something.
There’s something I love about taking it out and just putting
it on the turntable and putting the needle on it. The packaging,
too...there’s a lot of room to have lots of art.”
Selection is an attraction for LSA sophomore Matthew Wesley.
“There’s a lot of albums you get on vinyl you
can’t find on CDs, like Roxy Music.” Steve finds his
records at Encore and trades with friends.
Also on State Street, below Bivouac, is Schoolkids Records (332
S. State St.). Blaring the new Rilo Kiley, Schoolkids’ more
clinical and spacious layout contrasts with the warm coziness of
Wazoo. There are a fair number of records, but the store
doesn’t boast the same variety as Wazoo or Encore (417 E.
Liberty St.). Rock aficionados searching for ’70s albums or
DJ-wannabes checking out the latest electronica are the most
typical vinyl-shoppers at Schoolkids.
More than a few people, young and old, expressed sentiments that
they find the physical process of playing a record to be more
tactile and intimate than the comparatively mechanical act of
inserting a CD into a player. Vinyl is sexy — it would be
hard to deny that — but another lure that is almost hotter
than sex for a college student: Records are cheap. Cashing in at
under $5, a used record is much easier on the wallet than a $13 to
$20 CD. Many students credited thrift as one of the main driving
forces behind their 12-inch explorations. Keith Moorman, owner
Overture Audio (618 S. Main St.) points out that a linear foot of
records would cost about $900 on CD; Employee Tom Jankowski remarks
that 11 and 12-year olds, realizing that used vinyl jives with
their allowances, have been coming to the store to buy equipment
for their parents’ old tables.
Overture Audio, which sells turntables ranging from $300 to
$11,000, is Ann Arbor’s largest hi-fi stire, and its
employees are resolute vinyl devotees. While record stores closer
to campus have been a bit surprised by a vinyl sales boom, these
guys haven’t been fazed by the craze.
“Everyone else abandoned it (vinyl), from a retail point
of view, except for us. So everybody that had an interest in it
kind of got funneled into our store — so we’ve always
had a decent amount of business,” explains O’Keefe.
Though numbers have been steady, O’Keefe does notice an
increase of younger costumers. He just sold a turntable to a UM law
student who, after coming to the store a couple weeks ago,
abandoned his original plan to upgrade his CD system and put all
his money into vinyl.
The distinguishing reggae of Legend floats (digitally,
ironically enough) over the sleek, roomy store as these vinyl
veterans offer their take on the past, present and future of
music-listening. “There’s that group that buys it
because it sounds better; there’s that group that buys it
because it’s cheaper, especially as far as used vinyl is
concerned; there’s the group that buys vinyl because
they’ll go to clubs, they’ll see DJs playing vinyl ...
they start DJing for friends of theirs.” Jankowski recognizes
these motives for buying vinyl, and also points out that the size
and packaging of vinyl allows more room for liner notes and
artwork, a feature with which CDs cannot compete.
Of course, not everyone is willing to be seduced by the
twelve-inch. RC sophomore Dave Kush enjoys a record every now and
then, but refuses to give up other means of audial enjoyment.
“Only elitist bastards listen to vinyl exclusively,”
Dave remarks, and proceeds to pledge loyalty to the 8-track. Many
fans savor the diversity records present, but selection is one
reason LSA senior Cressida Madigan doesn’t buy vinyl.
A lot of bands, she reasons, don’t press their albums on
Dissenters, ambivalents, or simply those without access to
turntables continue in the CD tradition, but the market for vinyl
in Ann Arbor is undeniably alive. A main factor behind the small
but active business – which promotes sharing and a second
market – is the community. “This store wouldnt just
work in the suburbs or in the middle of nowhere; it really requires
a town like Ann Arbor to feed it,” reflects Kerr, who also
points out that major corporations like Tower Records (whose South
University store closed a few years ago) don’t accommodate
this culture because carrying vinyl is not, from a store’s
point of view, financially attractive.
Ann Arbor, bravely clinging to a few independent stores that
have enough economic balls to carry vinyl, has become a magnet for
buyers, traders and sellers from areas outside the city. Ben Hall
comes to Encore Records (417 E. Liberty) from Detroit to sell
records (and invariably buy a few). An almost overwhelming maze,
Encore boasts an enormous lot of records ranging from doo-wop to
Scandinavian folk. As Hall roots through jazz LPs, he explains his
multi-faceted lust for vinyl, which derives from economics, sound
quality, and history. I ask him when he’s going to start
listening to records exclusively.
“When they put record players in cars.”