2. “Help!” (Or: Records are dead; long live CDs.)
Help me if you can, I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won’t you please, please help me?
— The Beatles
If you’re in your late 40s or early 50s, you may have had a similar experience. Sometime between graduating college, starting a job, moving from apartment to apartment, I didn’t see the point of dragging around beat-up cardboard boxes of beat-up old albums.
Records were yesterday’s news. Video killed the radio star, cassettes wounded records, and CDs officially pronounced last rites on vinyl and turntables. The numbers were irrefutable. According to the Recording Industry Association of America in 1973, vinyl LP albums sold 280 million copies, representing some 73 percent of total album sales in the U.S. (The rest? Eight-tracks and those newfangled cassette tapes.) Some 15 years later, vinyl sales had fallen to 17 percent of the market. In dollar figures, Americans spent $1.25 billion on vinyl in 1973, $793 million in ’87. And that was before the digital revolution, even before compact discs went mainstream.
Here’s the lead on a 1988 story in the Los Angeles Times: “Vinyl long-playing records — for decades the foundation of the recorded music industry — may not make it into the ’90s.”
Why sure. After all, CDs were portable, more durable than cassettes (which are, surprisingly, also enjoying a latent sales surge) and had a decent-enough sound. You could hardly carve a scratch into them. Records? Too delicate. Too labor-intensive. (You had to get up, walk to the player, pick up the needle….) And, for the record industry, too expensive to produce.
Anthony, also a DJ and musician, is sitting in his Butchertown shop, essentially an oversized room in the building that houses the Tim Faulkner Gallery. Anthony estimates that a thousand CDs run $1,000 to manufacture; a thousand records can cost three to four times that. “And,” he adds, “CDs were great for the car.”
In an on-the-go culture, that was the real selling point. Anthony worked at ear X-tacy until it closed, and he remembers the CD peak in the ’90s directly mirroring the decline of vinyl.
“There were still the big-box stores — Tower, Virgin — and even we would sell 300 copies of ’N Sync or Britney Spears, which would allow us to have a whole section of Cuban music,” Anthony says. “Then came downloading.”
Fast-forward to 2012, and the most portable, inexpensive way to access music is digitally — by downloading songs to your smart phone. Notice all the people driving around with ear buds? They’re not listening to CDs.
“For those of us in the business, you almost treat CDs like business cards,” says Mat Herron, in charge of project management and promotion for the record label Karate Body and former music editor for LEO. “They’re easier to mail out to media and radio. NPR won’t accept anything but CDs. Talking inside baseball, from the music industry’s standpoint CDs are still viable. But for music nerds and audiophiles, they are very well aware of the quality of vinyl and they almost always end up making the switch.”