By Pierce Gaudario
Phonographic records, the decades-old analog format, was thought to have become a thing of the past. Being the primary medium for music for most of the twentieth century, records or “vinyl” were an essential commodity for anyone longing to hear their favorite tunes at the drop of a hat. Phonographic records sold in the millions, and you could bet that practically every household in America had at least one record in the living room of their home. But, in the 1980s, the demand for records practically plummeted with the advent of the compact discs, and so the industry was caught dead in the water. Compact discs simply provided more of a convenience for consumers; they were smaller, had quality sound and less fragile than records. Thus, the physical format started to fade out from its former glory.
However, in the past decade or so, records have found a resurgence, and into the living rooms of people once more. The New York Times reported that 17 millions records sold were in the first half of 2021 alone, which generated over $467 million in retail revenue. The sudden resurgence of vinyl escalated in an unprecedented short amount of time. After decades of being viewed as an obsolete format, records finally overtook CDs in sales in 2020; a physical format that once was one of the least profitable in the music industry made its way back to the top.
The reason for such an intense revival can be attributed to a multitude of factors, but the effects it has had on the market for vinyl records has both its positives and negatives. The novelty charm of playing music through an analog medium and the experience of discovering music both new and old has seemed to captivate a large audience. With a medium as old as vinyl, previously obscure, older releases can find a newfound popularity; artists that may not have been given their due during their time now may receive the proper treatment that they have deserved for so long.
However, in the midst of this vinyl resurgence, companies have seemingly capitalized on this opportunity to make a quick buck. Collectible, limited edition albums of popular artists pressed on bright neon colors vinyl seems to be all the rage nowadays. The limited quantities of modern releases has upped the collectibility of albums on vinyl of which companies sell at substantial premiums. In the secondary market, once new records go out of print or even out of stock, they can go for double, triple or even quadruple the amount of their initial retail prices.
“Among old-school record types,” wrote Ben Sisario of the New York Times, “there have long been suspicions that many new fans buy vinyl for a collectible thrill but never actually drop a needle.”
Essentially, though a revitalized popularization of vinyl has brought an unprecedented amount of revenue in recent years, some feel that many entering into the hobby of collecting vinyl are out of touch with the spirit of it. For many longtime collectors, the joy of searching for albums of their favorite music and building a library of enriching music has kept them going. The monetary value of records always came second to the music; it was never the focus.
For record stores, being an outlet that helps curate people’s tastes is essential. In the city of San Francisco alone, just a simple gaze into the selection of the numerous record stores in the city provides evidence of their intent to provide their customers with good music they have either may or may not have ever heard of. For instance, a quick visit to Tunnel Records and Beach Goods on Taraval Street, you will see that they cater to quite a diverse audience from the enthusiastic fans of Classic Rock to the lovers of African Funk. A trip to Originals Vinyl on Fillmore and Groove Merchant on Haight, you will find the absolute treasures of rare Soul and Jazz music spanning from the 50s all the way to the current day.
Rooky Ricardo’s Records has been a staple of the lower Haight neighborhood since 1987. With the help of a few friends, owner Dick Vivian has been buying and selling Oldies records for over three decades, and has come to observe the downfall and resurgence of the format he has come to adore. Initially meant to be a temporary storefront to unload the 35,000 piece record collection he had purchased in the 1980’s, Rooky Ricardo’s has lasted throughout all these years, and has endured the times in which vinyl was at its lowest in popularity.
“I had no intentions of doing this forever,” Vivian said, “but that was in 1987 and I’m still here by hook or by crook.”
During the beginnings of his store, pricing records could be said to be more than nothing but a pain. Without the sites, such as Discogs or Ebay, Vivian practically had no knowledge of what was valuable and what was not. And so records worth up a hundred to even a thousand dollars were being sold out of his store for a measly two to five dollars. He recalls that at one point he had thousands of James Brown 45 rpm singles in his inventory of which were never more than five dollars. Though the revelation of such devastating mistakes may have been disheartening as a business owner, it is the love of music and his desire to share it that has kept Vivian’s store going. Whether it be the CDs of obscure Soul and Doo-Wop singles that he makes or a simple reccomendation for a customer, he loves nothing more than a person who has the same love for music that he does, so for the longtime record collector and store owner to see a new generation of customers buying for monetary value instead of for their love of music, it certainly frustrates him.
“The kind of customer that I like is someone that likes what they like regardless if [a record] is two dollars or a thousand dollars. They just love that song, and they’d love to have it,” Vivian said, “that is the kind of people I want to help, not the ‘sharks’ that want to make money off of it.”
Though many can appreciate the resurgence of what was thought to be an obsolete format, for longtime record store owners, such as Dick Vivian, to see so many people neglect the spirit of record collecting defeats the purpose of why they started their business in the first place. While people are free to partake in the hobby in any way they see fit, the idea of buying vinyl for the sole purpose of making money is perplexing to many. When vinyl sales plummeted and people started to dump their records in favor of CDs, the few hobbyists that continued the tradition of acquiring music on vinyl stayed simply because of their passion for the format. The message that Dick Vivian and many others are trying to convey to consumers who are just getting into records collecting is that money should not be the main motivation for records that they acquire. People should collect for the sake of buying what they love and enjoy as music is something that enamours us all. A man would not have run a record store for over 30 years without a strong passion for music, and the fact that that storefront has remained through all these ups and downs is nothing more than evidence that an entire community of people share that same passion. Vinyl is the oldest physical medium of musical recording in the history of technology, the library of music that exists is vast and endless. There is so much music to be listened to, so why be so concerned about the current monetary value of records when they can be enriched with experiences that last a lifetime?
Featured Image (at the top of this page): Nuala Sawyer (Photo Credit: Hoodline.com)