The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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June 14, 2013

Jeremiah Tucker: Vinyl may help keep record stores alive

JOPLIN, Mo. — The New York Times recently reported that the resurgence of vinyl music sales has led to a number of new record-pressing plants opening around the country, including one in Salina, Kan.

Most record-pressing plants closed after the rise of the compact disc in the '80s, but with CD sales falling, vinyl is on pace to replace it as the preferred format for music buyers who still want a physical product. Nearly every new release from major and indie labels is now available on vinyl.

LPs are now popular enough that if a major new release isn't available in vinyl, renegade presses will make bootleg copies. My brother purchased bootleg vinyl copies of both Frank Ocean's "channel ORANGE" and "Nostalgia, Ultra," the R&B star's mixtape that was never officially released in any format. A Spin story about the "channel ORANGE" bootleg traced its origin back to Germany.

Unfortunately, no one makes new record presses. The last new vinyl press was made in 1982. New American record plants must buy and recondition old presses. The going rate for a used record press, according to the Times? About $25,000 -- not an insurmountable sum for an entrepreneur.

Owning and operating a plant that makes records sounds like a good life. I once reported a story about a small-town record label active in the '50s and '60s. Regional music companies were common back then, which is why modern archival labels such as the Numero Group exist just to unearth and reissue the lost treasures of these weird little labels.

Anyway, this former label owner, now in his 80s, had a vertically integrated organization. Listening to this guy talk, I thought recording mostly unknown polka acts then pressing their music to vinyl a block from your studio in a village of less than 2,000 people along the Wisconsin River sounded like an enviable gig, even if he never did make much money off it.

This could be nostalgia for a way of life I've never experienced in the first place. But wouldn't it be nice if these seismic shifts in industry created by the Internet resulted in less-homogenous and more niche, local economies?

With mega-companies that include Amazon, Google and eBay experimenting with same-day delivery, the future for any kind of local retail looks grim. However, if there is going to be one, it will by necessity have to be more creative.

A scrappy resourcefulness might explain why the bigÐbox retailers of music are shuttering left and right while small record stores hold on. Record Store Day, the annual promotion of independent record retailers that began in 2008, just had its biggest year ever with thousands cramming into stores around the country hoping to score limited-edition vinyl released especially for the event.

About 244,000 LPs were sold the week of Record Store Day in April with 82 percent of that business going to independent shops -- an increase of 36 percent from 2012. The comeback of vinyl gives me hope that the best pieces of the old economy can live on in the digital age, albeit in a diminished -- if still viable -- form.

Best of all, young people are driving the demand, suggesting a sustainable future not only for records but the mom-and-pop stores that sell them.

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