Vinyl revolution

Published 5:30 pm Saturday, December 18, 2010

Al Smith looks through his collection of vinyl records. Smith is often at flea markets buying and selling used vinyl. - Eric Johnson/

In an age when music is available instantly online, an unlikely music form is making a comeback: vinyl.

Over the last few years, vinyl records have come back from near extinction. Though there’s no way to track the sales of used records, new vinyl sales have increased significantly with 1 million sold in 2007, 1.8 million in 2008 and 2.5 million in 2009, according to Nielsen SoundScan figures.

“(There) seems to be more and more people who are getting back into vinyl,” said Al Smith, an Austin resident who buys and sells used vinyl, mostly at flea markets.

Keeping with vinyl is often considered a chance to hold on to history. - Eric Johnson/

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The market for vinyl wasn’t always strong, especially when Smith first started buying and selling about four years ago.

“There was time when you couldn’t get rid of boxes of records,” Smith said. “I’d buy a box of records for a buck. Pretty soon I started doing the flea markets, and I realized that there was a market for records, which was pretty cool.”

Memories are often associated with records, as Smith said people often thumb through a stack and pick out a record they owned during their youth.

But Smith noted vinyl’s comeback hasn’t been restricted to those who grew up with vinyl.

“I’ve had anywhere from 15-year-olds stop by and look through records to 70-year-olds looking for Red Sovine,” Smith said.

Smith said many of his customers are in their teens and 20s. Smith said many like the imperfections of vinyl, like the cracks and pops.

“It makes it sound more realistic,” Smith said. “More like a concert sound rather than a CD is too clean.”

“When you listen to a record, it has more of a realistic sound to it,” he added.

Why vinyl

To some, vinyl never went out of style.

Terry Plath, of All Seasons Outdoor Maintenance/Plath Enterprises, has been collecting since the 1960s. He said the comeback may be due to people having money to buy the records they grew up with.

“I think the people who lived in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s have money now and they’re into that kind of thing,” he said.

Plath said he has many records from musicians like Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, Joe Cocker, The Beatles, The Who, The Supremes and Michael Jackson. He owns about 1,500 records, including some he bought at auctions and hasn’t gone through.

Plath owns an original copy of “Tommy” by The Who with the original, and an unopened copy of Jim Croce’s “Photographs & Memories.”

Plath, who used to box and dance would put on a record to listen to when he was working out. Plath prefers to listen to his music in classic style with his two high class Fisher turntables. He also collects old receivers because he likes the sound.

Vinyl is more than a collection to Plath. He used to shop for vinyl with his friend, Mark Johnson, a former Channel 6 reporter who died of an Oxycontin overdose. Plath he bought many of Johnson’s albums, including David Bowie albums.

“Sometimes I get kind of emotional because a lot of my close Friends I went to with these things are gone,” Plath said.

Dave Thompson, an Austin Utilities account representative and local auctioneer, recently started buying records again, partially because of the memories they sparked.

“Some of it’s nostalgia because I remember seeing it when I was a kid and now I can get it,” he said.

“You look back and it’s like ‘wow,’” he said.

Thompson traded in most of his original collection — which included most of U2’s albums — to buy CDs. He now owns about 50 to 75 records.

Thompson said he has a collection of some records by U2, The Beatles and Elvis, but nothing he thinks that’s worth a lot of money.

Recently, Thompson bought the soundtrack to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for his 17-year-old daughter, Emily because she’s a fan of the show “Glee” and recently watched an episode dedicated to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Smith said many people buy records for the art on the covers and for posters. A car collector once contacted Smith looking for records with pictures of cars. A couple once bought 800 45s to use as wallpaper in a music room.

Something to hold onto

Smith typically brings more than a thousand records to a flea market, but they’re not in any order. While some people don’t like this, Smith said he does this to get shoppers to run across other records — something they wouldn’t do if the records were alphabetized.

“By looking through a mish-mash of records not in any particular order, you may find one or two you weren’t looking for,” he said.

Smith said he’ll often sell in bulk to vendors who run businesses selling vinyl online. Smith said he sells as a hobby on the weekends, but doesn’t make a lot of money doing it.

Smith said classic records by acts like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and The Doors are often times the most popular.

“The Beatles have always been hot,” Smith said.

Jazz albums are making a comeback, but country is often a hard sell, he added. He recently sold a Billie Holiday record for $40.

“Jazz is starting to make a comeback,” Smith said.

Many shoppers are looking for dollar records. Smith typically splits his records into $1, $5 and $10 bins.

Smith said anyone can have dollar records, but he said he’s known for the condition of his records, and he said he looks up almost every record.

The price of vinyl often depends on the condition of the record. Smith will also look up a record by its call letter to estimate its worth.

“As far as antiques and collectibles go, everything is about condition,” Smith said.

Prices can vary drastically, as Smith said “Rubber Soul” by The Beatles can range from being worth from $12 to $300.

“There’s a lot of variables involved,” Smith said.

Despite the value, many like Thompson are seeing vinyl as a worthwhile keepsake.

“It’s something to hold onto, like a piece of history,” Thompson said.