Turnin’ the tables: Vinyl albums making a resurgence

By EMILY THURLOW and JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writers

Published: 04-16-2023 1:24 PM

When digital downloads became widely available in the early 2000s and later surpassed sales of physical music, the music industry and the public had all but signed the death certificate for local record stores, resigned to the idea that music consumption through vinyl albums and CDs was firmly on the road to obsolescence.

“There was a period where people would ask us what we were going to do when we went out of business,” said Patrick Pezzati, owner and founder of Turn It Up! in Northampton.

However, it turns out speculators were wrong.

After nearly three decades in business, the Northampton shop’s pulse is still strong in the Pioneer Valley, selling physical media products to this day. Pezzati also maintains locations of Turn It Up! in Montague and Brattleboro, Vermont.

“We went from being cool to uncool to cool again,” said Pezzati. “And we’re still here.”

Turn It Up! isn’t alone. The region is home to roughly eight shops that almost exclusively sell physical music and even more shops that carry vinyl albums in addition to their retail offerings.

Nationwide, the Recording Industry Association of America reports that consumption of physical music formats remains strong.

Though streaming continues to be the biggest driver of growth, the trade organization’s 2022 year-end report released in March shows that not only are the sales of physical music products not dead, they’re actually thriving, with revenues totaling $1.7 billion — an increase of 4% from the prior year.

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Revenues from vinyl albums continued to soar for the 16th straight year, reaching $1.2 billion and accounting for 70% of physical music format revenues.

To top it off, the report also shows that, for the first time since 1987, vinyl albums outsold CDs in units — 41 million versus 33 million.

For many local shop owners, the increased interest in vinyl albums isn’t surprising.

“If you asked me about this 20 years ago, I would have found that surprising,” said Dave Witthaus, owner of Platterpus Records in Easthampton. “Vinyl has been selling strong for some time now.”

Platterpus Records, which has been in business for 40 years and in Easthampton for the last 12 years, deals exclusively with used records, offering mostly classic rock albums.

Reflecting on his retail experience, Witthaus has a few theories on why vinyl continues to rise in popularity: nostalgia and sound quality.

“I think there’s a lot of people buying vinyl who grew up with parents who listened to vinyl,” he said. “My other theory is that vinyl sounds better than a CD, but a CD sounds a hell of a lot better than an MP3.”

Joe Demers, owner of Joe’s Albums in Northampton, also made the case that the love for older music formats has something to do with the sound quality. While that fact is debatable, Demers said the analog production is a true recreation of what was recorded at that particular time.

“CDs, especially if they’re lower-end ones, can be missing parts of the music — kind of the highs and lows of it,” he said.

Turning back time

Beyond sound quality, Demers chalks up the increased popularity in purchasing vinyl albums from local venues like his to a subset of the population looking to get away from the world of e-commerce following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As we get further and further away from tangible products and human interaction, there’s a subset of our population that actually appreciates that sort of thing. They want to go to shops. They want a physical thing that they can interact with, that they can hold and play,” he said.

Demers launched Joe’s Albums in April 2010 first as a website and opened his first location in Worcester within a year and a half. He opened the Northampton location in October 2021. Both shops sell a mix of used and new vinyl albums.

While Demers’ typical customer 10 years ago was a middle-age white man searching for classic rock and jazz records reminiscent of their upbringing, these days, more and more young people have been sifting through the stacks. Some come inspired by a bond they’ve formed with their parents. Others develop interest independently, motivated by what they’ve heard in video games and TV shows, wanting to sample records for DJ “breakbeats” or simply being “cool young people” looking for hip-hop, jazz and soul albums, added Maria Danielson, co-owner of John Doe Jr. Used Records, a downtown Greenfield staple since 2009.

Collecting a format of the past

Vinyl sales were particularly strong during the pandemic for comic book and music retailer Newbury Comics. Headquartered in Boston, Newbury Comics has multiple locations in the state, including a Northampton shop.

“People weren’t spending money on vacations and were instead shifting their spending habits on making their home spaces more palatable,” said Carl Mello, director of brand engagement for the company. One of the other reasons Mello says popularity in vinyl remains on the rise is music artists like Taylor Swift, Harry Styles and Olivia Rodrigo choosing to release their music in the format.

“It’s no longer the support of senior citizens buying a Ringo Starr LP. It’s wonderfully youth-oriented,” he said. “It’s a lovely thing to have young people coming in with energy to the hobby who are excited and doing it for the first time. It ensures the future of vinyl rather than relying on the same 10 Creedence Clearwater Revival fans.”

Releasing limited edition and specialty colored albums also spurs the desire to obtain physical music.

“I think people like to have something beautiful to hold in their hands,” Danielson commented.

To Pezzati of Turn It Up!, the biggest change he’s seen in the local landscape is how informed the consumer is. With access to information at their fingertips, consumers of all ages are able to find out details about a musical artist they like and quickly find others who have a similar vibe.

“When I was young, the only way you would find out about music is by buying a record or hearing it on the radio. The internet has opened up so many doors for music listeners,” he said. “I now have 10-year-olds coming in and looking for specific Beatles records. It’s pretty awesome.”

Though vinyl sales continue to hold steady at Turn It Up! with artists like Queen, David Bowie and the Grateful Dead, CD sales are also growing. Those looking for music produced in the 1990s are buying CDs because it’s easier to find music from that time period in that format.

One other format that is making a local comeback is cassettes.

“Some of the sales are to people who have older cars with a cassette player and then there’s others who are just collecting them because they have an iconic, nostalgic feel to them,” Pezzati said. “CDs have become what vinyl was and cassettes have become what CDs were. Who knows what’s next? All I know is that I still get really excited about talking about music with others.”

“Music, in general, is medicine,” Danielson commented. “I’m not a snob about vinyl versus CDs versus cassettes versus streaming. I do like records because they’re just beautiful objects, but music is just necessary.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com. Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or jmendoza@recorder.com.

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