For most of the 20th century, phonograph records, particularly vinyl LPs and 45s, were unquestionably the most loved and popular format for one’s favorite albums and songs. At one point, nearly every household had at least a modest collection of LPs and singles along with a turntable and, just maybe, a set of decent headphones. Then, of course, there were the enthusiasts who arranged their whole living room around their quadraphonic hi-fi and would endlessly fiddle with knobs and adjustments.
As cassette tapes and compact discs came into fashion in the 1980s, neglected record collections started gathering dust in basements, attics, or bins in charity stores. In 2001, Steve Jobs introduced the Apple iPod, a device about the size of a wallet that revolutionized music, allowing a user to carry an entire record collection in their front pocket. Now, with Spotify and Pandora, users can have access to multiple record companies’ entire catalogs on their phone. With this, one might think vinyl records are truly ancient history, more at home in a museum than in a modern home. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the records of your childhood are back in a big way.
According to Forbes Magazine, sales of vinyl records are at a 25-year high with revenues projected to hit one billion dollars in 2017, figures not seen since the early 1980s. There are myriad reasons for this, ranging from nostalgia to the fact that many DJs never stopped using vinyl. One thing most can agree on is that the act of listening to an LP is much more of an ‘event’ than hitting the random button on a Spotify playlist. It requires the listener to chose a record off of the shelf, wipe the dust off, carefully drop the needle, and sit back, relax, and enjoy the album’s artwork. The active participation has certainly drawn in new buyers as well as reinvigorated the imagination of those who grew up with turntables and record collections.
Getting back into the groove of regularly listening to vinyl records is easier than you might think. If you’ve still got your receiver, turntable, and speakers, you’re halfway there. Much of the equipment manufactured in the 1960s and 70s were built to last and is still serviceable (even sought after) these days. Routine maintenance like replacing a stylus or motor belt or addressing a fuzzy sounding volume knob may be needed, but don’t fret, just about every metro area has at least one shop that will perform this work at a reasonable price. If you don’t, turn to an online retailer like The Needle Doctor in St Louis Park, Minnesota. With a phone call or email, they’ll be able to set you up with the right stylus, belts, or other parts and, if you need further help installing these parts, a quick YouTube search will almost certainly lead you to a step-by-step instructional video.
If you let your equipment go at a garage sale years ago, there are still plenty of options to get you listening again. In many metro areas there are stereo service businesses or semi-regular swap meets. Much of the ‘vintage’ equipment is generally well maintained and attractively priced. If you’ve always had your eye on a high-end Marantz or McIntosh but couldn’t afford it on a college student’s budget, now is your chance. If a modern, plug-and-play set-up is more your speed, there are loads of excellent turntables, many with integrated amplifiers and preamplifiers along with USB connections, with prices ranging from under $100 to about $300. Many of these will work seamlessly with contemporary home entertainment systems and even Bluetooth speakers, cutting down on additional cables and clutter. Whichever approach you take, the rebirth of vinyl has given consumers plenty of choices at all price levels.
Next, you’ll need something to listen to. If you’ve held on to records, then you’re almost ready to go! Grab a cleaning brush online or at a local shop - it shouldn’t run you more than $10-$15 - and give every disc a good, but gentle brushing as it spins on the platter before you put the needle down.
If your record collection is long gone, there are plenty of ways to get your hands on new and vintage records. Just about any metro area or college town will have a record store. To see what’s in your area, check out Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of some of the very best in the country. Record companies are increasingly rereleasing selections from their back catalog, ensuring that at least a few beloved records from your childhood are available in new and pristine condition. Additionally, most record shops have extensive collections of used records that have been inspected and graded. If you don’t know where to start, used classical and jazz records often tend to be in excellent condition for their age and offer a lot of musical value for the money.
If you don’t have a shop in your area, there is an abundance of online retailers staffed by passionate experts that offer well-curated selections of records. For instance, if you enjoy jazz, soul, gospel, world music, and more, check out Chicago’s Dusty Groove which is famous for its well-written and informative descriptions. The West Coast’s Amoeba Records bills itself as a the world’s largest independent record store and has a selection to match its unrivaled reputation. New or used, if you can’t find it on their site, you probably won’t find it anywhere else. Refer back to the aforementioned Rolling Stone article for more ideas, as just about every brick-and-mortar record store also sells online.
Once you’ve got your turntable set up and a stack of records you love, the only thing left to do is sit back, relax, and enjoy the music. Put the phone on silent, keep the television off, and listen in the company of friends and loved ones. Good music, after all, is an excellent conversation starter, but if you need something to start with, consider this, “Vinyl records never really went away, it’s just people forgot about them for awhile.”